[Note: This post originally appeared in June 2012 at the Pekin Daily Times online.]
While growing up in the Chicago area in the 1960s, I had thought that just about everything in the landscape around me was a product of our modern civilization. The houses, streets, bridges, and railroad tracks were obviously built; and, of course, the lawns, flower gardens, and neighborhood trees were planted. Nothing was wild, as far as I could see. As a child, I even assumed that the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan had been hauled there by the truckload when the city was built.
But I also learned—maybe as early as the 2nd grade, on a field trip to the Little Red School House Nature Center—that much of Illinois had once been covered by a type of grassland called “prairie.” Yet I thought that the prairie had been gone for so long that it may as well not have even existed. The nature center had a small prairie as a demonstration, but it could not convey the idea of grasslands stretching to the horizon. I saw the “country” a few times in my young life, and it was all farmland, and had been so for generations.
Such thoughts were coursing through my mind recently as I drove home one day through the sand hill region of Mason County and noticed the blooming prickly pear cactus along the roadsides.
Now, cactus is not normally what most folks would associate with Illinois. But eastern prickly pear occurs in about half of Illinois’ counties. Many residents of rural Mason County are very familiar with prickly pear cactus. Few like it, though, as far as I can tell, judging by the frowns and disparaging words at the mere mention of the plant. It doesn’t fit with a neatly mowed lawn, and its stiff spines will make a direct encounter quite painful; they can even flatten tires.
Prickly pear, however, does fit in with sand prairies, which were once very common in the western part of Mason County and several other places in Illinois. And when I see it today, along the roadsides between Manito and Havana or in remnant sand prairies, which can still be found in a few places in Mason County, I think of it as a link to the original Illinois landscape that I once heard about as a child.
I guess it really is amazing what kids will pick up and remember.