Along a highway about 30 miles outside of Chicago, you can find IU Northwest biology professor Spencer Cortwright weaving through eye-high prairie grass, picking up trash.
If he’s not doing that, he’ll be spraying herbicide to kill off the invasive weeds. Or he’ll be collecting and scattering native plant seeds, giving future generations the promise of ox-eye sunflowers and wild hibiscuses.
In the spring, he checks the weather constantly. He needs 72 hours without rain, culminating in a sunny day with a slight southerly breeze. When the perfect day comes, he sets fire to the grassland, clearing away dead vegetation and warming the soil to boost native-plant growth.
This is land restoration and preservation: a constant battle between good (native species) and evil (invasive species). It’s a battle Cortwright has gladly been fighting since the 1990s, when he took charge of the Little Calumet River Prairie and Wetland Preserve next to the IU Northwest campus. Cortwright estimates that he’s out there working about 100 days a year, sometimes with students from his classes, sometimes on his own. Over the years, he’s transformed 11 acres of the land from an overgrown weed patch into a thriving tallgrass prairie.
Tallgrass prairies like this once covered millions of acres in North America. Now they’ve been reduced to less than one percent of their original area. That makes “Spencer’s Prairie,” as folks at IU Northwest fondly call it, one of the rarest, most-endangered ecosystems in the world.
Beyond the 11 acres of prairie that Cortwright maintains, he estimates there are about 30 more acres that are desperately in need of attention, ripe for restoration as a healthy wetland.
“I’m just talking about the acreage that is immediately associated with IU Northwest,” he says. “If you take the amount of floodplain in Little Calumet, it might be 1,000 acres. If we had the right funding, we could have a proper, full-scale nature preserve right next to campus.”
A restoration like that would bring more than beauty to northwest Indiana. Wetlands are powerhouse ecosystems, right up there with rain forests and coral reefs in their ability to sustain a diversity of life, filter toxins out of the environment, and store carbon.
“They’re the richest systems on Earth as far as energy for the food web,” Cortwright says.
So what do you do when there is already too much work and yet more work to be done? You do what you can.
Wild seeds can survive 100 years in the soil before they finally take root and make themselves known to our eyes. So, today, Cortwright will scatter seeds. Tomorrow he’ll take on the weeds.
He’ll assess the land’s biodiversity by trying to remember all the different butterflies he sees in a summer, and be glad when he loses track.
He’ll think of the song “God Bless America” and how we get teary-eyed when we hear “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam”—even though most of us don’t fully understand what a prairie is and how stunning it can be. And then he’ll think: I can show them.
One day, if the right resources come along, he’ll start working on the expansive wetlands adjacent to his site.
And a century from now, a seed planted today will begin to grow.
To join Cortwright’s efforts to restore and preserve these precious ecosystems at IU Northwest, use the button below, or contact Vice Chancellor Jeri Patricia Gabbert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 219-981-4242.
This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of Imagine magazine.