The restoration of Cap Sauers Holdings has begun. Led by John Sheerin, an environmental engineer from the southwest side, a group of about a dozen volunteers–including a three-year-old and a one-year-old–started work on this huge project on Saturday, May 23.

We mainly cut brush, expanding clearings where native prairie vegetation still survived. We will continue this sort of work through the summer, and then, if all goes well, carry out our first prescribed burns in late fall or early next spring. The job looks almost impossibly big, but that is what makes it so worth doing.

The Cook County Forest Preserve District owns more than 12,000 acres in the Palos Hills area of southwestern Cook County, and Cap Sauers Holdings is one of the largest pieces in that impressive collection of wild land. It measures more than two miles from east to west and about a mile and a half from north to south at its widest point. It is the largest roadless area in the county, and 1,520 acres of it have been a part of the Illinois Nature Preserves System since 1965.

Cap Sauers, his straight name was Charles, was the first general superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserve District. The County Board hired him for that job in the early 30s, and he held the position until his retirement in the early 60s.

The District was created in 1915, but it operated without a general superintendent during its early years. A citizens’ commission headed by no less a personage than Daniel Burnham recommended hiring a general superintendent to run the system, and charges of corruption forced the County Board to look for an outsider to come in and reform things.

They hired Sauers out of the Indiana State Park system, and had he been a less formidable figure, the political sharks here in the big city could have eaten him alive. But Sauers proved to be a master of politics. As long as he held the office, there was no doubt about who was in charge of the system.

One of his ways of winning the support of the board was to name parts of the system after pols–which is why so many forest preserve picnic groves are named after Irishmen you never heard of. But Sauers knew nature too, and when it came to naming a preserve after himself, he picked the best.

The Palos Hills are part of the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin glaciation, the most recent of the great ice sheets to sweep through this part of North America. The ice retreated from this end point 12 to 14 thousand years ago, leaving behind the knobby hills and shallow basins that mark all moraines.

This history makes the landscape of Palos a bit more interesting than the usual pooltable topography of the Chicago area. Cap Sauers Holdings is quite hilly. Small creeks wind between the hills, and marshes and wet meadows are scattered around the low ground. One of its notable geological features is a well-defined esker called the Visitation Esker. Eskers are sinuous ridges of sand and gravel that mark the former course of a stream that ran under the ice.

When settlers began arriving in Chicago, Palos was a mixture of woodlands, prairies, and oak savannas, with marshes and shallow lakes in the basins between the hills.

Like the rest of the state, it has suffered over the past century and a half. Variously grazed, plowed, paved, and invaded by alien weeds, it is not what it once was. But enough remains to give us a glimpse of the past and some hope for the future.

If you haven’t seen Cap Sauers Holdings, I would recommend that you take a hike through it soon. It lies south of Illinois 83 and west of 104th Avenue -also known as Willow Springs Road. You can park east of 104th at Teasons Woods, Cherry Hill Woods, or Horsetail Slough, and then cross the road and follow any of the trails into the preserve.

To read this landscape, look first for big oak trees. They are scattered all through the place, so you are bound to find some sooner or later. Oaks grow slowly; the big ones may date from 1830 or even earlier. Notice their shape. They have broad, spreading crowns, and the lowest and largest limbs branch off from the trunk quite near the ground. In dense forests, trees grow tall with straight trunks and a narrow crown of branches at the very top. The shapes of the oaks in Cap Sauers Holdings tell us that these trees grew in the open where they were not crowded.

Between the big trees, you might find young specimens of oak, basswood, and other forest trees, but you will more likely see a dense tangle of shrubs. Some of these are native hawthorns, viburnums, and crab apples, but many are specimens of that dreaded pest, the European buckthorn.

For those of you who may have missed my past fulminations on the subject of Rhamnus cathartica, I should explain that European buckthorn is a shrub that was imported originally as an ornamental species. It produces a blue berry that in small doses will give you a ferocious case of the runs–as the species name suggests–and in large doses might kill you.

Some birds, particularly robins, do eat the berries. Whether they get sick or not, I do not know, but they definitely pass the seeds out with their droppings and thus help the pest spread.

Buckthorns grow in dense thickets, shading out everything that might seek to share their space, destroying both oak seedlings and prairie wildflowers.

To get a real sense of the nastiness of the buckthorn, you have to leave the trails and try to take a walk cross-country. I once went in search of a pond that showed on my map and ended up crawling on my belly through acres of buckthorn. Actually, if you are willing to crawl, you can get through the buckthorn fairly easily, since absolutely nothing grows in the shade of this stuff, except for the occasional poison ivy.

Fighting through the buckthorn can provide you with some interesting surprises. Sometimes you can come upon remnant prairie plants like wild quinine, prairie dock, prairie phlox, and rattlesnake master, hanging on in small clearings that the shrubs haven’t closed off yet.

John Sheerin has found several of these openings in his own explorations of Cap Sauers Holdings, and these are the places where the work is beginning, where we will launch the counterattack on the alien invaders.

It is going to be a long fight. Toddlers and babes in arms might have some hope of seeing it completed, but us middle-aged types will be long gone before it is done. In fact, it seems impossible that our little group of workers, armed only with hand saws, lopping shears, and–ultimately–matches, could ever make a significant change in this vast place. It took us 20 minutes of brisk walking just to reach the clearing from the place at the edge of the preserve where we left our cars.

But I know that bit by bit we can make a difference. A very tiny difference the first year, a little more the second year, and so on. We have nature on our side, after all. We are accelerating and strengthening natural processes that, given time, are more than a match for the buckthorns. It is thoughts like that that can sustain you when you are down on your knees in a thicket hacking away at the aliens and notice that you are kneeling on a vigorous looking patch of poison ivy.

Someday, we expect, Cap Sauers Holdings will again be a pleasing mixture of prairie, savanna, and woodland–dotted with open marshes and wet meadows. Bluebirds may nest there again as they did in the original savannas. Marsh hawks may patrol the prairies again, and loggerhead shrikes may hunt along the edges.

The size of the place can set you to dreaming. It is big enough to hold all those species. It could also support wild turkeys. Birds of this species can be acquired if we can get a few bucks together. And maybe a new generation of oaks will grow up, not as tall, skinny forest trees struggling to survive until they can overtop the buckthorn shrubs, but as broad-crowned giants whose shade would be a place of refuge on a hot, sunny summer day.

If you would like to help with the restoration of Cap Sauers Holdings, there are work days scheduled for June 20, July 11 and 18, August 15 and 29, and October 10. Work starts at 10 AM. You can call John Sheerin at 445-9779, evenings and weekends: for directions and more information.