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Married to a Marsh: 30+ years of observation and dedication

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Let us not be confused or misled by the title of this article. When someone says they are “married to a marsh” it does not mean that they are necessarily lost in nature, incapable of functioning in human society or converted to a hermit type who talks to trees and is a social outcast.

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In fact, when you are married to a marsh, it is just like being married in any other sense of the word. You want to introduce your marsh to people so that they too can share its joys, wonders and personality. Just as you would with a real spouse.

Preservation as an Illinois Nature Preserve

Before it was purchased as public property, the site formerly known as Nelson Lake Marsh southwest of Batavia, IL. at Main Street and Nelson Lake Road, was the home of a marginal peat mine operation and acres of highly productive farmland. Cows roamed the east and west side of the glacial moraine in which Nelson Lake sits. In fall the marsh was highly coveted as a duck hunting site.

That was its recent history up to the point of its purchase as an Illinois Nature Preserve in the early 1980s. That's also about the time I met her. The marsh, that is. I also happened to meet my real wife Linda about the same time. In fact the marsh is one of the very first places I took her for a walk when we were first dating. Little did we know we'd return hundreds of more times over 30 years of dating and marriage.

The marsh before us

It is estimated the open water at the marsh was once much deeper. It has likely been some sort of wetland for close to 10,000 years since the glaciers retreated from northern Illinois. Some speculate the wetlands once extended miles to the west in a drainage system that empties into southwest Kane County. What a sight that wetland system must have been, with literally miles of shoreline and prairie creeping up to its edges. We know there were mastodon and mammoths roaming the center of North America back then, and saber-toothed cats, elk and other extinct creatures either killed off by hunters or pushed to extinction by climactic change.

Natural and human history

Natural history records from just 150 years ago testify to the former abundance of wildlife and native plants in Illinois. To gain a grasp of this diversity and richness one should read a copy of A Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenberg, and his shorter, more narrative summary Of Prairie, Woods and Water, Two Centuries of Nature Writing. (Both University of Chicago Press). These books illuminate and tantalize one’s love for nature, particularly that of the Illinois area, and especially for a specific place such as Nelson Lake, now known as Dick Young Forest Preserve. Viewing your favorite natural areas through the context of a larger natural history can encourage your search for the linked assets and unique qualities of an ecosystem and its habitats.

Kane County has posted signage explaining the local and natural history of the marsh, especially how farmers were encouraged to “use it or lose” it when it came to wetland property. So we only have hints about what used to be great wetland areas across much of in northern Illinois and the Chicago area. The Nelson Lake ecosystem is one of the best hints we have about once was. But even it is a fragment of the great wetland network that once covered Kane and DuPage Counties.

Knowing the “family history” of an area can enhance your understanding and appreciation for a place, and human beings have long been attracted to the Nelson Lake area for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Archaeologists and local collectors have picked up hundred of arrowheads and other implements used by Native Americans along the fields and shores. Probably there is a mastodon or two buried deep in the muck, as others have been dug up in similar habitats in the region. One learns quickly there is no easy way across a peat marsh except to go hip deep and hope you don’t go under. More than a few creatures likely have expired that way.

Growing into a preserve

Back in the early 1980s, my brothers and I stole onto the property knowing we would be thrown out if caught. That meant sneaking past the large metal Quonset hut on the northeast side, where angry-looking machines sat waiting to perform their peat mining duties. Toward the end of commercial operations one of those cranes tilted and fell into the marsh, resting there until Kane County volunteers and forest preserve employees pulled it out piece by piece.

By the early 1980s a dedicated group of volunteers led by Charles and Dorothy Brownold and the highly knowledgeable botanist Dick Young had made their case for preserving the core of Nelson Lake Marsh. It became an Illinois Nature Preserve owned by Kane County and those of us interested in the place could wander its edges careful to avoid stepping foot on private farm property on either side of the marsh.

It wasn’t a pretty partnership at first. Hunters still crowded the marsh edges come fall, and more than once guns were pointed and threats made when birders walked through the line of sight of hunters. It happened to this writer no less than three times. All of them were unsettling encounters.

For another decade through the late 1980s and early 1990s the entire south side of the marsh remained in private hands, leased in fall to duck hunters whose guns sounded in early dawn. Having spoken with many hunters who used the property, it was a prime hunting spot and a great joy especially in late October and November when ducks came whipping in from the north in such abundance that bagging your daily limit was no problem.

Back then there were few Canada geese seen in Illinois, except during migration. That all changed with introduction of the species in places like Fermi Lab. Now geese breed in profusion at the marsh, fighting over key nesting spots and taking over the lake in great numbers.

