Miss You, Midewin!

Once spanning over 170 million acres of the continent, Illinois was one state among many that hosted tallgrass prairie. Within this greater ecosystem was a mosaic of smaller habitats ranging from dolomitic pavements, sand hills, and wetlands. 

Its rapid destruction by drain tile and plow, however, has made it one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. In less than two generations, over 95% of the tallgrass prairie was destroyed and replaced primarily by commercial agriculture. 

Standing upwards of 10 feet tall, the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) is an iconic tallgrass prairie species. 

There are just twenty designated National Grasslands in the United States — all located west of the Mississippi River. Just 60 miles south of Chicago, however, Midewin is the country’s first and only “National Tallgrass Prairie.” Other nearby natural areas, like The Nature Conservancy’s Indian Boundary Prairies, are located even closer to city limits. 

During a visit to Paintbrush Prairie Nature Preserve, the site manager & entomologist explained how many insects and plants alike may be classified as “remnant-dependent.” And with less than 4% of remnant tallgrass prairie remaining, these sensitive species are at risk for extinction. 

A Black & Gold Bumblebee (Bombus auricomus) drone.

Days not spent collecting seed were often used to monitor rare species with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program, such as the state-endangered Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum).This species thrives on disturbed sites, and is believed to have gotten its name from its tendency to grow in buffalo wallows. 

Field days always presented new opportunities, such as accompanying the Wildlife & Range crews for robel pole monitoring and cover board surveys; or floristic quality inventory assessments and meander surveys with the Botany team. And because all seed is processed in-house at Midewin, we also got hands-on experience in native plant horticulture.

A Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) found during cover board surveys. 

My summer spent as a Conservation and Land Management intern was the perfect chance to explore an early career in botany, right in my own backyard.

And although I wasn’t camping in Californian deserts or collecting high-altitude plant species in the Rocky Mountains, Midewin’s unique locale offered relevant experience for an aspiring land manager. 

One of several rare species monitored this summer with Plants of Concern: Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum). 

Dade Bradley

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

The Prairie State

Many blog posts will mention the bittersweet feeling of finishing their internship, and mine is no exception. It feels like just yesterday I arrived in Illinois, getting comfortable, and now I’m preparing to head back home. This transition is undeniably bittersweet, but I’m also genuinely excited about what the future holds. This experience has added another valuable chapter to my life.

Tall Grass Prairie restoration

Not only was the work I undertook here rewarding and filled with meaning, but I also had the privilege of meeting many remarkable people. They all had a deep passion for their work, which was always my hope, and I was delighted to discover that the restoration team at Midewin embodied this passion. The field is fortunate to have dedicated individuals who genuinely care about their work and the people who join them in their mission. The team at Midewin has been inclusive, patient, and highly supportive of us interns, guiding us every step of the way as we embarked on our field season.

Floristic quality monitoring

Midewin is truly a special place, a hidden gem amidst the sea of soybeans and corn that dominate the Midwest landscape. In a region where agriculture and development have wreaked havoc on the natural habitat, leaving few intact ecosystems behind, Midewin stands out. It’s unique not only because it was the site of the former Joliet army ammunition factory but also because of its dedicated focus on restoring prairies from what were once fallow fields. Restoration is a time-consuming, costly, and labor-intensive endeavor, but Midewin serves as a shining example for the entire Prairie State and beyond.

Unrestored bunker field

The prairie, eastern deciduous forest, and savanna ecosystems have endured decades of logging, agriculture, and land-use changes, taking a toll on their plant communities. Restoring these ecosystems is a monumental task, and Midewin is taking significant steps to make it happen.

Dolomite prairie and the railroad that runs through it -_-

Sour, Sweet, Gone

The most encouraging experiences always leave you with a bittersweet taste in your mouth. Like the first time you ever had a sour patch kid. It’s a new exciting time you can barely hold in your laughter of joy. You’ve heard the jingles : “First they’re sour, then they’re sweet” and “Sour Patch Kids: Sour, Sweet, Gone”. Yet in the head of a five year old, these words don’t hold much meaning. All you know is there is a handful of brightly colored, sugar-coated candies in your hands waiting to be in your mouth!

The first taste shocks you and your whole system, bringing a hard realization of panic to your brain. 

“What have I done?! Why do people like these?!”

It floods all of your senses with a sharp ping. In rare situations, even shocking your lower jaw into a tightening, almost stinging pain.

