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updated: 5/3/2012 6:27 AM

Reacquainting with an old friend -- visiting Buffalo Grove Prairie

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By Steven I. Apfelbaum

The sun rose over the elevated railroad grade that served as the backdrop for the prairie then and now. I squinted through the glaring beams and my first impression, as I was finally able to focus on the prairie, gave me that sinking and confused feeling. Why had I come back to visit Buffalo Grove Prairie? Then a deep remorse set in, knowing that what I was viewing was the maimed landscape, pieces of the former Buffalo Grove prairie. My mind went to work to fill in what lay before me, standing over metaphorical blood stained ground, with fragments of tissue and organs scattered such at a deer kill. I wondered what truly remained of the prairie.

On one my last visits, during spring of 1979, I witnessed a sunrise over this same landscape from where I now stood. The memories of that morning marked my life and still to this day have left an indelible impression by its beauty, colors, and ebullient life. Even after 40 years of seeking out the wildest places on earth, even passing thoughts of that morning, take me to a place of solace and peace, and awe.

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Thousands of lavender shooting star plants were blooming as were dew covered hoary puccoons, glowing like little pieces of the sun fallen to the ground. . The gloaming lit up the prairie with its brilliant golden color from west to east. As the sun bathed the land, a cacophony of frogs and toads started jittering and trilling. With every step, yellow star grass, bird's foot violets and blue eyed grass focused me to look down at the ground. After walking on that cloud for several hundred feet I entered a seep full of tussock sedges and Canada blue joint grass, and as I looked ahead to ensure I wasn't entering deeper water, growing before me were hundreds of small white lady slipper orchids in full bloom. This alone was the largest population I have seen in my life.

But, the real surprise that morning would reveal itself a few steps beyond the sedge meadow. As my excitement overpowered the icy cold water seeping into my boots, I moved further into the wet domain, and the deafening calls of spring peeper, western chorus frogs and American toad s grew silent. As the silence spread wider and wider around my path, I started again looking up, over the larger landscape.

Looking over the sedge tussocks, to the fresh lime green leafs emerging from last year's buckskin sheaves, a few scattered white lady slipper orchids grew among meandering patterns of golden marsh marigold plants that traced the pattern of a rivulet from the seep. Beyond this was a slight rise, covered with scarlet Red Indian Paint brush plants. Before me were hundreds of red and also yellow Indian paint brush plants, dew covered like the puccoons. An early morning breeze began to gently move over the prairie, and the paint brush droplets sparkled in the rising sun. This was to be my place to sit that morning. Squinting, it wasn't difficult to envision the rest of Northern Illinois clothed with such diversity. With such profound beauty.

As the sun continued to rise, the rest of the landscape warmed and the breeze burned off the dew. The prairie became alive with hundreds of bumble bees, Painted lady, and Spring azures and Pearly crescent butterfly's. An occasional tiger swallow tail butterfly leisurely floated within view, dipping every here and there to the ground, landing on a flower and foraging. The sound of bee's flying between

Shooting stars, paint brush, marsh marigold, and the violets and puccoons, vigorously probing each flower, drowned out sounds of overhead airplanes and the hum of the Commonwealth Edison power lines hundreds of feet back to the east.

In my mesmerized state, I was startled by something a few feet from me, where I heard leavesmoving, but I couldn't see anything. My first thought was that perhaps there was a Franklin's ground squirrel or other small rodent. To my surprise, as my eyes focused on what I initially thought was the moving leg of an insect I recognized it as a yellowish flicking forked tongue and then I made out the head of a Smooth green snake. It was barely discernible in the lush greenery, and apparently in my stillness I also wasn't noticeable. It slowly moved within a few feet, and disappeared.

Before that morning, I hadn't heard a real live bobolink. I recognized the call from bird tapes.

The call was rising and falling, as one or more male birds called, further to the north and west. I couldn't see the birds, for the edge of the prairie was nearly quarter mile distant. I also began to notice other birds -- gold finches, mallards, and blue wing teal. Yellow throats, yellow warblers, sora rails, and others were calling, but I was finding it difficult to steal time and focus on them and not the flowering expanse.

That morning would be the first of many I was fortunate to experience on what we called the Chevy Chase Country Club Prairie. Many mornings, before and then again after High school classes, and later during my first few years of college, rain or shine, I was drawn back, wandering the prairie. I invited more knowledgeable persons, to learn from them. During my college years, several years later I brought Drs. Alan Haney and Chuck Sheviak for a visit one late May day. Ray Schulenburg and Floyd Swink visited from the Morton Arboretum. The listing of plants and other species grew with ever visit, with nearly three hundred plant species alone.

