We had a Rocky Mountain family gathering. Our son, Jeremiah, and his fiancé, Caroline; along with our daughter, Rebekah, and her husband, Mike, joined us for a week on the mountainside in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Connie and I drove our new car back down out of the mountains toward home. With each thousand feet of elevation drop our brains received more oxygen and we both began to think more clearly. We talked about the wonderful conversations we had and how great it is to know our children are coupled up so well and that we all get along so well with compatible political and social values and a mutual love of nature.
But as we sped east I was also struck by this thought: The Rockies possess an amazing beauty and ruggedness, but our little spot in northern Illinois has its own rich character. I need to open my eyes and heart wider to it.
There are words for this idea: “Bloom where you are planted,” and “there’s no place like home,” and I’m sure many more. I have a sketchy memory of an old parable about a man on a quest for spiritual treasure that takes him all over the world until he finally realizes that treasure was right there where he started.
But the plain fact is that Connie and I live on a farm with 43 ample acres of home place to contemplate and to treasure.
The task now is to get to know it better and better.
So, I intend to make this just the first in what I hope will be a long series of postings that will evolve into a fairly extensive permanent offering on our web site, all exploring both the natural and social history of our farm. We know a small bit already:
- This place was carved by eons of plate tectonics and water flow, and then flattened and carved again by the last ice age.
- Prairies, woods, rivers and lakes and fantastic soil turned it into a land teeming with life.
- A succession of native American people’s passed and settled and passed again, before being cruelly harassed and driven off by European settlers. The Blackhawk War was one of the final, shameful local episodes of this.
- Our particular farm was among the first to be settled by those Europeans after the natives were unjustly driven out.
- After its great fire of 1871 much of the timber used in the rapid rebuilding of the city of Chicago came from Ohio Grove, a wooded area just to the east of our farm.
But I intend now to do research to fill in the many gaps in my understanding. The first book I bought in my newborn zeal to appreciate this place is by Joel Greenberg. It is the fruit of his own 17 year project to bring together and pass on a deeper understanding of what this area has always had to offer, and how we have often squandered its bounty. The book is A Natural History of the Chicago Region, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2002.
I share with readers one quote from the first chapter of the book, about the natural forces that shaped this region around our farm and it’s remarkable diversity of landscape and life:
That diversity brought to the land an almost unimaginable fertility and an abundance of life that in some manifestations was unrivaled by any other terrestrial environment on earth.
My first thought after reading this selection, was that the increasing special fertility and abundance is quite evident when driving east to this region from the Rockies. Since childhood I have thrilled at the majesty and grandeur of mountains. But the harshness of conditions there does certainly place limits on the kinds and amount of life that the landscape can support. The corn growing in the sand hills of western Nebraska is stunted indeed, and as we travel east it grows taller and greener. And nowhere is it more productive than right here in our back yard.
My second thought was to our conflicted human relationship to those very phenomena of fertility and diversity. I have noted before in my blog postings (“Weeding God’s Garden) the odd feeling I have as I go out to do almost daily warfare with thistles and other noxious weeds on our acres. I spray. I hack. I mow. cut. I spray and cut again. Just trying to keep vines from swallowing up my house’s air conditioner is an almost daily chore. But it seems a losing game. Each year it is a slightly different mix of weeds, but it is always amazing to see the overwhelming growth. This year it is pig weed, velvet leaf, giant ragweed (again), and those awful thistles. And I swear the thistles can grow a foot in a couple of days and the ragweed in places now stands 15 feet high!
Greenberg’s comment, however, puts things in perspective. I murmur and grumble and even curse right out loud as I fight back the weeds and clean off the abundant bird poop from the car. but now I can remember that it all comes with the God-given nature of this place. In our zeal to control the kinds of life we will allow to thrive we have bulldozed this land and poisoned it to get rid of the native grasses and flowers. And yet the land retains this heritage of plenty. The soil is still black because in it has grown the most prolific tall grasses and flowering plants in all world and all geologic history.
So this place has been “unrivaled by any other terrestrial environment on earth.” This has been one of God’s favorite laboratories–one of God’s favorite playgrounds.
This place is still brimming over with life, despite neglect and abuse from the human race.
We are slow to learn, but this place is sacred. This place is holy. This place, when you know something about it, is thrilling.