My first days as a CLM intern at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie brought on a similar shock to my system. Taking a botany internship with the Federal Government is already an unnerving experience. Stack on top of the fact that I have had little formal training on the plant sciences thus far, I felt way over my head. People were throwing out plant names left and right that I had not even heard of before. How was I going to figure out all of these species in 5 months? 

Our first week we learned about Brassicaceae and Rosaceae with an in field lesson on how to identify the different species in each Genus. To tell the truth… it was extremely overwhelming. Sure I had used a dichotomous key before, but these people just knew what they were looking at were different features. I hadn’t even seen the plant before let alone its unique features. I felt like a shock of 100 sour patch kids fully coated in sour sugar into my mouth!

But here’s the funny part about sour patch kids. When the initial shock of sour subsides, they leave a sweet gooey candy that fills your mouth with rich flavors of blue raspberry, watermelon, strawberry, and lemon! Your young five year old heart swells with joy from the burst of sugar on your tongue. Your eyes widen as you grin ear to ear. Finally, the sweetness has shown its cards at last!

Me (middle) with two botany technicians while seed collecting.

As I continued my work on the prairie it got easier. The ugly sourness of fear and intimidation faded away as I bonded with my co-interns (Shout out our 20 hour flights to Boise, ID), worked more with the technicians, and learned to identify my prairie plants. The people here made my experience so sweet. Whether it was monitoring rare plant species in a dolomite prairie with thick sun rays beating your back. Planting Sporobolus heterolepis for a mycorrhizal experiment in the rain, or kissing a bunch of snakes as they tried to slither away in your hands, the days were always eventful.

Wildlife technician Michelle, me, and Nathan conducting snake surveys in the field.

We as a team have keyed our unknown species of plants, pursued trivia, built retention walls, trudged through dirty streams, and of course, collected seeds. We’ve sworn, yelled, complained, hugged, laughed, and celebrated together through it all. Working together we have done as much for the prairie as it has done for us and we hope it was enough.

The funny thing is about bittersweet endings is you would give anything to go back to that first day. Those sour first days when it all felt like too much because you know how sweet of an experience it will turn out to be. Then it’s all done, just a blip in time to be remembered but never repeated. 

Almost like the company knew what they were doing when they wrote the slogan for sour patch kids:

“Sour Patch Kids: Sour, Sweet, Gone”

contemplating the future of america’s youth….

Recently, Alex and I spent a week teaching fourth graders about botany. We experienced a variety of responses from said fourth graders, including excitement about the prospect of playing games, endless questions about seed formation, and even the occasional mid-lesson nap. The one question that has stuck with me past our week of serving as teachers came from a student on our last day. In the middle of hearing about leaf arrangements and divisions, he stuck his hand up and asked: “Why do we need to learn about plants?”

This question may have been typical fourth grade sass coming from a kid who would rather have been on his school sanctioned tablet than walking around on a beautiful September morning. But long after the school groups had left for the day, I found myself still wondering about the answer. Why do we need to learn about plants? These students are growing up in a world that spends most of its time inside, looking at a screen. Why should they value learning about leaf arrangement or how pollination works?

While thinking about these questions (and, admittedly, procrastinating writing this blog post) I fell down a rabbit hole of research on topics like plant blindness, botanical education, and the status of nature connectedness in kids today. I found countless studies attesting to the growing lack of knowledge about native plants- students of all ages are unable to identify native plants or even accurately describe what plants need to grow. One study showed that of a thousand kids (aged five to sixteen), 82% failed to recognize an oak leaf. Even more studies attested to the fact that kids are spending less time outside than ever before (worth noting here that race and income both have disparate effects on availability of green spaces) The disconnect between kids all over the world and their environment can feel startling at times.

But back to the question at hand- why does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t. At least, maybe it doesn’t matter if someone can tell you the name of a plant, or what kind of inflorescence it hosts. In the same way that I really don’t want to understand how wifi actually works, maybe it’s okay for that kid to not want to understand how trees store carbon. What does matter, however, is that we don’t lose our connection with our local environment. At the end of the day, conservation is motivated more by emotional connection than anything else. Equitable availability of environmental programming nurtures a mindset of ecological awareness and conservation with impacts far beyond plant identification. When we understand our environment, and our place within it, we can better communicate the needs of our local ecosystems and help combat environmental issues on a small scale. As we face loss of biodiversity from climate change and habitat loss, the effort we put into conservation will have to be greater than ever, and so our connection with nature and motivation to work towards preservation will have to be greater than ever. No pressure, right!