After his first visit, Chuck Sheviak suggested that White Fringed orchids might be present and pointed out where he thought they were most likely to be found. I dug into available books, to learn about this plant. Torkel Korlings book Prairie Swell and Swale, had photographs that helped me begin the search. It was a stunning discovery for me personally to tease from that dense, lush, and diverse plant mass, one stem of this orchid species which I happened to discover in late June, a week or so before it eventually flowered. I was beside myself and visited daily to find additional plants and to witness the plant in bloom. This discovery wasn't truly by me, as Chuck had precisely predicted where I would eventually find the plant. I learned what it meant to be truly "knowledgeable", about nature.

So, now, here I was over thirty years later, where these deepest and fondest memories were cast. How well I remembered that every foot step was an adventure, and my mind was childlike, soaking up everything. As I stood peering into the intense yellow glare of another sunrise, now decades later, I was trying to reconcile why the people bulldozed the prairie. I watched them in one afternoon and the next morning pile into heaps and bury the prairie. What they didn't bulldoze they plowed up the next day. All they owned was destroyed. Most of the prairie was then in an instant, gone! What remained only grew beneath the power lines. This is all that now remains of the former Chevy Chase prairie.

I didn't know what to do then and would not know what to do now under such circumstances! This was before Edward Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang book had filtered down and taught some of us how to stand in front of bulldozers. All I could do was alert others, send the alarm and trespass after dark to salvage plants. Most had been covered or mangled beyond recognition. .But some salvaged plants and chunks of sod grow in my family's back yard in Arlington Heights, in a back yard corner growing in wildflowers. Some sod also made its way to The Grove, Crab Tree Nature Center, and the Morton Arboretum and perhaps to some other places I no longer remember.

I remember each visit here was of human silence as I soaked up the life: frogs, birds, flowers, saw even hydra and planarians and finger nail clams for the first time in the wild; and butterflies, and so many other insects I never knew -- leaf hoppers, bee moths, shiny green bee's, large yellow and orange bumble bees, metallic green iridescent dog bane beetles. This was where I witnessed my first courtship flights of Snipe; prior to that moment I only thought the snipe was a Boy Scout hoax. Now I come to this place and I am silent again.

I marvel at the tenacity of a few staunch Red winged blackbirds, calling from the few fence row trees, around the perimeter of this sliver of remaining prairie. I found the gate in the chain link fence, and wandered the prairie. I stood where I entered the sedge meadow that first time, but the landscape beyond is now a warehouse and parking lot. I couldn't see the location or direction of the bobolink for this building blocked the view. Where the shooting stars, both orchids, and paint brush grew, now is found manicured lawn and parking lots, and other buildings.

The remorse of the morning changed as I associated fond memories with another location. I remembered along the sedge meadow one morning I startled a mother and three baby raccoons playing with a crayfish. I stalked to within view and watched one baby lick the crayfish. It learned about the clamping power of crayfish claws. The baby shook its head from side the side, while screaming a painful trill, trying to dislodge the crayfish. After the second baby had the same experience, the third juvenile pounced on the crayfish, pinning it to the ground with its front paws, and then chomped it to death. High pitched squabbling broke out as the juveniles fought over the food item.

This time, the prairie had just been burned, and meandering meadow voles trails where revealed as trails sunken into the soils, often traced with the darkest blackened remnants of burned stems. The many crawfish burrows and their standing chimney like entranceways also were revealed where likely a few days before the dense vegetation had been eliminated by the fire. I was pleased to find a garter snake in the warm sun light, sunning in the entrance to a chimney crayfish hole. It was reassuring to see this creature; a likely relative of Gartner snakes found here thirty years ago.

I'm torn between feeling such sadness, and anger for what has been lost, and trying to find a way to express my appreciation for what remains. As with seeing some old friends, who have had a hard life, it hasn't been easy for me to reacquaint. I knew after seeing the bulldozing, that coming back here would be difficult.

I realized that this place persists because of the love and passion of caregivers, and I commend them for their relentless vigil to protect and restore this prairie. In retrospect, I only wish the love and

passion now offered in Chicago region and the increased awareness of the times would have been here over thirty years ago. May be then Chevy Chase Prairie would still be here. If it had survived, I'm confident I would not have allowed thirty years to pass before visiting this old friend.

Steven I. Apfelbaum

30 March 2012

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