Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why I Live in Illinois

It's funny... a few days ago I posted about Oregon, and under the beautiful picture of the coast I lamented, "why do I live in Illinois?"... that post generated no comments. Then yesterday I post about 2 local trees that I don't even have to work to see... (well, actually I do have to work. Both those trees are at my place of employment. But the point is, they are right outside the door at my place of employment.) In less than 24 hours, I had 2 comments reminding me about how beautiful and special those trees are.

Aspen trees are native to large portions of the US, and people certainly don't think of IL when they think of aspens. I don't. I think of mountains first, and the north woods second, and IL not at all, really. But we have got a few here, their leaves quaking in the wind. Their greenish-whitish bark contains acetylsalicylic acid, which is also found in aspirin. (The trees are a favorite of beavers... maybe that's why beavers never get a headache even though they chew wood all the time?) Buh dum ching. (Ah, it's been a long day...)

Bur oaks are truly trees of the prairie. It sounds like an oxymoron, but these trees, with their thick bark, are adapted to survive life with fire. In crowded areas, they will grow tall to compete for sunlight... but in the prairie... in the prairie, they grow out. With gnarled, twisting branches they spread in all directions and sometimes dip down so low that they almost touch the ground. Thus they make good climbing trees -- you can hop right on to the branches and go toward the trunk, rather than the other way around.

And the acorn is, perhaps, the most amazing part of the oak. If it doesn't have a worm (Aside... a lot of acorns, if you keep them, turn out not to have oak seeds, but rather, insects. The bugs actually go to the oak flowers and the acorn forms around them, so to look at the acorn, you can't tell wither there's a worm eating the meat. Eventually, they eat all the insides and drill a hole to get out. I have seen this lead to hilarity... as when a student uses an acorn in an art project, which is hung from the classroom ceiling, and then one day little grubs are falling onto kids' desks... you can test an acorn for worms by putting it in water. A worm-free acorn will float, but the worms create air bubbles and make them float! So anyhow. If you have a worm-free acorn...) then this little thing, an inch long... it looks like nothing but it has the potential to become a whole oak tree. It is power and meekness combined in one. It is such a small thing that could become something fifty feet tall or wide and outlive us all... but which can be taken down by a bug. A tree of contradictions.

(Another fun use of the scanner!)

And while setting up my class this morning, I noticed that the maples, at their peak color, are just stunning. I'm lucky to live in an edge world, too... the historical edge of the prairie and the eastern woodlands. So here, we get to experience remnants or restored bits of each.

I suppose I have been nudged into gratefulness.

Actually, I have long seen the beauty in the prairie. Even in its winter brown state, it has a subtle loveliness. Amazing plant biodiversity and crazy insect life. Sometimes you have to look for the specialness -- it doesn't hit you in the face like an ocean or a mountain. But that almost makes it better, like we have a secret. However. I think the problems with my area of Illinois with which I have been grappling are more related to the human-influenced sense of place. I live in a world where most of the stores are in strip malls and are just like every other place. I guess that's becoming true everywhere, but here it seems worse. Maybe I just notice it more. I don't know. I could explain it more, but I've already written a lot about far less depressing things.

One quick phenology note: as of Monday, there were still meadowhawks in my yard. It's cold, but the dragonflies are hanging on!


  1. A worm-free acorn will float? Or will not float?

  2. Viable ones sink. Well, now I"m second guessing myself. I haven't planted acorns in a couple of years. But I'm pretty sure viable ones sink.