Now the subject of an exhibit in a suburban history museum, a prairie in Buffalo Grove almost became history itself a generation ago when strip malls and housing developments set down stakes across the suburbs. Only a tiny portion of that prairie still survives, but the power of that land continues to inspire important work that has grown far beyond the suburbs.
"The experience with that prairie sent me on a career trajectory," says Steven I. Apfelbaum, an award-winning, internationally renown ecologist who still remembers the awe that swept over him when he stumbled upon that prairie in 1972 as a Wheeling High School senior looking for adventure.
"A group of us decided to go mountain climbing, but there weren't any mountains," Apfelbaum recalls. So they decided to do something illegal and potentially fatal by climbing high-tension electrical towers late at night. They survived, but Apfelbaum realized later that he dropped something under one of the towers.
"I went in the day to look for it, and there were all of these flowers," he remembers. "I didn't even know what a prairie was, but I knew this was special. I was just this kid who was out there and inspired."
Telling his story to some of the suburbs most dedicated environmentalists Wednesday night, Apfelbaum helped kick off "The Lost Prairie" exhibit running through October at the Buffalo Grove Park District's Raupp Museum, which celebrates what's left of the prairie that almost was lost completely to developers.
"This prairie, this 10 acres, you don't go there to commune with nature," says Bev Hansen, the 75-year-old steward of the Buffalo Grove Prairie and leader of the volunteer Buffalo Grove Prairie Guardians. "It's surrounded by an industrial park, a railroad, high-tension power lines and highways. You drive by it on Lake-Cook Road and you think it's another vacant lot of weeds. But it's a 10 acres that deserves to be there. It you look down, it is beautiful. It does make a difference in people's lives."
The prairie made a difference in the life of Apfelbaum. That's why he flies into town for his appearance at the Raupp Museum between his days in Nevada studying the effect a proposed mining project and his meeting today with environmental officials in Oklahoma.
Apfelbaum hadn't seen what was left of the prairie since most of it was paved over in the 1980s. But this March, while working at the Prairie Crossing conservation community in Grayslake, Apfelbaum drove to the Buffalo Grove Prairie to watch the sun come up.
"I went from sadness to anger to thankfulness that there is something left," Apfelbaum says of the 200-foot-wide patch of prairie that runs under the ComEd power lines north of Lake-Cook Road and just east of the industrial strip along Hastings Drive.
"It was a very emotional morning for me to go back and visit this amazing place."
The museum exhibit features photographs of the white orchids, birds and other plants and wildlife Apfelbaum captured in the 1970s. The museum's blog features an essay Apfelbaum wrote about getting reacquainted with the prairie.
"This is a neat story. Let's share it with people," said Deborah Fandrei, curator of the museum at 901 Dunham Lane in Buffalo Grove. While the museum is dedicated to the history of the area and often includes mementos of things that are no longer around, the prairie is living history.
"As a person, I can go out and appreciate the prairie flowers. But as a historian, I know that sometimes our geography determines our history," Fandrei said. "That happened in Illinois."
Apfelbaum, who turns 58 on Friday, remembers walking out of his house in Arlington Heights as a boy with a fishing pole over his shoulder. He points to preserves such as the Spring Bluff Fen in Elgin, the Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve in Long Grove and many of our forest preserves and prairie restoration projects across the suburbs as valuable links to our past and our future.
During his recent visit, Apfelbaum was thrilled to see a snake, a case of praying mantis eggs, and rattlesnake master plants thriving in the tiny prairie, which is home to hundreds of plants and flowers that produce seeds used to refurbish other prairie projects.
In a moment sure to inspire ecologists throughout the suburbs, Apfelbaum smiles and says, "You guys did a great job."