In the fall of 1991, I stood with Steve Packard in one of
his treasures -- what he called a "Rembrandt found in the attic" -- at the
edge of a suburban Chicago woods. This was the prairie we would burn.
Several hundred acres of rustling, wind-blown grass swept over our feet
and under scattered oak trees. We swam in a field far richer, far more
complete, and far more authentic than Leopold had seen. Dissolved into
this pool of brown tufts were hundreds of uncommon species. "The bulk of
the prairie is grass," Packard shouted to me in the wind, "but what most
people notice is the advertising of the flowers." At the time of my
visit, the flowers were gone, and the ordinary-looking grass and trees
seemed rather boring. That "barrenness" turned out to be a key clue in
the rediscovery of an entire lost ecosystem.
To arrive at this moment, Packard spent the early 1980s locating
small, flowery clearings in the thickets of Illinois woods. He planted
prairie wildflower seeds in them and expanded their size by clearing the
brush at their perimeters. He burnt the grass to discourage nonnative
weeds. At first he hoped the fire would do the work of clearing
naturally. He would let it leap from the grass into the thicket to burn
the understory shrubs. Then, because of the absence of fuel in the
woods, the fire would die naturally. Packard told me, "We let the fires
blast into the bush as far as they would go. Our motto became 'Let the
fires decide.' "
But the thickets would not burn as he hoped, so Packard and his
crews interceded with axes in hand and physically cleared the
underbrush. Within two years, they were happy with their results. Thick
stands of wild rye grass mingled with yellow coneflower in the new
territory. The restorers manually hacked back the brush each season and
planted the choicest prairie flower seed they could find.
But by the third year, it was clear something was wrong. The
plantings were doing poorly in the shade, producing poor fuel for the
season's fires. The grasses that did thrive were not prairie species;
Packard had never seen them before. Gradually, the replanted areas
reverted to brush.
Packard began to wonder if anyone, including himself, would go
through the difficulties of burning an empty plot for decades if they
had nothing to show for it. He felt yet another ingredient must be
missing which prevented a living system from snapping together. He
started reading the botanical history of the area and studying the
When he identified the unknown species flourishing so well in the
new oak-edge patches, he discovered they didn't belong to a prairie, but
to a savanna ecosystem -- a prairie with trees. Researching the plants that
were associated with savanna, Packard soon came up with a list of other
associated species -- such as thistles, cream gentians, and yellow
pimpernels -- that he quickly realized peppered the fringes of his
restoration sites. Packard had even found a blazing star flower a few
years before. He had brought the flowering plant to a university expert
because varieties of blazing star defy nonexpert identification. "What
the heck is this?" he'd asked the botanist. "It's not in the books, it's
not listed in the state catalogue of species. What is it?" The botanist
had said, "I don't know. It could be a savanna blazing star, but there
aren't any savannas here, so it couldn't be that. Don't know what is."
What one is not looking for, one does not see. Even Packard admitted to
himself that the unusual wildflower must have been a fluke, or
misidentified. As he recalls, "The savanna species weren't what I was
looking for at first so I had sort of written them off."
But he kept seeing them. He found more blazing star in his patches.
The oddball species, Packard was coming to realize, were the main show
of the clearings. There were many other species associated with savannas
he did not recognize, and he began searching for samples of them in the
corners of old cemeteries, along railway right-of-ways, and old horse
paths -- anywhere a remnant of an earlier ecosystem might survive. Whenever
he could, he collected their seed.
An epiphany of sorts overtook Packard when he watched the piles of
his seed accumulate in his garage. The prairie seed mix was dry and
fluffy-like grass seed. The emerging savanna seed collection, on the
other hand, was "multicolored handfuls of lumpy, oozy, glop," ripe with
pulpy seeds and dried fruits. Not by wind, but by animals and birds did
these seeds disperse. The thing -- the system of coevolved, interlocking
organisms -- he was seeking to restore was not a mere prairie, but a
prairie with trees: a savanna.
The pioneers in the Midwest called a prairie with trees a "barren."
Weedy thickets and tall grass grew under occasional trees. It was
neither grassland nor forest -- therefore barren to the early settlers. An
almost entirely different set of species kept it a distinct biome from
the prairie. The savanna barrens were particularly dependent on fire,
more so than the prairies, and when farmers arrived and stopped the
fires, the barrens very quickly collapsed into a woods. By the turn of
this century the barrens were almost extinct, and the list of their
constituent species hardly recorded. But once Packard got a "search
image" of the savanna in his mind, he began to see evidence of it
Packard sowed the mounds of mushy oddball savanna species, and
within two years the fields were ablaze with rare and forgotten
wildflowers: bottlebrush grass, blue-stem goldenrod, starry champion,
and big-leafed aster. In 1988, a drought shriveled the non-native weeds
as the reseeded natives flourished and advanced. In 1989, a pair of
eastern bluebirds (which had not been seen in the county for decades)
settled into their familiar habitat -- an event that Packard took as "an
endorsement." The university botanists called back. Seems like there
were early records of savanna blazing star in the state. The biologists
were putting it on the endangered list. Oval milkweed somehow returned
to the restored barren although it grows nowhere else in the state. Rare
and endangered plants like the white-fringed orchid and a pale vetchling
suddenly sprouted on their own. The seed might have lain dormant -- and
between fire and other factors found the right conditions to hatch -- or
been brought in by birds such as the visiting blue birds. Just as
miraculously, the silvery-blue butterfly, which had not been seen
anywhere in Illinois for a full decade, somehow found its way to
suburban Chicago where its favorite food, vetchling, was now growing in
the emerging savanna.
"Ah," said the expert entomologists. "The classic savanna butterfly
is Edwards hairstreak. But we don't see any. Are you sure this is a
savanna?" But by the fifth year of restoration, the Edwards hairstreak
butterfly was everywhere on the site.
If you build it, they will come. That's what the voice said in the
Field of Dreams. And it's true. And the more you build it, the more that
come. Economists call it the "law of increasing returns" -- the snowballing
effect. As the web of interrelations is woven tighter, it becomes easier
to add the next piece.