value of the pre-settlement landscapes
Lotus One, watercolor and charcoal on
paper, 22.5 x 30 inches, (Marianne
the future, if we do not acknowledge
the importance of wetlands, less and
less fresh water will be available,
due to pollution and sinking ground
barn at Hennepin, The Wetland Initiative
Article, Photographs and Paintings by
Marianne A. KINZER
We have seen nothing like this river that we enter (the Illinois)
as regards its fertility of soil, its
prairies and woods, its kettle, elk,
wildcats, bustards (Canada Goose), swans,
ducks, parquets, and even beaver.
There are many small lakes and
rivers [Jacque Marquette, quotes in
Illinois, Prairie State: Impressions
of Illinois 1673 -1967 by Travelers
and Other Observers,” Paul Angle,
A growing number of people are dedicated to restoring parts of
the American landscape to pre-settlement
conditions. This is not only a romantic whim. Local restoration projects offer the basis for new scientific
studies on the environment.
They help us understand changes
in ecosystems and make it possible to
envision a positive future for our planet.
The story of the Illinois River and its wetland restoration projects
illustrate some of the economic, aesthetic,
and historical values of environmental
restoration. This little known river is
a good example of how things in nature
In 1673 Marquette and Joliet discovered, that the Illinois River
is a shortcut from the Great Lakes to
the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico.
The waterway connection contributed
to the growth of Chicago and sealed the
fate of the river and its fertile river
The Illinois River once supported immeasurable riches of fish,
shellfish, waterfowl and wildlife.
The river changed dramatically
within a short period of time, as did
the prairie landscape it traversed.
Systematic settlement only started
after the Civil War when prairie land
was given to former soldiers as farmland.
The story of the river, like others in 19th century
America, is a story of reckless exploitation
and shortsighted technical triumph over
natural processes. The seemingly unlimited natural treasures of the American continent
made Americans rich and powerful. Only now do we understand that progress has a high price.
Lotus blooms at Spunky Bottom, property
of the Nature Conservancy
The Illinois River was once among the richest fresh water mussel
streams in North America.
In 1912 fifteen button factories,
located on the river, turned its shells
into mother-of-pearl buttons.
From the great variety of mussels
in the river, only a few survive in the
today sediment-laden shipping channel
that is still called the Illinois River.
The Illinois River and its large floodplain supported big numbers
of waterfowl and offered food for millions
of migrating ducks. Huge amounts of waterfowl that was hunted
over the river and its backwater lakes
were shipped to fancy restaurants in New
In 1908 commercial fisherman caught twenty four million pounds
From the great variety of fish
only few native species survived, threatened
by a still dubious water quality and non-native
species like the carp, which has spread
considerably in Illinois waters.
In its natural condition the Illinois River flooded regularly like
the Nile in Egypt. Retreating waters would not only leave fertile soil, but also shallow
These shallow backwater lakes were
breeding and feeding grounds for fish,
shellfish, waterfowl and small mammals,
like mink, beaver, river otters and other
Most of these shallow lakes and ponds were dried out for agricultural
The river had to be deepened to
allow transport of goods on the river. To protect human structures and fields
seasonal flooding had to be prevented.
Levees and dams were the answer.
The levees also changed the speed
of the water flow, now carrying more and
The river turned into an increasingly
artificial and lifeless body of water.
The water quality reached a low when the direction of the Chicago
River was reversed in 1871.
Waters from Lake Michigan flow
now through the Sanitary and Ship Cannel
into the Illinois.
Chicagoans sought to keep their
drinking water reservoir, Lake Michigan,
clean. The reversal of the Chicago River freed
the city from stinking, diseases carrying,
polluted water, but worsened the water
quality in downstate Illinois.
It also led to ever higher floods
downstream in Southwest Illinois.
The Illinois River is a good example of how things in nature are
What seems to be a positive change
upstream may cause disastrous effects
downstream. Nitrogen, used to fertilize
farmland in the Illinois river valley,
for example, increases the growth of farm
crops, but leads to poor water quality
and ultimately to life threatening growth
of algae in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the face of such profound changes in the natural environment,
it is a daring experiment to restore land
to pre-settlement conditions alongside
this working river.
Projects like this, however, are
of Hennepin wetland restoration, property
of The Wetland Initiative.
plants have been replaced by original vegetation.
A great variety of ducks, geese and
even pelican came back on their own.
In Spunky Bottom and Emiquon, owned by the Nature Conservancy,
and Hennepin, owned by The Wetland Initiative,
former wheat and corn fields have been
transformed by turning off the pumps so
that the ground water can flow back in.
The dominant carp was eliminated and the
waters were restocked with native fish.
Non-native plants have been replaced
by original vegetation. A great variety of ducks, geese and even pelican came
back on their own.
The restoration projects on this little-known river are aimed at
re-creating an environment for the development
and survival of native fish, mussels,
water fowl and water mammals. Newly restored ponds and lakes teem with life. They offer
the kind of environment needed for the
survival of native wildlife. For migrating birds these nature sanctuaries
offer rest and food.
of the wonders of the natural of America
can be saved for generations to come.
Lotus Two, watercolor and ink on blotting
paper, 23 x 36 inches,
(Marianne A. Kinzer)
Monoculture and urban structures is the backdrop for islands of
environments, dedicated to nurture a great
variety of native species. This variety creates an intensity of life
that feels different than a city park or
farmland. Nature preserves educate on what kind
of plants and animals were originally found
in Northern America and which were imported.
Some plants and species from Europe
or Asia have spread in ways that are devastating
for native species.
The aesthetic and educational value of nature preserves and nature
restoration projects is great, but there
are also economic benefits from such undertakings.
Wetlands can absorb and clean water. When there are no functioning wetlands, they cannot absorb
water and the damaging effect of storms,
like recently hurricane Katrina, is much
Since wetlands hold water, the
negative of effects of droughts are also
less devastating. Wetlands are even more vitally important
for cleaning water.
They take some of the nitrogen
out of the runoff from farmland, for instance. In the future, if we do not acknowledge
the importance of wetlands, less and less
fresh water will be available, due to
pollution and sinking ground water levels.
In Spunky Bottom, American Lotus seeds lay dormant under cornfields
for eightyfive years.
The Lotus is back in large numbers. Its flowers are stunningly beautiful, and seem to signify that
nature is resilient and can recover fast.
Photographs and Paintings by Marianne
A. KINZER, Light Millennium, New York