As I face the final day of this internship and consider the future of my career, I’m left wondering how much of an impact one person can make on the conservation of our environmental systems. On one hand, it feels daunting (there are so many problems everywhere all the time!). On the other hand, I spent all day yesterday reseeding disturbed areas on the Caribou-Targhee- those areas are now less susceptible to the spread of invasive plants and will better support native pollinators and be more resilient to climate change. Because of the efforts of Alex and I this summer, there will be a greater stock of native plant material available, helping maintain the diversity of native forbs on public lands in Southeastern Idaho. It may not be stopping global climate change, but it feels like something to be proud of.

Anyway, to anyone who got through this final blog post, good luck with whatever comes next!


ps- if you’re interested in reading further about ecological knowledge/nature connection/environmental education, here are some good articles:

End of Season Fun

The start of October marked the end of the ERUM seed collection for the season! We got a ton of good collections. Our last week out for seed collections, we went to the Lemhi Mountains. It was snowing up there! We still found a small collection of ERUM though! We also collected from an area by Ketchum. Some of the ERUM seeds were frozen together which was pretty crazy. We owe this collection to Marguerite, one of our Forest Service interns who found it on her own!

We went to Reno for surveys and luckily found an ERUM population! Had a great time collecting on a beautiful day!

Fog over the Lemhi Mountains.

My new signature meal became peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They are so convenient and tasty! The occasional quesadilla is also necessary.

Second to last seed collection trip of the season in Nevada! Found some good collections. We collected from Angel lake area in Nevada. We climbed all the way up to Grey’s peak which is over 10,000 feet elevation! We got a great collection at the very top after an extremely long hike. We started down the mountain just before sunset and had to find our way back in the dark! We had headlamps, so it was okay, but it was quite the crazy adventure!

After finishing the seed collection season, we are now moving onto office work for the last couple weeks. Beth and I are also going to a wilderness first aid training in Bend Oregon in the last week of October! We are going to find out what Bend is doing for Halloween!

Busy, yet somehow slow September!

September has flown by, and it was my last full month at the RMRS in Boise. It has gone by so fast!

September was busy for the RMRS, yet slow at the same time. We started off the month by checking on the hornworms, and they were progressing beautifully!

Hornworm cocoon

I went on a trip to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada for fun with my friend Matt, and we hiked around the area and found some ERUM (despite being off the clock we still checked out the population!)

After I got back from Nevada, I immediately went back with my Forest Service coworker Bebe. We drove down to Ely to check on 3 ERUM populations, and all 3 were still not seeding! In September, we were not expecting them to still be flowering/developing seeds. The phenology this year was so interesting due to how wet the year has been. So, we decided to stop by Great Basin National Park to look around the area for ERUM while corresponding with our boss back in Boise. We found a gorgeous alpine lake, and hiked around outside the park in search of ERUM.

When we received a final set of coordinates to go check out, we headed towards the area. We pre-download maps before heading into scouting areas, and normally these maps with satellite imagery are great. Bebe and I were 15+ miles away from a main dirt road, and we were following satellite imagery to get to our location, when we found out that the satellite imagery must be pretty old. We were looking for roads that were completely overgrown with trees and brush, and with the sun quickly setting, we decided to keep trying to find an alternative route out of the area instead of retracing our steps. We struggled for two more hours trying to find real roads, but once we got out back onto the main dirt road, we were so relieved. The sky was dark, with no moon in sight, so the stars were incredible. As we were driving, hundreds of jackrabbits were running across the roads, as well as Kangaroo Rats (a lifelist animal for me to see!!). We got so see some up close, as they were pretty common on the road.

Later, I met my friend Matt again in Elko, and we went out looking for plants. We went to Angel Lake, and hiked up a fair ways to check out all of the amazing flora. Nevada has amazing diversity, and the alpine areas are stunning.

Elric, Marguerite and I then trekked out to Silver City, Idaho in search of ERUM. We were successful early on in our search, which is such a morale booster. We collected our ERUM and got to see a historic small mining town too!

Then, my time off began. I went to the Oregon Coast with my family, and my brother and I drove separately so we could visit Crater Lake National Park along the way. We accidentally went on what felt like the busiest day of the year there, called Ride the Rim day. Hundreds if not thousands of people come to bike around the entire rim of Crater Lake, which has incredible gain and loss on it. They close off 3/4 of the rim for bicyclists safety, so my brother and I only got to experience the west side of the park. It was still stunning! We decided to go hike to some waterfalls afterwards on the Waterfall Scenic Byway, which heads towards the Oregon Coast.

Then, we made it to the coast! It was nice to relax and spend time with my family, as well as see so much flora and fauna! We did another famous Oregon hike called The Trail of Ten Falls, which was absolutely stunning! It’s a seven mile round-trip hike that is worth every step!

