The Prairie State

Every morning, I walk past a couple empty lots on my way to work. These lots are part of a small housing development being built on the site of a former factory. The old factory building was torn down about a decade ago, and until a couple years ago no houses were built; the land was left empty. Interesting thing about empty lots; in most cities, they’re a blight. Nothing but concrete patches, scraggly grass, sad tiny bushes, maybe a pipe or two sticking out. You get the idea. However, in Chicago it’s a little bit different. Here, these lots revert to Prairie. Wild, natural Prairie, the ecosystem that preceded our fair city, carpeting the empty lot in a matter of weeks. Only the concrete patches remain; given enough time, a combination of rain, wind, and Prairie growth breaks those down too.

And so this is what I walk past every morning: two lots, filled to the brim with Prairie grasses, shrubs, and flowers. They come up through cracks in the small concrete foundations in the center, and through the cracks in the asphalt in the adjacent parking lot. The plants come in all sorts of colors: deep red-brown, light brown, up through pale yellow; pale greens, dark greens, and every hue in between; and finally, plants that look anywhere from cobalt blue to indigo to lavender, depending on your vantage point and the time of day. And the flowers, in all those colors and more… And then the city continues immediately outside these lots; chain link fences surrounding them, a concrete alley just outside that, and then cookie-cutter houses with sod lawns.

It’s a quite striking juxtaposition, the Prairie and the city. It’s really amazing to me that this wild growth happens. How does it happen? Where are the seeds coming from? Chicago’s been urban for a while, long enough I’d think to destroy all the old Prairie roots and seeds through intense construction and widespread pollution. And now you have to travel a good ways from the city to find any rural land, where you’d think the Prairie would be. Should be. Except that, sometime between 1837 (when John Deere invented his Prairie-conquering steel plow) and now, the Prairie basically ceased to exist. The Prairie, which once covered almost the entire state, became farmland (with a few cities sprinkled in here and there). Illinois is now just endless, border-to-border farmland. Anyone who’s ever driven through Illinois knows what I’m talking about. Or Iowa; Iowa is exactly the same. Illinois is short on Prairie everywhere, not just Chicago.

And yet, the minute you turn your back on a piece of land, it up and sprouts a Prairie. The Prairie evidently is a very resilient ecosystem. If I had a more than basic understanding of ecology, I’d probably understand what’s going on, but right now I have no idea how it happens. I do intend to find out. One thing that’s even more puzzling to me is why, when Chicago’s natural plants are so awesome, its lawns and parkways are almost uniformly planted with boring old green grass. The same grass you’d find anywhere, grass which needs a lot more water than Prairie. Well, I can understand wanting to keep your lawn below waist height. But gardens then. Clear a patch of bare soil, wait a couple weeks, and boom: instant Prairie garden. If I ever get a house and some land of my own, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.