Hooper Branch: A Story About a Fire

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Hooper Branch is a restored prairie and black oak savanna on the southern edge of the Kankakee River country, about 80 miles due south of Chicago. Though located over an hour’s drive from Lake Michigan, in the heart of downstate Illinois’ corn country, the landscape of Hooper Branch is made up mostly of sand dunes buried under the grass and trees. Though far from any big bodies of water today, it is the location of the shores of glacial Lake Watseka, which 14,000 years ago took shape between two moraines that dammed up glacial meltwaters when the last ice sheets dissolved. The location may have looked something like the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Now it is a mixture of marsh, woods, and open prairie, a delicate balance maintained by fire (hence the scorched, seemingly barren but rich landscape in these photographs).

BP’s destruction of the Gulf Coast has been identified inaccurately as the “worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.” It amazes me that we have forgotten about the near total demolition of the prairie ecosystem in this country. What survives of true prairie (not just grassy fields) is less than a tenth of a percent of what once covered North America. True prairie is almost as vanished as glacial Lake Watseka, and almost as forgotten (these photograph were taken on what was once the beach.)

As the photographer Robert Adams has written, “what bothers us about primordial beauty is that it is no longer characteristic.” Hooper Branch is one of the strangest places I have photographed, because it is so untypical of anything else in America. Few Americans, their eyes deluded by the need for what they have been told is beautiful (seacoasts and mountain ranges), can appreciate a spot like Hooper Branch. Culturally, we have probably not changedin the 150 years since the easterners and Europeans who moved into the Midwest to farm it initiated the demolition of the prairie, their family farms now in turn being replaced by corporate agriculture. Our near inability to appreciate the beauty of these places is one of the problems of our collective aesthetics.

As fascinating as I find Hooper Branch and other small eastern prairies (which seem confined and almost woodsy compared to the great tallgrass prairies of the Great Plains), on this occasion I felt that my presence was out of place here. As the Mississippi writer Eudora Welty wrote in Some Notes on River Country, her pictures of forgotten towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, “I have never seen anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.”

This was not the last time I have felt this way in such a landscape, as if caught prying too closely into a place that is not strange in its own right.  (It is arrogant to assume that any place contained in itself is “strange” except to an outsider).  Subconsciously, I sensed that I did not belong here even as a visitor, that this was not my place, that the prairie’s old truths (not of mere, insignificant death but of fire and transformation and resurrection) are too strange for us and perhaps no longer have anything to do with us, who have alienated ourselves from so much.

Maybe I was just under the influence of a good story. An old roommate of mine, Wayne Robbins, who is twenty years older than me, had told me about a strange event that happened to him a few years ago. It is probably an urban legend, and he might even have been trying to fool me, but from the way he told it, I sensed that he thought the experience was real, and I don’t doubt that his emotions were authentic.

He was in Indianapolis at the time. After unexpectedly seeing a light upstairs one night in a house that a friend of his was renting, they went upstairs together next morning to try to discover the source of the light. They had never been upstairs, but were certain that no one else was living there. Though there were three windows visible from the outside, on the inside the symmetry was all wrong and they couldn’t figure out where the third window would be. Finally prying some wainscoting loose, Wayne and his friend found themselves inside a tiny reading room, a hidden space with no door.

There was no entrance other than the window itself, but a candle sat on a table next to a very old book, the whole space bathed in light by the mysterious third window that they had at last discovered. Everything in the room was immaculate, no dust anywhere, and there was nothing at all creepy about it (Wayne even described the room as “quietly beautiful.”) Yet both he and his friend felt the sense that they simply should not be there. That there was a presence telling them to leave.

When Wayne reached out to touch the book and discover its title, his friend warned him not to do so, intuiting that “someone else just doesn’t want us here.” At that moment, they both looked over at the table. The candle, like a prairie fire, was beginning to smolder.

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