Then, when we got home my parents surprised us with a puppy! His name is Mac, and he is an adorable addition to the family.

Unfortunately, after my trip I tested positive for Covid for the first time in my life. It was such a bummer, since I missed out on some of the last seed collection trips for the 2023 season. But, since I was home I was able to see my hornworm emerge!! If anyone knows the specific ID, let me know! I know it’s in the sphingidae family!

Overall, this month was so busy yet so slow. This summer has been jam-packed full of adventures, and I’m so sad that it’s coming to an end!

The Deepest Cave to the Tallest Peak: A Reflection on Environmental Exclusion and the “Ecological Other”

The view of Sierra Blanca Peak (11,981′) in the background from Nogal Peak (9,957′)

I’ve had trouble fitting in post-work hikes with the days rapidly shortening. Earlier this month, I made the time to climb Nogal Peak (9,957′), which juts out from the surrounding pinyon-juniper hills. Despite being a 2.5-mile hike, it features 1300 feet of elevation gain in one mile. Goodding’s Onion and Sacramento Mountain Prickly Poppy surveys were comparable in difficulty but in their own way. The following weekend, I found myself at the deepest point in Carlsbad Caverns open to the public–King’s Palace–which rests 840 feet below the desert surface.

A section of “The Big Room” at Carlsbad Caverns

Something that’s been bothering me since diving into my botanical obsession during the start of COVID-19 is my internalized perception of designated “natural” spaces like Nogal Peak and Carlsbad Caverns. These spaces include National Parks, Forests, Wilderness Areas, Refuges, State Land, and Preserves. Spending the whole summer working and recreating in National Forests, Parks, and Monuments has caused this concern to resurface.

The Pandemic incentivized me to explore as much of Ohio as possible and reconnect with where I grew up. One of the first places I visited was Brown’s Lake Bog State Nature Preserve–a biodiverse rarity just half an hour’s drive from my house. Pitcher plants, cranberries, orchids, sundews, and sedges ensnared my younger rapacity for learning the local flora. Even cooler is the geologic history of the bog, as it’s an example of a “kettle hole,” hinting at Ohio’s glacial past. Kettles are typical features of glacial landscapes, formed by chunks of ice that break off from a retreating glacier, leaving a depression in the ground from their weight. As they melt, water and organic matter fill the depressions. If there is enough decomposing organic matter, the water acidifies, creating a bog. Hazel Willis Woods, Malabar Farm State Park, and Mohican State Park are formative places from my childhood that I revisited during the Pandemic (in addition to numerous State Nature Preserves like Brown’s Lake Bog). These spaces provided the opportunity to teach me about the area’s natural history in greater depth than as a child. I felt like I was rereading a book for the first time in 10 years with a new (but flawed) perspective.

In areas with varying levels of recreational pressure, I noticed a difference in biodiversity and noxious weeds. I could no longer enjoy a walk at Malabar or Mohican without cringing at the sight of cutleaf teasel, mullein, or glossy buckthorn. This led to me making value judgments based on disturbance levels and invasive presence. Granted, it’s important in conservation to prioritize certain areas over others based on similar assessments. Areas with relatively high species diversity/richness (or many endemic species) should take priority. In my classes and fieldwork, I learned that the conservation or suppression of diverse ecological processes can benefit or harm native biodiversity. Succession is always acting! In my job last summer, a lot of effort was put into woody species control (both non-native and native) in wet fen meadows to prevent the habitat loss of state and federally-listed species. I started viewing places overrun with invasives or where natural ecological processes (like wildfire) had been suppressed as “impure.”

Another recent observation I made about these spaces is the difference in physical (in)accessibility among them. At work, my own physical capabilities weigh on my mind. I’m not an athlete by any means, but I am fit enough to perform in my job (and hike to Nogal Peak). This led me to research ableism in the environmental movement and conservation, where I discovered The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture. This book, by Sarah Jaquette Ray, examines the treatment of “ecological others.”

This excerpt from the introduction describes who the “ecological others” are:

“. . . In each of the chapters that follow, I focus on three distinct case studies of ecologically other corporealities. First, I examine what I consider the prototypical corporeal other—the disabled body—which has operated (and continues to operate) as the implicit other against which environmentally healthy subjects are defined. Second, I draw on these assumptions about the disabled body to scrutinize the body of the Native American, which was “sacrificed” (in conjunction with “sacrificed” landscapes) through processes of colonialism . . .

