A Bison’s Tale

By Eric Hornig

As I look out onto the amber waves of the waning fall prairie landscape, in an area humans have deemed as “Spring Valley,” I can’t help but recall a time when my fellow bison and I were 60-million strong, grazing gracefully across the plains. Although my I was once on the endangered list, I now stand proudly as a thriving bison set within a play space dedicated to developing humans as stewards of the land and promoting a deep understanding of the balance needed for plants and animals to live in harmony.

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I notice the caretakers of this patch within the Schaumburg Park District have divided the land into three areas representing the sunken wetlands, majestic prairie, and tree-covered savannah, with opportunities to learn about each. Small crowds of humans gather in a circular clearing at the base of the hill to hear words of wisdom from their leaders. They become riled up and excited, taking in messages scratched onto the ground, and aligning the plants, animals, and land of their desired path before travelling through the entry gateway, signifying their training is to begin.

Majestic Prairie
While their patterns are difficult to predict, they typically start in the prairie. They are met by fallen logs and stumps that they deftly balance across. They add to the sounds of nature’s prairie with music of their own, playing chimes and drums softly in unison. They spring across enormous flowers, bees, and grasshoppers (apparently too large to move but seemingly quite friendly), set among swaying grasses and showy displays of prairie wildflowers. Looking through the dragonfly kaleidoscope, they witness the world through the compound eye of an insect. They call to each other through tubes shaped like giant earthworms (which have yet to be eaten by the raptors flying overhead), and they build small sculptures while sifting in the sandy beach for unique stones of the earth. The elders gather beneath the shade of a great wooden structure (apparently made just for them) in the center of all the activity, where they watch diligently to keep their calves close.

Sunken Wetlands
A shallow brook emanating from a gurgling waterfall winds from the hilltop through the prairie and drains into a wetland pond. Their young hop across stepping stones while they delight in guessing where small geysers will burst into the air. They work together to help the muskrats and beaver maintain their homes with branches and grasses harvested on-site. They wade through the stream, building dams of their own and manipulating the cobblestone basin to change the flow of water. Crossing the stream is easy for their agile legs, but large frogs try to spray them with water while they cross (which they relish). They make crafts to hone their understanding by weaving and molding natural materials in a place known as the turtle landing, themed for the unique markings of this wetland creature. Children hide among cattails and then quickly hop across a salamander’s back to keep from being seen.

I am told the caretakers have a great passion for geology, and I am surrounded by distinct types of stones, large and small, from places both familiar and foreign. They study a circle of upright stones carved with artistic etchings they have deemed “the rock cycle,” and search for smaller stones of unique character throughout their journey. Large stones brought by great machines create places to rest and observe the activity below. I am particularly familiar with the stone I am carved from, forming a great bluff behind me, inviting the older ones to climb, crawl, and slide through the cave-like openings that dot its face. The trees above, on a constant search for water, have exposed their roots for the agile climber to use as ladders to the peak.

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Young and old scurry up the hillside, examining the restored native landscape, and slide down the slope in search of the source of the footprints scattered about the ground. A picturesque rope and net bridge, complete with lanterns cut from my silhouette, crosses the stream high on the bluffs, offering a path below for an up-close inspection of a shimmering waterfall, as well as a path above showcasing long, majestic views of the valley.

Tree-Covered Savannah
I am most frustrated by my lack of vantage to what I hear is the pinnacle of the plains. I hear voices tell of the “Raccoon’s Refuge” within the Savannah, an ornately decorated gathering space with the face of a large raccoon imprinted upon it. This serves as a launching point to the “Curious Sciurus,” a scientific reference to the squirrels that abound in this region. This great wooden treehouse with scalloped roof edges and irregular canted posts brings people of all ages and abilities up high for different vantage points of the playscape. They climb higher and higher, gaining insight that only a tree dweller would know.

A great many games and puzzles have been carved from trees downed by the seasons. I hear of chess, checkers, and tic-tac-toe, and watch them move small pieces onto vertical game boards to test their skill. These activities continue beneath the treehouse, where they play peek-a-boo, learn about leaf shapes, and rest their minds on a net hammock. There are chairs, tables, and benches, also hewn from native trees, with families resting in the shade as they ready for their next adventure. Messages drawn into upright wood seem to help the parents and children understand their actions, reinforcing their stewardship training.

Time To Shine
I hear laughter and whispers from above as they gather around the nape of my coat. No visit to this land is complete without … and I say this with great humility … a trip to see me! It almost seems they have been instructed to pay tribute by leaning in and climbing on me, while their parents take what they call a “picture” with shiny, handheld devices. Looking over their shoulders, I see hundreds of these pictures catching a glimpse of what they call “social media.” They read messages from other humans out loud, describing great experiences they have had right here with me. What an honor to be part of so many lives.

With all these experiences showcasing nature and its wonders, they seem to leave begrudgingly but with smiles of joy and happiness on their faces. They seem not fully aware of the training they just completed or the part they must play in the future of our land. They just seem happy. I see many familiar faces when they return and catch them winking at me. They seem to be more focused as they return, exploring deeper, studying the plants more intently, admiring the geology, getting their hands dirty, and gazing with wonder and respect into the distance at the greater valley and beyond as they stand tall with pride atop Bison’s Bluff. I see the seeds of stewardship growing within them. With each visit, they grow in their respect, with understanding and a sense of commitment to the land.

Two hundred years ago, there was not a living bison on this side of the great Mississippi River. While I cannot quite say that I am living, I stand proud in the middle of a setting that celebrates nature’s gifts and is alive with the activity of teaching future generations about our land.

Eric Hornig is a Principal and landscape architect with Hitchcock Design Group’s Recreation Studio and can be reached at ehornig@hitchcockdesigngroup.com. Hitchcock Design Group is a landscape architecture and planning firm with offices in Austin, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Naperville, Ill.