Eventually the property around the marsh proper including surrounding farmland came under ownership of the county as well. Particularly threatening was a proposal to develop more than 1000 homes right up to the edge of the woods on the west side. Eventually more than 1000 acres were consolidated around the marsh, forming a "safety collar" that now extends the whole way to Bliss Road on the western edge of the preserve. Much of that property has been converted into restored prairie or savanna, managed for grassland birds and even rotated as cropland in certain years. A system of hiking, biking, horseback riding and running trails has been mowed or installed on the west side. Dog-walking is a particularly favored activity. Watch your step the first 1000 yards on the west side trail. Not all dog-walkers are conscientious.

Early volunteer efforts

Early on in its history, those of us who viewed the preserve primarily in terms of its natural areas and wildlife conducted our own sort of citizen science. A small core of birders formed the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey Team in the early 80s. These included St. Charles biology teacher Bob Horlock, McGraw Wildlife Foundation’s Bob Montgomery and other dedicated birders who recorded their seasonal sightings at the marsh. It was love of nature, pure and simple that drove these efforts. It was also a glimpse of the Citizen Science movement and volunteer restoration teams that were to come. In the early 2000s this activity was taken up again by the Bird Conservation Network, which has chronicled the return of keystone grassland species such as Henslow's sparrow, bobolink, sedge wren, grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow and eastern and western meadowlark to restored prairie and mowed grasslands.

Of course the most ardent and valuable resource in preserving the Nelson Lake area was always the late Dick Young. A walk through the preserve with him resulted in a series of subtle discoveries, as he’d point out dozens of species of unique and often rare or unusual plants. His knowledge was indeed encyclopedic, and this knowledge essentially sealed the deal for preservation of the property.

Changing abundance of plants and wildlife

The marsh threw its richness at us in dizzying complexity at times, and for birders the appearance of rare or unusual birds was always possible. Least and American bitterns bred there, as did Sora and Virginia rails, and even King rail showed up. There were rare peregrine falcons to be found, and migrating white pelicans, a forecast of things to come.

Plant and insect life was also diverse. Come fall in the northern portion of the marsh, there were pods of fringed purple gentians that bloomed amid frost-tinged cattails. Those communities of gentians are gone now, lost to competition with other more aggressive plant species. There have been many such transitions over the years.

In summer, the butterfly populations range from grassland to woodlands, and includes many species, along with a diversity of dragonflies as well. Mammals on the site include red fox, coyote, deer, muskrat, gray and Fox squirrels, beaver (formerly a great lodge sat on the lake) and mink. Gray fox were formerly seen in the west woods but there have been few reports of those in recent years.

It is like that in any marriage, of course. Change happens. Beauty comes and goes, transforms and matures. Natural succession waits for nothing. Ponds fill in with new modes of plants. Formerly common species wane. The yellow-headed blackbirds that once favored short, grassy areas no longer return to Nelson Lake. But other species like rusty blackbirds appear each spring and fall, dropped like chortling chunks of metal from the gray skies of migration.

Years of observation

To count the number of times you visit a place in 30+ years is difficult. But having visited the marsh at least monthly all these years means there have been at least 385 trips on foot, by bike, while running and at times, simply parking in the lot to scan the water in search of ducks, pelicans, herons or other species.

An investment of time like this truly is a marriage of sorts, with all its ups and downs. For there have been days when it seems the Lord himself has stripped the marsh of all activity, not a bird to be found. And days when the plants are all dried and dead, and cold winds rip down the corridor; fairly chasing you back to the car. Nature can be humbling as well as rewarding. I rather humbly recall breaking through the ice in 6 below zero weather during a winter bird census and having to hobble, frozen and stiff-legged, a whole mile back to the car. Of such things are memories made.

Friends and family

There have been far more times when this writer has led friends and family out to the marsh to share in the seasons, wildlife and plants there. One of the first photos taken of my wife in our dating years shows her standing in front of a golden-brown thicket in early fall. The color of her hair matches the blonde tassels of cattail tufts in the background. Her heather-toned coat blends with the surrounding vegetation.

There would be many more visits together to this spot over the years. We walked there with our children when they were young, and in recent years have used the newly installed bike paths to walk our rescue dog in a spot safe from ticks. Well, almost safe. No place is perfect.

Have I said how much I hate ticks? They didn't used to be a problem at Dick Young Forest Preserve. Now they are plucked from clothing and skin after nearly every walk. Ugh. Ticks.

It’s that way sometimes with any place, person or thing you love. Marriage holds both good and bad, even a marsh. But here’s the blessing: It accepts you whether you are rich or poor, in sickness and health, till death do us part. That is part of the value of natural places kept in perpetuity for the public.

Fields trips and shared experiences

The real blessings have come from leading people into the marsh who both love nature already and want to see more of it, or who have little contact with nature but hold a hunger for natural things.

