I was born to live by the ocean and wake to thundering surf. Or in the valley of a craggy, majestic mountain, its top a misty purple. In the wooded cove of a northern lake. In the desert, even, with the solace of a fierce landscape. Almost anywhere, in other words, but the cornfields of the Midwest, my roots stuck in loess or karst, neither of which I understand.
But I have made a new friend, Sus (short for Susan) Barker, who would not leave southwestern Illinois if you gave her a free lifetime stay in Paris. And Sus has a Ph.D. in science and nature education.
When the Great Lockdown began, she seized her chance. “What if we drive somewhere beautiful for a picnic?” I hesitated, but Sus was a Girl Scout; she had a plan. “We could drive separately, chat by phone on the way, each bring our own lunch, and eat it six feet apart.”
Stir-crazy, I agreed. I knew nothing about the land where I lived. Yi-Fu Tuan’s classic book, Topophilia, used the love people feel for certain places to develop a humanistic geography, one that stepped over the meridian lines and climbed deep into our souls. Mine felt a little … hollow. I knew the boroughs of New York better than I knew any place in the Midwest, and that was just from books. What if this place had shaped my psyche all along, and I never even knew?
On our first outing, we stop at one of the many stone bridges I never noticed and gaze down at a bubbling creek I never knew was there. The stones are petrified pieces of ocean bottom, she tells me. “All of this was once covered by ocean.” So I do live by an ocean, albeit an ancient one.
“There’s gravel in that creek from glaciers that bulldozed it here all the way from Wisconsin,” Sus remarks. “See anything on the bank?”
“Sure. Boulders and ferns.”
She shakes her head. “Look closer. See the paw prints in the mud? Like little handprints?”
I squint, might see them.
“Raccoons,” she says. “And when they wash their food, they are not cleaning it. They don’t have salivary glands, so they’re moistening it.” We stay a bit, sun on our shoulders, studying the rocky hill above the creek, the dark crevices that might be caves. “Remember, you never want to drink from a spring where there are caves, because the water has gone through tunnels. It’s not purified.”
I nod wisely. Have never tried to drink from a spring, period.
“Next time,” she promises, “I’ll show you how to look for glacial rock.”
Rock that could have borne the weight of a mastodon or woolly mammoth? I knew those creatures had existed—“Right across the river,” Sus reminds me. “Have you been to Mastodon State Park?” On a grade school field trip, I think. But somehow I never imagined those guys in my backyard. The oldest rocks in Missouri were at least two billion years old, I knew that much, but surely they were far beneath the surface. …
Sure enough, before our next outing Sus tells me to hold out my hand. I close my eyes like a little kid, though she has not suggested it, and feel a jumble of tiny rocks. “The smooth, rounded ones that are quartz, granite, and basalt are from glacial epochs,” she says. “The gray jagged ones are not.” She shows me limestone, soluble enough to create the karst topography beneath our feet. “We are living on Swiss cheese.” And loess? The soft “rock flour,” or crumblings, from eroded glaciers, carried here by streams and then windblown in ancient dust. Loess helped make this some of the richest farmland in the world. “And the pollen in the loess tells the story of northern trees and a cooler climate,” Sus tells me, “so you could have lived on a wooded cove!”
Heading out of town, she points to a row of narrow brick houses: “The Germans built close to the street so there was room for a veggie garden and a cow in back,” she says. “Down there is a spring, and they would pipe the water through hollowed-out logs all the way to the brewery at JV’s.”
We drive on. “See the sinkhole?”
I am forced to admit that I have never been sure exactly what a sinkhole is.
“A hollow opening where the limestone bedrock has eroded,” she says. “Rainwater pours into that cavity and goes underground.”
“So how do you know that’s a sinkhole?”
“If there are trees out in the middle of a field, it’s a sinkhole; otherwise the Germans would have cut it down and plowed for crops.”
Which they did in the next field, a vast square of winter wheat. “Once the wheat is harvested, they will poke holes in the wheat stubble and put the soybean seeds down,” she explains. “It protects them, prevents soil erosion, and conserves water, and the soybeans will grow right through the stubble.” She sticks her hand out the car window and makes a sweeping gesture. “In another week, this wheat will be so high, it will look like waves on an ocean. Even now it’s shivering.”
Two weeks later, Sus texts me with an order to get in the car, drive south, and take the turn just past the John Deere factory, so I can see the rippling, emerald waves of wheat in this golden sunset. Any day now, it will turn yellow and have an entirely different beauty.
Another day, we head toward the river bluffs and turn and turn through the patchwork of rough, stalky corn and bright green soybeans. On a winding road arched by trees, we make our way to the top of the bluffs, where we can see the brown ribbon of the Mississippi in the distance. “Some geologists believe the valleys of the great rivers, including the Mississippi, may have begun when the continents began to split apart,” Sus says. “Later, water from melting glaciers filled the valley and helped carve it out. Many of the other rivers owe their valleys to glacial meltwater, too. In Illinois, most rivers flow in the same direction the glaciers did: They start near Chicago and flow southwest.”
I just nod; my sense of direction cannot even bring me back out of a subdivision. I do know that we are heading south, toward Ellis Grove. “All this was prairie,” she says, “so all these little towns that end in ‘Grove’ were clumps of trees in the midst of the tall grass.” We stop for a picnic and lean back to watch a turkey vulture soar, catching the thermals. Later I will notice an eagle’s nest high in a tree on the side of a road I drive often; I had never looked up.
After lunch, my dog takes off into the woods, so as I traipse after him, I get a crash course in wildflowers: “The umbrella plant is a mayapple, and in Europe it’s a mandrake. That’s daisy fleabane. The bright yellow is butterweed. This is in the mint family—see its square stem?”
Sus stops in front of a tree. “What do you notice about that bark?” she asks, pointing.
“It’s kind of shaggy?”
“Exactly. Shag-bark hickory. And the tree with smooth bark, rippled like the muscle in a runner’s calf? That’s blue beech.”
Her teaching is beginning to wake me. Walking at Konarcik Park, I see my first in-person chipmunk, scampering in a shaded dell. Swirled bright and dark with algae, the pond looks like an aerial view of coral reefs. From a hill, I watch a red-winged blackbird swoop up and for the first time I realize how that cool it looks to other birds, how the red blazes from above, instead of just decorating the top of a wing. On a hike, I watch three baby raccoons being taught to—wait, not wash, moisten their snack. At Lakeview Park, a bird flies overhead, and it is so beautiful, my breath catches. Pure white, its neck a graceful S, sun shining through the long feathers of wings as big as an angel’s… I text Sus a more practical description, and back comes an answer: It is a great white egret, essentially a heron but far bigger than the leggy ones I have seen by the bank.
After I memorize a few bird calls, their song, once a happy blur of background music, breaks into individual solos and harmonies, like a symphony when you know the various instruments. I download the Seek app (I cannot text Sus constantly) and learn that the bane of my husband’s existence, its succulent watery stems thrusting up in every corner of the yard and its blackberries staining his hands, is called pokeweed. The tree I threatened to lash myself to if he cut it down is a river birch.
Once, at a party, I refused to tell a guy my name. It turned out to be an amazing way to flirt; he quizzed me relentlessly. Knowing something’s name makes it possible to begin a conversation. You can cluster little observations around that name. The connection can grow stronger. In Reflections from the North Country, Sigurd Olson wrote, “An old professor of mine, a renowned botanist, once told me he could see as much beauty in a patch of tundra or a lichen-covered rock as he could in a grove of majestic sequoias, that all living things are beautiful if one realizes what has gone into their evolution.”
All my life, I craved wondrous, dramatic landscapes. Turns out I live in one.