Friday, January 04, 2008

A Language For The Landscape

They speed by on Interstate 55, cars a blur, on their way from one metropolis

to another. The landscape is something to be endured, negotiated in as quickly a way as possible. Sometimes I ask them, these travelers, what they saw on their trip. Often I’m met with laughter, “lots of corn, some billboards, a rest area or two.” What else is there to see, to know? Pick an exit and turn off into the countryside, I tell them, they miss out on whole worlds at 70 miles per.

Henry Thoreau once wrote, "If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these forty years of learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself...Many a weed here stands for more of life to me than the big trees of California would if I should go there." Thoreau understood that the natural world is right there to be examined, lessons there to be learned, in your backyard—his was a call for lovingly cultivating a relationship with the local. I recently picked up a wonderful book edited by Barry Lopez called “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.” This book is essentially a collection of crafted definitions of terms used for the land, not strictly scientific, but a combination of technical definition and literary and poetic understandings. In this spirit, I began to think about the languages of our Illinois landscapes. We can all too often see the subdivisions rising up out of the fields, the monocultural systems of agricultural, the degradation of environment, all of it, I think, fostering a disconnect of the citizens from their land. But, beyond that, if you look closely, that connection to a sense of being can be re-established.

Where and how do we being such an undertaking? Taking cues from Thoreau and “Home Ground”, I began with simple curiosity about the meaning of place, the land, and the language we use to define and come to grips with it. Before you can converse you must have the tools in place to do the talking. Those among us who are “out there in it,” understand, they observe, develop description, know the rhythms of dialog with the landscape. The hikers of our forests, canoeists of streams and rivers, artists, farmers, naturalists, poets, hunters, small town locals—those who turn off the pavement to speak a different language.

This point was driven home to me recently. While walking with the farmer of some farm ground I have in Henry County, I was struck by his breadth of knowledge of the land. This man’s vocabulary were not the sorts of words spoken by modern agribusiness, often the cold language of yields and profit, but another way of seeing and knowing, one cultivated by 35 years of living in the same spot, working the land year after year, knowing it intimately. As we walked he leisurely pointed each slough, knowing how much rain it took to waterlog it, how much time it would be before it drained, rattling years of previous floods; he stopped in what to me looked like a patch of weeds, bent over in the way of old farmers, that is to say with great deliberation and calm, and plucked a piece of grass about a foot long from the grass that looked to me like bamboo. He showed me the segmentation of this plant and said “I call this snake grass,” pulling apart the segments to show the serpentine qualities of the stem. Proceeding through a stand of timber, this farmer could identify every tree and shrub, as where my knowledge was only passing—his way was not only to identify, but give a discourse on the age, habits, flowering, and connections to other trees and plants in the woods. These weren’t the studies of a an academic naturalist, but intimate knowings, a precious communion with place cultivated over years of paying attention to the fields and forests. I came to realize that a vocabulary of the land exists if we seek it out.

My inspiration was to put together a sort of rudimentary glossary of terms that refer to a language of the landscape of my home spot. They come from my singular experiences, conversations, observations, walks, runs, paddles, reading, being. They are a starting point.

Some of these terms are universal, some probably have meanings here amongst the locals that differ slightly from other variations of the word in another region. I would expect someone living in Little Egypt or suburban Chicago or along the Mississippi to have some similarities, but perhaps also many differences in how they categorize their places. As for my definitions, anything in quotation marks is taken from various print sources, many from “Home Ground,” the rest is my own interpretation and commentary, an attempt to tease out more specific meaning as it applies to my home ground.

And so I ask, “What is the language of your Illinois homeland? This is the beginning of mine:

Barrens--"Open, desolate landscapes of bare rock and sparse vegetation...soils usually sandy or rocky, growing thin, stunted and shruby forests." True barrens in Illinois are rare, but some are found in the southern part of the state. I hear the term associated in central IL. mostly with former pasturelands that have a sparse vegetation, often of so-called "scrub" trees like locust or osage orange, and various shrubs.

