Sounds of cars, trucks, horns, sirens, planes and trains disorient me. I feel my other senses shutting down. Stately oaks rise over rich and rare grasses and wildflowers, but my mind cannot correlate what I’m hearing with what I’m seeing. I feel my wife’s hand on my back. An American woodcock flushes near us. A red-headed woodpecker flies by – and my fixation on the unnatural noise breaks, allowing two contradictory worlds to blend. Welcome to Somme Preserve, I think, finally ready to immerse myself into this natural wonder.
Part of Cook County’s Forest Preserve system, the 410-acre Somme Preserve is located in Northbrook Ill., deep within Chicago’s metropolitan area. Hemmed in by interstate, concrete and asphalt, and carved out of a sea of European buckthorn, Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Woods reveal a couple of Illinois’ rarest and highest-quality natural areas.
Our guides, site stewards Stephen Packard and Eriko Kojima, lead six of us through a surreal exploration of natural heritage in the last place anyone would look.
Packard, a pioneer in ecological restoration and author of “Tallgrass Restoration Handbook,” stands under a canopy of healthy oak trees among elm-leaved goldenrod, yellow and purple hyssop, sweet Joe-pye weed and many other species. He takes us back to the 1970s when he and other like-minded individuals convinced local government to allow buckthorn removal.
“We feared the neighbors would view our restoration efforts as destroying nature,” Packard said. “So we devoted a lot of effort to educating anyone who would listen about the whys and hows of what we were doing.”
He recalls a public meeting in the 1980s. The Somme volunteers had just presented a slide show about their restoration work. The room fell uncomfortably silent; the faces in the crowd showing little emotion. All heads turned and looked to the back of the room at one man. “My dad owned that land before the Forest Preserve took it away from him,” the man said. “We took good care of our land. When my dad saw what was happening to the Forest Preserve, it just about killed him. You people are doing the right thing!”
A collective sigh passed through the crowd. In the years to follow, the Somme volunteers charged ahead in this new field of restoration ecology. They faced more obstacles, including waves of invasive species, the uncertainties of being a step ahead of science, and a painful 5-year restoration moratorium. Nonetheless, the socially diverse and committed group has prevailed to this day.
As Packard heads off to our next destination, I look closer at an unfamiliar plant. It’s a distinctive goldenrod, similar to zigzag, but the leaves are more slender. “Blue-stemmed goldenrod,” Kojima says, sensing my confusion. Yes, I think, the stem really is blue-gray. A new species for me!
Packard stops adjacent to a large patch of woodland sunflowers, a backdrop of buckthorn hedgerow obscures a continuous blur of racing cars. He and Kojima share the basic restoration process of buckthorn and invasive species removal, prescribed fire, and annual inter-seeding of hundreds of species of local, hand-collected seeds.
With a wide sweep of his hands, Packard indicates his general happiness with their efforts. No species is dominating, and the plant structure is short and diverse, a sign of intense competition; all niche spaces have been filled.
“But here,” Packard adds, pointing to the homogeneous patch of woodland sunflowers that look strikingly out of place from the neighboring plant community’s structural and species diversity. “Are these guys thugs? Do we need to be concerned? It used to be buckthorn, then tall goldenrod, and now woodland sunflower. Will plant diversity catch up and tame the woodland sunflower, or will the sunflowers grow in size and swallow plant diversity?”
It’s a rhetorical question. It’s a reflection on how practitioners must sometimes move forward with only hunches, opinions, trusting that gradually the facts will be revealed.
Next, we nervously follow a fearless Packard across a four-lane intersection with no crosswalk or pedestrian traffic signals, pass through another buckthorn hedgerow, and enter Somme Prairie Grove. Packard is a fast walker, and I quickly find myself a straggler, distracted by gentians. “Grab the camera; I found a fringed gentian,” I say. Soon, we realize, we’re surrounded by gentians. In one little swale, we find dozens of fringed, bottle and cream gentians. It’s hard to let go of the stunning beauty of a fringed gentian.
We pick up the pace, passing by several of our favorite plants and widely scattered bur and Hill’s oak trees, and catch up with the group. Packard reflects that in the beginning, they thought they were restoring prairie, and experts advised the Somme volunteers to cut back the brush and expand the prairie’s size and health. As they cut the brush, they found smothered oak trees and rare species of plants and animals not known to be in prairies. Eventually, they realized, they had uncovered a poorly understood, and even rarer plant community - the oak savanna.
I find myself distracted by a chest-high blazing star next to me. It has hefty flowerheads, much larger than I’ve seen before, on ascending stalks. My poorly disguised obsession with the plant must have been obvious because both Packard and Kojima blurt out “savanna blazing star” (Liatris scariosa). Another first for me.
As we continue through the restored savanna, Packard discusses the management history and how the plant community evolved. At one sunny location, he mentions Indian grass used to dominate. Over time, with fire, invasive species control and persistent inter-seeding, it has transformed into a climax community of prairie dropseed, lead plant, sky blue aster, silky aster, wood betony, downy gentian, cream indigo, blazing stars and many other conservative species.
At another location dotted with dozens of caged downy gentians, Packard and Kojima share the long-term battle with whitetail deer and voles. Somme volunteers double-cage gentians and some other rare plants. The outer cage is tall with larger openings to protect from deer, and the shorter, inner cage with smaller openings protects from voles. Deer populations are controlled, down to approximately 20 per square mile from an original 160 per square mile.
After three hours, we say goodbye to new friends, both human and wildlife, and leave an era from long ago. I’m relaxed, buoyed by my visit to Somme, and strengthened by the nature-healing efforts of the Somme volunteers.
Packard is right, I think; nature is counting on us.
As we enter back into modern-day Chicago, cars, trucks, horns, sirens, planes and trains once demand my attention.