When thinking of states with natural splendor, Illinois doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Illinois—first in the nation in soybean production, second in corn production, and fourth in hogs—lacks the soaring mountains of Colorado, the serenity of the Southwestern desert, the drama of the Pacific Northwest coast, or even the quiet simplicity of the North Woods. Illinois acreage is almost all dedicated to agriculture.
But there are places scattered here and there around Illinois that provide glimpses of Illinois before row crops and asphalt took over. Authors Michael Jeffords and Susan Post do an excellent job of ferreting out the best natural spots in the state. Intended as an overview, Exploring Nature in Illinois doesn’t cover every natural area in the Land of Lincoln. Instead, Jeffords and Post focus on the highlights, the places that feature the best of what Illinois has to offer.
Of course, Illinois has plenty of prairie remnants (many being restored), but the state also offers a wide range of other natural habitats: fens and bogs, patches of hill or ridge that escaped the plow due to geography or geology and, of course, the Cache River ecosystem, which feels more like a trip to Louisiana than Illinois.
Exploring Nature in Illinois is simply and logically organized into three parts (North, Central, South) with chapters for specific natural areas. The authors start each chapter with the most salient point of interest about the nature area. It might be the human history, its environmental significance, or the dominant feature defining the preserve. Each entry tells the reader what to look for in the area, where to find the best viewing, what’s unusual or special, and which are the not-to-miss parts. The authors’ passion and love of Illinois nature comes through in their descriptive and lyrical prose. Maps help the reader locate the nature spots. Appendix A adds to the maps by giving detailed written instructions to the sites. Appendix B, “Natural Divisions of Illinois,” is a nice closing touch and puts all the preserves into a larger perspective.
The book has a generous helping of four-color photographs that enhance each entry. The reader will find high-quality close-up photos of flowers, birds, and insects as well as plenty of landscapes. However, the captions represent a missed opportunity. Captions provide a chance to add detail, nuance, and insight that can complement the text or elicit a smile or nod of recognition from the reader. Here, the captions are flat, seemingly added as a final chore to an otherwise fine work. The part openers, which feature lovely photos, have no captions at all (and no introductory text). If nothing else, readers want to know what they are looking at.
That said, the authors hit their target audience exactly: hikers, students, and scouts, weekend drivers, cyclists, and the like. This is not intended as a text for a serious naturalist, and it is not a traditional reference work. So the subtitle is slightly misleading: The book isn’t a “field guide” in the sense of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds or Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region.
Exploring Nature in Illinois is not meant to be read from cover to cover. Instead, it should be dipped into it when going to a specific area of Illinois or looking for a weekend getaway. At $24.95, it’s a bargain for any book shelf.
April 2014, University of Illinois Press
$24.95, paperback, 280 pages (illustrated)
—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs