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A Prairie's Boon Companion
Douglas Starr
April 06, 1992
In Illinois, one man's dream of a field grows bigger every day
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April 06, 1992

A Prairie's Boon Companion

In Illinois, one man's dream of a field grows bigger every day

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The Fermi national accelerator is a physics research center about 35 miles west of Chicago. There, in a doughnut-shaped underground tunnel 1.2 miles in diameter, a thousand electromagnets guide billions of electrons, each traveling at close to the speed of light, into countless collisions. The smashups release so much energy that they reveal particles that bear names like leptons and quarks. Scientists from all over come to Illinois to study particles that existed in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

Above ground, a gentler transformation is taking place. On abandoned cornfields that cover the accelerator, Robert Betz is restoring an ecosystem that effectively vanished more than a century ago. He's regrowing hundreds of acres of American tallgrass prairie.

Now, that may not seem as exciting as smashing protons, but it's important. The tallgrass prairie is one of the planet's great ecosystems, and its preservation is as deserving of attention as the rain forests'. Moreover, the prairie, which drew settlers west, is part of our American heritage, like the bald eagle or the buffalo. It is a powerful symbol of the nation's bounty and spaciousness.

You may think you've seen prairie—the spreading grassland in Dances with Wolves, for instance. But that's not the prairie we're talking about here. No, the Eastern tallgrass prairie would have dwarfed the mixed and introduced grasses you saw in the movie. The Eastern covered more than a hundred thousand square miles in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa with grasses tall enough to obscure a horse. It was a rich ecosystem, with at least 200 species of grasses and flowering plants, and scores of varieties of snakes, mammals and birds. Settlers gasped in awe of its expanse and beauty—the grasses and forbs flowering in sequence as a long, rippling, three-season bloom.

And then they destroyed it.

Pioneers from New England and the Southeast brought their cows to the prairies and overgrazed them, grinding the grass down to stubble—"running out the prairie," as they called it. Then they introduced new grasses or crops. By the late 1800s the native grassland had vanished under amber waves of domesticated grain. Developers later finished the job. Of the 40,000 square miles of prairie that once covered Illinois, only about four square miles remain; the Prairie State has retained .01% of the ecosystem that gave it a nickname.

Betz, 69, seems an unlikely candidate to play Johnny Appleseed to the Eastern tallgrass prairie. He's a fast-talking guy from Bridgeport, a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Back when he was a kid, selling scorecards outside Comiskey Park and dodging billy clubs to sneak into the games, he figured a prairie was an over-grown lot. But even then, there was something anomalous about Betz. He was a tough, muscular teenager who could clean-and-jerk 280 pounds, but he also raised houseflies in his room and spent hours studying the plants that grew from cracks in the sidewalk. Too poor to afford botanical guidebooks, he invented names for the shoots, like "wedding bells" and "spice plant."

"It felt kind of sad," Betz says. "I mean, I wanted to be like the other kids.... I figured something was wrong with me."

Years later, after he had earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the Illinois Institute of Technology, a botanist friend took him to a 30-acre remnant of grassland that grew alongside the old Santa Fe rail tracks outside Chicago. It was the first bona fide chunk of prairie Betz had seen, with lilies, wild indigos and blazing stars among the grass. "I was enraptured," he recalls. He had met his life's work.

In the early '60s Betz began driving throughout Illinois, searching for remnants of the native prairie. Cemeteries proved fertile possibilities. Settlers' graveyards, unplowed for decades, had survived as islands of wild prairie. Betz spent a dozen years visiting every old cemetery in Illinois—824 in all—and he adopted the best of them. He would weed a chosen cemetery, burn out its underbrush and affix a plaque: This cemetery prairie is being managed as a memorial to the settlers who are buried here. The plaques were signed: THE PRAIRIE PRESERVATION SOCIETY. The society had a membership of one.

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