BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
Willa Cather, one of my favorite authors, once described the Midwest (especially Nebraska) as a “Sea of Grass.” But farms, miles of pavement, and cities and suburbs have replaced much of this vast ecosystem. This is especially true in Illinois, which is misleadingly known as the “Prairie State.” Approximately 60 percent of Illinois, or about 22 million acres, once was prairie. Today, only about 2,300 acres of high-quality prairie remain.
Prairies are a special part of our natural world, and they’re sometimes overlooked amidst the forests and Great Lakes of the Midwest. But a walk in a prairie is a wonderful thing in any season. It’s an antidote to the troubles of the modern world. We’re living in extremely stressful times, but studies show that a walk in nature is a proven stress buster. The wildflowers, grasses, and wild creatures of Belmont Prairie are a prescription any nature doctor would write to fix the modern day blues. This small neighborhood prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois, is surrounded by homes and near the interstate—yet, the moment you leave the small parking lot at the edge of the prairie and walk the narrow paths surrounded by flowers and tall grasses, you’ll feel as if you’re in another time. A time when a prairie like this covered much of Illinois. Belmont Prairie is a place of peace, beauty, and birdsong. It supports more than 300 species of plant and animal wildlife, including many bird species, fox, raccoons, toads, meadow voles, opossums, ground squirrels, garter snakes and, occasionally, coyote and white-tailed deer.
Belmont Prairie was dedicated as the 75th Illinois Nature Preserve in November 1979. Illinois Nature Preserves protect the highest quality natural lands in the state. “These lands are the last remnants of the Illinois wilderness,” according to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
Some thoughts on prairies:
I love that there’s always something new to see at a prairie depending on the time of year—even the time of day—you visit.
It’s a joy to follow the journey of a prairie from the first green shoots fighting their way through the soil in the earliest days of spring, through the heat and wild growth of summer, to the late fall when some flowers are taking their final bow, while others are just debuting their lovely colors. Select a prairie near you and visit it every month to enjoy this entertainment spectacular. No ticket required. Pictured below: Belmont Prairie in early May (left) and in early July (right)
We’re so often surrounded by concrete and buildings in our modern world—especially if you live in the city as I do. A visit to a prairie takes you away from this sometimes claustrophobic world of stone pavement and walls and returns you to a land of lush grasses, big skies, and the good earth.
A prairie is a great place to take your kids to teach them about nature or simply to relax and have some fun.
I love the interplay of the flowers and prairie grasses with the sky—especially on bright sunny days where the so blue sky is only occasionally shielded by wispy white clouds. Crouch low and gaze at the flowers and sky or, better yet, lie down and soak in a view that humans have enjoyed since time immemorial.
Prairies are key to the health of the natural world, and they must be preserved, protected, and appreciated so that they can be passed on to future generations. It’s a shame that were down to 2,300 acres of high-quality prairie in all of Illinois, but dedicated volunteers throughout our state are working to increase this acreage. We do not need another Wal-Mart or McDonalds, but we do need many more prairies.
I hope you’ll visit Belmont Prairie. Budget anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for your visit, but I wouldn’t blame you if you stay longer. Here are a few other things to keep in mind when you visit Belmont Prairie.
- No dogs, bikes, or cross-country skiing are allowed in Belmont Prairie.
- Bring water, bug repellent, and sunscreen.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves if you visit during the summer and fall when the prairie is densest.
- Wear waterproof boots if you visit after a heavy rain. Parts of the prairie have poor drainage.
- Be sure to stay on the narrow trails. All prairies feature delicate ecosystems that can easily be destroyed when people venture off the paths.
- Help the Belmont Prairie volunteers maintain the prairie by not picking flowers or collecting seeds, or otherwise gathering anything from the prairie.
- This is a small prairie, so don’t rush through the trails. Take the time to savor each area. A visit to a prairie is a form of meditation, and my best wishes for you include a blanket of fragrant flowers, tall grasses that make you feel small in the world (but big in your heart), beautiful blue skies, and the chance to be alone amongst your thoughts amidst this beauty.
- Here’s a map, but it will be very hard to get lost.
Here are 25 other prairies to check out in Chicagoland:
Bartel Grassland (Tinley Park, IL)
Burnham Prairie (Burnham, IL)
Elmhurst Great Western Prairie (Elmhurst, IL)
Fermilab Prairie (Batavia, IL)
Gensburg-Markham Prairie Nature Preserve (Markham, IL)
Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area (Morris, IL)
Illinois Prairie Path (multiple towns)
Kankakee Sands (Newton County, IN)
James Woodworth Prairie Preserve (Glenview, IL)
Kloempken Prairie (near Des Plaines, IL)
Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve (Lockport, IL):
Morton Grove Prairie Nature Preserve (Morton Grove, IL)
Nachusa Grasslands (Franklin Grove, IL)
Orland Grassland (Orland Park, IL)
Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie (Chicago, IL)
Prairie Wolf (Highland Park, IL)
Rollins Savanna (Libertyville, IL)
Morton Arboretum (Schulenberg Prairie) (Lisle, IL)
Somme Prairie Nature Preserve (Northbrook, IL)
Swift Prairie Nature Preserve (DuPage County, IL)
Wentworth Prairie (Calumet City, IL)
Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve (Cook County, IL)
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes/Nature in Chicagoland
2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies. I’ve written and edited many books for Infobase including the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series.