By Jill Riddell

In 1684 a pioneer wrote about Illinois, “They had seen nothing like this river, for the fertility of the land, its prairies, woods, wild cattle, stag deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parrots, and even beaver, and its many little lakes and rivers.” A decade ago I lifted this quote from John Madson’s book Where the Sky Began and stuck it into a fund-raising proposal I was writing for the Nature Conservancy. I wanted it to inspire in the reader (hopefully someone with big bucks who’d be beguiled by every word) a sense of how bucolic and rich in wildlife Illinois once was.

It was one of a number of quotes I used from early settlers’ reports filled with the detail of the richness of midwestern prairies. Every diary has some version of the tale about how you could walk out any afternoon and shoot a prairie grouse as fast as you or I could go to Whole Foods.

But the truth is, I didn’t believe the reports. They made lovely reading, but were too fantastic to regard as anything but hyperbole. I had two reasons for doubting. One was that the Illinois I know is so rip-roaringly different from those descriptions that they seem like a backward version of science fiction. In Bewitched, Samantha Stephens brings Ben Franklin to the hip life of the late 60s, where he wanders around befuddled. And when I read about the natural history of Illinois I knew just how he felt: If Samantha wiggled her nose and spirited me back to the time that passage was written–even if I were set down in the exact spot where I was sitting–I would have recognized absolutely nothing about the land.

The other reason I didn’t completely buy the pioneer reports was that I myself was writing hyperbole in those fund-raising proposals. I didn’t intend to deceive, but that might have been the result. For instance, I recently found an old proposal in which I described the beauty of the red grassy hills of the Nachusa Grasslands and the bright blue prairie gentians you could find hiding in the little bluestem there. But in the full-page description of the preserve I never bothered to mention its most prominent landscape feature, which was (and is) the enormous towers supporting high-tension wires coming out of the nearby Byron nuclear power plant.

When I wrote about the Nachusa Grasslands I never considered the power lines–they weren’t important to me or to why the place should be preserved. But that didn’t mean the wires weren’t there, and it didn’t mean that anyone with a brain in her head would ignore them as I did. I exaggerated the grandeur and diminished the weariness of the landscapes I wrote about. I was conscious enough of this that I suspected that everyone, even writers from past centuries, did the same thing.

I’m not so sure anymore. In January I visited the Joliet Arsenal property that has since become the Chicago area’s newest national nature reserve, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. (In a provision of the Department of Defense appropriations bill that President Clinton signed into law February 10 most of the 23,500-acre Joliet Arsenal was released from Department of Defense control and given to the U.S. Forest Service.)

Jerry Adelmann, director of Openlands Project, one of the groups responsible for saving the property, had organized a trip there for a few friends who wanted to watch hawks. Winter’s a good time to see red-tails and rough-legged hawks that come into the area from farther north. Since a drive in any rural midwestern environment entails passing a hawk or two sitting on telephone posts, I figured this would be a fun excursion and a chance to hone my hawk-identification skills.

But I was taken off guard by what we found. In two hours of cruising around the 42-square-mile preserve in a van we were never out of sight of a hawk or falcon. I want to be careful here and not succumb to the temptation of hyperbole again, but I believe that to be a factual statement. Admittedly you can see long distances across the flat plains at Midewin, and it’s littered with old electrical and telephone wires strung between posts, which the hawks like to sit on. Nevertheless there were a godawful lot of hawks and kestrels on that random January afternoon. We also saw wild turkeys, a short-eared owl, a long-eared owl, a possum, and deer. Eventually the Forest Service will restore bison and elk to the preserve.

By the end of the day we were so blase that we ceased to comment when we saw another hawk. As our guide Fran Harty from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources pointed out, the number of hawks means that there also have to be stupendous numbers of field mice and prairie voles for the hawks to eat. I tried to imagine how clogged the grounds must be with small foraging rodents to support that many predators.

Obviously the birds won’t see every one of them, and they won’t catch every one they spot. Do they eat one out of every hundred over the winter? One of every thousand? Every twenty? I have no idea. Yet there must be enough mice to feed not only the hawks, but also the coyotes that roam the preserve and in summer the snakes and other predators that come out of hibernation.

After the trip I found myself returning to the picture of this immense preserve cluttered with hawks. A couple weeks later I asked Tracey Shafroth, a friend who was also on the trip, if she thought that there’d been an extraordinary number due to weather conditions, or if they’d been forced into that area because of habitat losses elsewhere, or what she made of the huge numbers. She shrugged and said, “I think that’s probably how many there are supposed to be.” Meaning that what we saw is what is normal, and that what we experience that’s less than that is damaged in some way.

This is just a theory of course, but what if it’s true? What if there were meant to be that many red-tailed and rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, kestrels, and owls nonchalantly hanging out here all winter, eating a few of the thousands of voles that scurry around in the grass? And what if those historical reports were accurate, and there really was such an extraordinary wealth of mammals, birds, and flowers that the pioneers didn’t have to embellish to impress their eastern relatives? Perhaps to everyone else it’s always been obvious that these were descriptions of reality. But this idea comes as a blow to me. After the profusion of life in the dead of winter at Midewin, everywhere else now seems empty by comparison. It’s a little bit like catching a glimpse inside a palace and having to return home to live in a hovel.