Dunes and Prairie Paths: Taking inspiration from May Theilgaard Watts

This world is complex, strange, and always changing. Some changes appear cyclical and stable to us – the orbit around the sun, the blooming of flowers, the dropping of leaves. Others appear more whimsical and dependent on quickly-changing factors, like how the behavior of a fire or the fate of a water molecule depends on weather. Some changes are big and vast, like climate change, while others are small, like the substitution of a base-pair in a strand of DNA. It helps to keep a range of perspectives when contemplating the world. Sometimes I will binge-read the news or soak up my community’s concerns about social injustices or feel lost in my own fears and anxieties, and then I will sit eye-level with some soil, or bush-whack through thick woods, or throw my head back to look at the stars, and ponder what it all means.  As I grapple with the implications of studying ecology in a time of too many urgent issues, I take inspiration from those that came before.  The  youth in me needs convincing sometimes that this is a good idea – I’m skeptical that folks before weren’t too clouded by colonial mentalities to speak truth, or I naively suspect their lives were too simple, their challenges too different, to be relevant today. . But experience reminds me that, prejudices aside, there has always been wisdom in this world, a great deal of which may now be buried under layers of new knowledge and distractions, and needs serious digging out for open, critical minds to digest.

I recently began a literary hike into the rich, dense and thoughtful ecology essays of May Theilgaard Watts, a twentieth century botanist and naturalist from Illinois. Back in 1914, Ms. Watts was a student in the new discipline of Ecology, learning about plant communities in bogs – six years before white women were allowed to vote in the United States, and almost a hundred years before my college classmates and I explored a bog in our Terrestrial Ecology class.  She worked as a teacher most of the year in a rural one-room schoolhouse so she could attend field courses at University of Chicago in the summer. She later spent several years working as a Naturalist at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. I started my journey with Watts’ book, Reading the Landscape of America, which details systems as diverse as a Midwestern prairie, a Southwestern desert, a Northeastern salt marsh, and an evergreen forests of the Pacific coast. Though only a few chapters in, I am pulled by her outstanding ability to interpret and communicate the land as a living story, in which all the individual ecological components are characters.  Pulling from published research and her own legacy of field work, and including many charming, hand-sketched diagrams, she weaves threads of botany, geology, evolution, geography and anthropology into stories of origin, adaptation, evolution, and disturbance – themes that are still very applicable to today’s landscape.

While visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore earlier this month, I geeked out to her chapter titled “Picnic in a Gritty Wind, or, the Sand Dunes of Indiana.”  Watts’ descriptions of how wind, water, sand, and pioneer plants all interact to sculpt the dunes lent substance and depth to the ephemeral, but tenacious, beauty that I observed while climbing Lake Michigan’s shoreline.


Watts writes, “The dunes are certainly a good place for travelers to visit, to revive old friendships with plants met in diverse and distant places.” She gives many examples, including the unlikely appearance of a jack pine and cactus, two drought-tolerant plants from vastly different temperature ranges, in the same dune ecosystem. Musing on this coexistence, she asks, “Where else in America could one sit amid dark green that is wont to hobnob with ptarmigan and Eskimo and midnight sun, and look down upon the pale green that is familiar of horned toads and Joshua trees and Navajos?” She suggests that both the pine and the cactus are “relicts” from a glacially-influenced past (the pine having traveled south as the glacier advanced, the cactus possibly appearing in the dry and hot period after the glacier retreated). Though no jack pine trees were present at SBDNL, I delighted in recognizing plants I first met while studying the jack pine forests of northern Lower Michigan, such as sand cherry (Prunus pumila) and bear berry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), two waxy-leaved low-growing perennials. I met new plants, too, shaking hands with the natives like Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). I saw two especially common plants, baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) and spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), which I later learned were accidentally introduced to the ecosystem by humans and outcompeting the native plants.


Watts was keen to recognize that human development is an important and threatening character in our landscape’s story, one that cannot be stopped but may be bargained with. In the revised and expanded edition of Reading the Landscape of America, she elaborates on the troubling transformation of the dunes by industry. The story line might sound familiar.


 “People came, at first, to live there because of the dunes , and came to terms with them, shaping their roads and homes to fit the contours. They respected the natives, especially the grasses, sand cherry, and cottonwoods, if they lived near the beach…

As roads grew harder (they were just sand at first) and wider and faster, people began to come because this was reputed to be a good place to live, offering swimming at a private beach, and coasting and skiing in blowouts and slopes. Some came in spite of the dunes with their restless blowing sand.  The acreage of pavement and lawn was expanded…

Gradually there came residents who were less and less interested in preserving the natural aspects of the dunes, and more and more interested in getting help with their taxes, even if that help was dependent on replacing neighboring dunes with steel mills.”

                I interpret this process as that weird tendency of western society to push out and crush the beloved things that got us hooked there in the first place. Like the white pine forests of northern Michigan, their stately, awe-inspiring trunks so intensely logged. Or Michigan’s rivers, which sparked the development of many cities but often become too polluted to drink from. Or Plymouth Rock, where the pilgrims massacred the Native Americans who helped them survive winter. Or urban neighborhoods, where artist collectives and community centers are replaced by high rise condos and fancy restaurants. Can you feel the cynicism seeping in?

Fall 2016 030

But Ms. Watts had hope. After describing how the Indiana dunes were destabilized by industry, she mentions how parts of the dunes were conserved, with the establishment of a State Park and, later, a National Shoreline.  Industry may be spreading, but humans can still strategically plan to conserve remnant ecosystems. This applies not only to large-scale preservation projects, but smaller, patchier restoration projects. In 1963, Watts co-founded the Illinois Prairie Path (IPP), an original rails-to-trails project to connect the public with prairie plant communities. Anne Keller, Ph.D., writes on May Theilgaard Watts and the IPP, “The move away from a focus on wilderness areas to local sites that were abandoned or neglected, even though they offered unique ecological features such as prairie remnants, represented an innovative shift in environmental thinking. According to Watts, conservation included reimagining, reusing, and restoring the landscape—a cutting-edge approach in environmental activism at the time” (Keller, 2016). These prairie remnants still exist today, along a 61 mile path, and are enjoyed by many walkers, joggers, bikers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Though I have yet to visit the IPP, I relate it to my favorite trails, open spaces, public parks, native gardens and urban forests of Michigan that offer benefits both ecological and social.

Fall 2016 010

So here I pull a few important lessons from reading May Theilgaard Watts, aside from the many plant ecology lessons she offers in her book. Lesson #1: Recall the importance of good story telling to relate scientific information to the public. Lesson #2: Learning how systems naturally behave may help us monitor and understand how they change.  Lesson #3: Creative thinking is necessary to maintain green space in today’s world. And Lesson #4, I guess: It’s important to keep hope, to organize and activate community. Because, although habitat corridors, parks, and restoration projects will never replace wilderness lost, restoring more of them within our footprint may prove an important conservation strategy.  There is so much to learn, I think. Slow down a bit to soak it in, but hurry, keep up, keep up!



“About the Trail.” Illinois Prairie Path, www.ipp.org/about-the-trail/.

Keller, Anne M., “”One Narrow Thread of Green”: The Vision of May Theilgaard Watts, the Creation of the Illinois Prairie Path, and a Community’s Crusade for Open Space in Chicago’s Suburbs” (2016). Dissertations & Theses. 281.

“May Theilgaard Watts.” May Theilgaard Watts – Illinois Authors, Illinois Center for the Book, www.illinoisauthors.org/authors/May_Theilgaard_Watts.

Watts, May Theilgaard. Reading the landscape of America. Collier Books, 1975.