Bluff--"A high bank above a river, a headland of precipitous cliffs." Refers to the high parts of particularly the Illinois River.

Bottoms--Typically used in this region as the floodplains of rivers or creeks, although the traditional definition is the low spot of whatever feature you're talking about. An example locally is Horseshoe bottom in Pottstown, near Peoria. Bottoms are also often named for landowners past and present--Steffen's bottom is a flat flood prone area near the Mackinaw River at Congerville.

Dell--"Chiefly a literary term, once used to describe a small, secluded hollow densely overgrown with trees, vines and shrub."

Mackinaw Dells was once the site of village called Slabtown. The settlement was killed when the railroad was put in up the hill at Congerville, IL. A small, rough dirt road leads back into this area now, which by sight, essentially conforms to the traditional definition, although Mackinaw Dells technically exists more on a bluff land rather than a true hollow. The area is still called by the name.

"It was 1889 when the railroad switch was put in at Congerville. The trestle bridge at The Dells was put in then too. The farmers were hired to come with their teams and dump shovels to do the grading. One man had a little team of mules working. When they dumped the shovel full of dirt over the egde, it was too heavy for the mules to hold and they were pulled over the enbankment, head over heels. Everyone was amazed to see that the mules were still able to work after this ordeal."
Draw--"A troughlike depression, choked with shrubs, thickets and small trees."
Locally draws are usually talked about as either waterways or small swaths of ground with trees and/or thick underbrush. To my eye they can be any cluster of trees from under an acre to a few acres in size, standing apart from the surrounding fields. Often associated with "drawing" in deer or other game.

”Cormac McCarthy in "All the Pretty Horses" writes, "The riders were fanned over the open country a mile below him and he counted not four but six of them before they dropped from sight into a draw."
Fencerow—A row of trees or shrubs used to delineate property line, or more commonly the boundaries between farm fields.

In the 1850s, before the advent of barbed wire, Osage Orange trees were imported from Texas and Oklahoma to central Illinois for use as fencerows. Many of these fencerows persisted into the 20th century as fences were often built around them. In the 1970s farmers began the philosophy of farming “fencerow to fencerow,” cutting out the traditional tree lines in order to add a row or two of corn. This practice continues today, and old style fencerows, while still around, are harder and harder to find. The Osage Orange, however, persists in many of our timbered as areas as a reminder of its journey to the prairies.

Filter Strip—“A long, narrow strip of undisturbed or planted vegetation to collect sediment in protection of a water course.”

Around these parts it refers mostly to government subsidized grass plantings used as buffers along small creeks and drainage ditches that were previously row cropped. Filters strips are often long grasses, prime habitat for pheasant, quail, coyote, muskrat, and other creatures. It is amazing what profusion of life can exist in a relatively small remnant grass area in comparison to what once was prairie and now is field.

Ford—“A shallow place in a river where a man or animal can cross.”

Locals here know "Rocky Ford," an almost always shallow, pebble strewn crossing of the Mackinaw, was used often starting with settlement in the 19th century as a shortcut to the village of Bowling Green, which is now a ghost town.

There are faint tracks in the dirt today which indicate where the wagons used to enter the river. Another well known ford was Wyatt's Ford, north of Carlock, once the site of the Mackinac Mineral Hotel. Abraham Lincoln also used this ford on his circuit en route to the courthouse at Metamora.

Hill or Goat Prairie--"Prairie occuring on steep, rugged terrain, often a hilltop--a rocky, dry area, a result of glacial drift, often abounds in wildflowers and prairie glasses." Prairies only a goat would typically venture to. The term I have heard locally is "hill prairie" and the only pure remnant I know of occurs at Forest Park in Peoria. Special places tucked amongst the forest of vibrant wildflowers and craggy hillsides.

Hollow--Known as "hollers" in the south and typically "scooped out places in the land, often where two mountains join.”

No mountains here, hollows in central Illinois occur mostly in the older glaciated areas, the term is used in geographical nomenclature, although mostly only older locals are aware of the particulars. From time to time I hear the term used by someone who's been around the area for a long while. Younger folks seem to lack this knowledge.

Our hollows are areas of greater erosion that has resulted in more scooped and open "valleys" as opposed to steeper, younger ravines.

Along the bluffs of the Illinois can be found Moon, Strawberry, and Harp Hollow, along with numerous other unnamed, mostly now developed hollows. Cole Hollow is an example from the east side of the river.

Moraine--Joseph LeConte writing in 1857: "On the surface, and about the foot of glaciers, are always found immense piles of heterogeneous debris consisting of rock fragments of all sizes, mixed with earth. These are called moraines. Often 20 to 50 feet high."

Oft neglected by passersby, they are found everywhere on our young glacial landscape. Next time you drive through the seemingly nondescript landscape, take another look and try and spot the moraines.

Shelbyville, Bloomington, and Leroy are the most prominent around here; I type this from near the slopes of the Eureka moraine. Often streams cut their way through moraines, giving exposure to the layers beneath the layered topsoil. Lick Creek cuts through the LeRoy Moraine, the Mackinaw slices through the Bloomington Moraine, etc.
No Till-
Paddock--Cordoned off section of a pasture.

Ridge or Ridgeline--Typically defined as the spines traversing the tops of mountains, but on our depositional landscape, often refers to the tops of ravines where the surface has worn away to nearly an edge or point.

Swale--Usually a low area along the contour of a filter strip that holds runoff water after rains. Used more to refer to low areas of grass strips.

Terrace--Bench-like surfaces carved from sloping terrain by water. In our vernacular terrace is an agricultural term, built up and molded from soil rather than sliced out of rock.

In practical terms terraces are used on sloping land to prevent erosion and allow agricultural production on land otherwise too hilly. They inadvertently lend contour and line to the sweep of the landscape, although strictly a human construct on the former prairie.

Till--As a noun, "sediment left behind by a glacier--a mixture of clay, sand, gravel, and boulders. Unlike sediments dropped by moving water, these materials were not sorted by size and weight, which is why those mining the sand-and-gravel pits dotted across the Midwest must do the sorting mechanically."

Woodford County has several such pits. Few know this is why.

As a verb, "to work the soil by plowing or harrowing."

Both noun and verb are fitting for a local glossary.

Timber--A forested area "filled with trees or woody plants reaching a mature height of at least twenty feet with a single stem or trunk"

Timber or sometimes "woods" is the term of choice over "forest" when referring to woodlands. Most timber is now along our streams and more marginal areas that weren't cultivated.

An upland or definable area of timber is sometimes referred to as a grove. Singular groves on the upland once occurred on the prairies of Central Illinois. They are fairly rare, but can sometimes still be found. Funk's grove in particular is a remant grove, visit it and see, but please remember it was once 2,700 acres.

Groves once here but now gone include Old Town Timber (was 14,200 acres), Cheney's Grove (was 13,150 acres), Buckles' Grove (was 7,280 acres) and Blooming Grove (now where Bloomington, IL is, was 6,280 acres). Over 87,950 acres of grove existed at settlement in 1836, with another 20,980 along the Mackinaw River closer to my home.

Where I sit now was once called Walnut Grove, and looking out my window I can see the descendent timber of those woods first encountered by the settlers who named it such.

Watershed--Here it refers to "an area through which water is drained into a particular watercourse or body of water."

Our watershed is the Mackinaw.

Waterway--Similar to filter strip, waterways usually are grassy areas kept in between row crops for drainage and not necessarily associated with ditches or streams.


C. Pius Weibel said...

Mr. Zimmerman,
Can you tell me more about Wyatt's Ford and the Mackinaw Mineral Hotel?

Dore said...

Great work.