. . . Finally, I investigate the bodies of undocumented immigrants as “trash,” bodies sacrificed in the momentum of globalization. This dominant disgust toward immigrant bodies as trash masks the ways in which immigrants’ bodily labor makes middle-class comfort possible for a vast majority of American citizens. While “shadow labor,” as Don Mitchell calls it, is extracted from these bodies as they work in domestic service, slaughterhouses, and construction (to name just a few of the toxic and disfiguring jobs immigrants perform), those bodies are maligned as a threat to nature and nation.”

Ray elaborates on how the treatment of these communities as ecological others is rooted in Social Darwinism and imperial conquest. The dispossession of Indigenous people and Mexicans from lands across the West to create wilderness areas came from a fear of “race suicide” justified by evolutionary theory in the form of Social Darwinism. Grandfathers of the modern environmentalism movement–like Ernst Hackel and George Perkins Marsh–promoted a caricature of the “ideal American,” requiring tests of self-reliance through an encounter with raw nature; wilderness areas met the criteria for “raw nature.”

Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir furthered wilderness preservation in the 1930s, following the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The system of land appropriation utilized by Roosevelt, Pinchot, and Muir continues to dissuade people of color from engaging in the environmental movement. This system “erases the ongoing relationship with nature that people of color maintained [with the so-called wilderness] for centuries before the establishment of the United States and westward expansion.” The Indigenous and immigrant communities are just two examples that Ray discusses in her book.

A trailhead sign with directions to the White Mountain Wilderness in Lincoln National Forest

Ray’s analysis differentiates itself from prior scholarly work by linking the Social Darwinist fear of race suicide to the social construction of disability and wilderness. She argues that both constructs “converged to support an emerging sense of a fit, pure national identity.” I’ve only made it halfway through the first chapter of The Ecological Other, which links contemporary “Adventure Culture” to the wilderness movement. Adventure Culture borrows the concept of the ideal, fit, American body advocated for by people like Roosevelt during the Progressive Era:

“The physically fit, self-sufficient man, capable of living a “strenuous life,” was the American ideal, the opposite of which was physical disability. . .

. . .contemporary environmentalism and its attendant recreational practices of outdoor adventure extend early-twentieth-century conceptions of social Darwinism in their focus on “fitness,” self-sufficiency, and purity. I argue that if the wilderness encounter tests and hones the fit body, and if alienation from nature is understood as alienation from our own bodies—both notions that originated in Progressive Era environmental thought—then reconnecting with nature means having a fit body.”

This implies that the disabled are incapable of reconnecting with nature and thus can be defined as an ecological other. Technological aid cannot be used (or it must be minimized) when working or recreating to truly reconnect with nature and be a proper environmentalist. Relying on technology would desecrate the experience of the physical trials endured, whether climbing a mountain or free soloing a cliff face. This also applies to conservation. For example, the White Mountain Wilderness prohibits using any contemporary vehicle or tool by recreators and land managers, such as the Forest Service.

Revisiting Carlsbad Caverns and Nogal Peak, a participant of Adventure Culture could argue that the Caverns provide an inferior experience to summiting a peak. You enter the caverns one of two ways: a minute-long elevator ride to the bottom or a mile or so walk down a steep but paved concrete walkway. Also, at the bottom, there are restrooms, a gift shop, and a small food and drink vendor! Upon descending (using the concrete walkway), it felt so absurd to me to find these amenities in this cave. On the King’s Palace guided tour, our ranger asked, “What can you do to preserve this special place for future generations?” She pointed out how humans have harmed the fragile natural wonder by touching the cave formations, littering, and (the potential for) bringing in pathogens such as white-nose syndrome. Elevator construction led to an air leak, damaging the Caverns by messing with the constant humidity and temperature. I can’t imagine the impacts wrought by building the infrastructure necessary to handle the number of visitors annually. She also mentioned all the passive ways humans damage the cave, including the fibers and dead cells we shed from our clothes and skin.

T-shirts, snacks, drinks, trinkets, and more for sale inside Carlsbad Caverns

If things are outside our control, I wondered if limiting human visitation is the best way to protect the Caverns? One could answer in many ways, but prohibiting entry is not the solution. The many amenities that felt out of place make the Caverns more accessible for disabled people to enjoy the space. At the same time, the accessibility of Carlsbad Caverns threatens its own existence. This is the challenge that we must address as conservationists and land stewards. We must reconcile with the problematic (xenophobic, imperialist, settler colonialist, and ableist) history of the environmental movement to restore humanity’s relationship with our environment–for all communities–while balancing the most significant ecological crises our Earth is and will be facing.