Woman keeps watch over village's prairie parcel

Bison aren't roaming through Hinsdale these days, but a vestige of the landscape they once inhabited survives on the western edge of the village: the Hinsdale Prairie.

"That's not just a prairie, that's a remnant prairie," said resident Kathleen Thomas. "Here it is. A suite of plants that have been together for thousands of years."

Saturday is National Prairie Day, celebrating the beauty and environmental value of the ecosystem once so vast it gave Illinois its "Prairie State" nickname. As a researcher at the Morton Arboretum, she tells visitors to think of the state as their body. How much is still native prairie?

"The lint in your belly button," Thomas remarked. "It's an ecosystem that's disappearing."

Thomas had earned a bachelor's degree in biology but entered the publishing field while also indulging her passion for sailboat racing, a hobby she pursued for 30 years.

"I had a lot of desktop publishing jobs and newsletters. And I did a newsletter about sailboat racing," she said.

Thomas and her family moved back to the area from Florida 19 years ago, settling in Hinsdale but unaware of the precious block-long resource just down the street at Jackson and Eighth. Once she learned about it, she wanted to know more, and credits biologist and prairie preservationist Robert Betz for working to protect that sliver of land and taking inventory of all its flora.

"Hinsdale, to this day, still follows through with the annual (controlled) burn, which they promised Dr. Betz," Thomas said of the prairie restoration tactic. "The annual weeding, I'm doing, in conjunction with DuPage County Stormwater Management."

Thomas founded Friends of Hinsdale Prairie several years ago - complete with a Facebook page - and keeps watch over the area to remove any trash that finds its way in. Think prairie is just grassland? Think again.

"The diversity is so intense in this prairie that you've got five or six species within a square yard," she said, noting one might even spy a tiny iridescent green prairie bee that pollinates native flora.

The extensive root systems of the plants help mitigate flooding and erosion and also serve as a natural rain purifier, she said. Thomas even converted her front yard into a nursery for indigenous plants.

"I didn't want the chemicals, and I was tired of digging wheelbarrows full of dandelions and having them just come back."

For those interested in learning more about this local treasure, Thomas will be at the prairie entrance from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 5, giving sidewalk tours.

"I can show them iconic prairie plants from that sidewalk," she said.

But don't try to swipe any specimens. The prairie is a designated Illinois Natural Area, meaning plant material may not be removed. Thomas just hopes it continues to thrive.

"I've learned a lot, and I know there's a lot more to learn."

- story by Ken Knutson, photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean