Video Stills

"An uninhabited waste: transforming the Grand Prairie in nineteenth century Illinois, USA"
Michael A. Urban
/ Journal of Historical Geography 31 (2005) 647-665

While the transformation of the landscape initiated by agriculture and agricultural drainage in central Illinois over the last century and a half undoubtedly qualify as an ecological revolution as described by Merchant, the revolution occurring on the Grand Prairie was more than just ecological in nature. Changes in the imagined landscape of popular perception were harbingers of the physical transformation of the environment to come. Agricultural drainage not only affected regional ecosystems but also the underlying physical environment and the geomorphic processes shaping it over time. Humans have not only become an agent of ecological change in the region, but they have also fundamentally altered regional drainage.

What we see, what we fail to see, and how we attach meaning to the landscape or specific elements of the landscape is mediated and structured not only by personal imagination and experience but also by the socio-cultural context in which we are immersed. Human interaction with landscapes is a process driven by changes in attitudes and perceptions. At the deepest level, changes in cultural values, perceptions, and the moral principles or ethics that frame them fuel all other attitudinal changes. Popular media such as agriculture journals, novels, poems, published accounts of travelers through the region and local boosters generate echoes of these perceptual shifts as they occur. Drainage has been an integral part of the central Illinois landscape since intensive agricultural production transformed the prairie. Farmers in the area once known as the Grand Prairie today experience an inherited landscape steeped in the experiences, perceptions, and behaviors of those original settlers.

Terminology and classification schemes reflect fundamental shifts in cultural valuations of the landscape. Wetlands are no longer considered ‘wet lands’ as much as they are unique and valuable ecosystems. As ecological perspectives became more prominent in the twentieth century, the character of these periodically inundated areas shifted from inaccessible land to unique ecological regions. The Grand Prairie became the heart of the Corn Belt where agricultural drainage virtually eliminated wetlands, and cultivation has all but eliminated the prairie ecosystem. Streams that have been straightened, deepened, and widened over the past century are now often identified on topographic maps as ditches in central Illinois. Ditches are no longer only considered channels that have been dredged into existence but also encompass natural streams that had once been channelized. The physical legacy of the seismic shift in perceptual understandings of the central Illinois landscape manifests itself most decidedly in the subsequent ecological transformation of the Grand Prairie tallgrass to agricultural crops and the hydrologic transformation driven by agricultural drainage. These environmental impacts are intertwined with a common origin. The imagined ‘agricultural Canaan’ motivated the development and installation of drainage works which made it possible for farmers to take advantage of the fertile soils of central Illinois and intensify agricultural production.

The socio-cultural context and legacy of agricultural drainage is particularly important to many of the farmers living in central Illinois. Many of the farmers currently cultivating the Embarras watershed and the other watersheds of the Grand Prairie have family ties extending back to the mid-nineteenth century when the land was first settled and drained. The Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Centennial Farm Program record a list of farms that have been held by the same family for over a hundred years. Statewide, the highest concentration of Centennial Farms is in the old Grand Prairie region. Ideas, values, and attitudes towards farming and the landscape have been reproduced for generations in central Illinois and provide an important part of the socio-cultural context in which the intentionality of individuals is formed.

Central Illinois streams have been and continue to be both physically and culturally affected by agricultural drainage. Contemporary attitudes and valuations of the landscape by those living on and cultivating the soil, the way they relate to and experience the biophysical environment, are, in part, functions of the history of this transformation. Historical values and perceptions projected on the landscape, culturally reproduced from generation to generation, and accreted into institutions administering drainage on the prairie today are the legacy of a drainage tradition dating back a century and a half on the Grand Prairie.