There have been amazing moments, like the October day in 1988 when I led a friend into the field and found literally dozens of raptors passing through in migration; Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned, broad-wing, red-tailed, peregrine, Osprey, bald eagles and even a dashing prairie falcon tearing across the landscape on the strength of a northeaster. “This is wonderful!” she exclaimed. “This is rare,” I had to inform her.

My own mother loved walking at the marsh. Her eyes never allowed her to use binoculars that well, so it was a treat for her to see pintail ducks, redhead and canvasback through the Kowa scope I purchased in the early 2000s. When my mother passed away from cancer and stroke in 2005, I went for a walk at the marsh and stood crying in the field. Looking up, the light behind some clouds reflected the exact shape of the dark trees in the foreground, and it struck me that while we know little about what comes after our lives here on earth, the tangibility of someone’s shared experiences in nature hold forth in the patterns and cycles of life and light we find there.

Leading a group of people into the marsh the first time, one wishes to deliver all the many things you have seen there. But you also realize that it is best to focus on finding just one or two quality impressions for the group to share. After all, you can’t easily summarize a marriage all in one sentence. Nor can you deliver the sense of a place in just one trip. But provide a glimpse of intrigue and value and people might come back on their own.

The marsh in the future

I have worried many times over the fate of the marsh. In some years with high water the place has been inundated. Flooded. But that’s never what worries me.

It is the dry years, especially since the beavers were either trapped or moved out, so that the lake is at the mercy of drought and other natural “enemies.”

Given the high degree of development and change in the region surrounding the marsh, it is not in essence "free" to live out its own dynamics. Water sources have been drawn off in several ways, and water tables have been dropped throughout Kane County due to the number of wells, development and other factors.

The tiles that once sucked away water have been removed from farm fields, but the original features of hydrology are still compromised. The marsh basically lives in a state of constant risk and closing over with vegetation if environmental conditions allow. It has happened to many wetlands in northern Illinois.

Droughts and natural succession

The lake this summer is nearly all dried up. Snapping turtles nose through thick ooze, and a bald eagle easily plucks one of the remaining fish from the shallow water. The fat carp that lollygagged in the shallows this spring are nowhere to be seen. I once witnessed a “fish hawk” grab a golden carp and carry it like an orange candy treat to a tree for a meal. In a high water year, those things happen. In low water years, there are no such opportunities. Of course that is part of the Illinois climate, played out over thousands of years. But when the ecosystems have no flexibility to adapt and change and invasive species take over, anything can happen.

There has never been a low water year to match this one in 30 years in recent memory. The drought of 1988 killed off the frog populations to the point that certain species like chorus frogs and spring peepers never recovered. So even a single-year drought can have a permanent effect.

Nelson Lake right now is a puddle, if that. Opportunistic plants have leapt onto the mud surface all around the rim. Even if the water rises again, those plants will have gathered mud around their roots, making the lake incrementally more shallow. Then the march of the cattails is relentless. The lake was already so shallow from a snowless winter that the white pelicans that usually arrive in April and stay in abundance simply moved on this year.

Understand this: natural succession always wins. It has taken over the northern reaches of the marsh, where the activities of human beings digging up peat had once loosened its hold, 30 years ago. But natural succession is persistent and fairly impatient. It cares not for open water. But humans do. And sometimes humans intervene to protect and preserve precious open water resources. It remains to be seen if that step will be necessary at Nelson Lake.

Perspectives and time

The marsh has been extant for hundreds and thousands of years. My own humble 30-year marriage to the marsh is but a blink of an eye in its existence. To predict its doom and a divorce with its natural heritage may be premature. Yet the factors that built and sustained the marsh are identifiably faltering, perhaps edged on by larger climate change that is throwing drier, hotter summers at us with dismissive fervor. Truly, throw three more years of drought at the lake and it will be grown over with cattails and reed canary grass, much like the formerly vibrant marsh in Lily Lake at Route 64 and Route 47 and many other marshes that have filled in because we just don’t have the space to allow for their needs, or the foresight to stick our noses in where necessary to preserve them.

Managing natural areas is truly like playing marriage counselor to the wild. One on hand you have evolution and natural succession doing what they do best, fomenting change. On another hand you have invasive species and climate change messing with the dynamic, playing favorites with everything we love about natural areas. Finally we have the influence of human activity and balancing the “needs” of man with the space necessary for natural areas to survive. It can be a toxic mix, and some marriages with nature simply do not survive.

Right now, we could simply use some rain, which might serve like something of a natural “retreat” for the marsh right now. Then I might go stand in its fury, like John Muir reveling in the mountain rains, watching water pound the mud. Just to be there, to see the revival, and hear the rain bursting through the cattails in a rush of wild restoration.

Fury and hope are one and the same in the true rhythm of nature. It is hard to be married to that fact at times. Our judgments are so limited to human perspective. And perhaps nature knows best what it needs for itself.

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