The first time that I was ever in the tropics was on a trip to Peru in 1986. It was an awesome trip, and I’ll probably post a remembrance of it sometime. My fellow travelers were a really interesting bunch of people, and I have maintained friendships with some of them. A year after the trip, I was sitting next to fellow travelers Lee Gladstone and his wife Gertrude at a trip reunion dinner. Lee knew that I was a biologist, but did not know of my work at Bluff Spring Fen. During the meal, he turned to me and asked what I know of fens. Now this is not a typical topic of dinner conversation, and I was a bit nonplussed that he would ask this. It turned out that he had just learned that he had one in the back yard of his weekend house in McHenry County. I wanted to see it, and a few weeks later they had me out.
Oak woodland at Gladstone Fen
People frequently tell me that they own property with a rare ecosystem on it. Generally the ecosystem disappoints, but Lee and Gertrude’s place was the real deal. Their back yard contained about 6 acres of really nice fen. It was suffering from a lot of the degradation that fens in Illinois do- fire suppression, invasion by nonnative species, hydrology issues. Still, there was a relatively intact ecosystem and a surprising number of rare plant species. Eventually, I would also find a bunch of rare butterflies there, as well.
View from the oak woodland into Gladstone Fen
Over the next decade, I would be the steward of this site. Lee and Gertrude used to have a bunch of friends from the city out to their weekend place. Leon and I would give interpretive tours of the fen, and then we’d all troop inside for a fabulous lunch. We held a bunch of workdays involving brush clearing and seed planting. We had several fine burns at the fen. Eventually the site was formally dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. The site flourished under management. Since the late 1990s, I have been less able to participate in active management there.
This weekend Lee and Gertrude’s daughter Lorna invited us up for a special workday. We were joined by about a dozen other people, many of whom I know because they are active in the conservation community up in McHenry County. We were clearing out buckthorn, a very aggressive non-native tree that damages oak woodlands. We lit a bonfire and tossed the sapling trees onto it as they were cut down with chainsaws. It was satisfying work, and we made some great progress. Since her parent’s deaths, about a year apart and nearly five years ago, Lorna has taken up the mantle as site steward and is really doing a fine job.
After the workday and the bonfires, we all went on back to the house and had a great lunch. I had been back to the site once since Lee and Gertrude had died, but this was my first time back in their house. I’ll confess that it put a lump in my throat. It was a different cast of characters, but the feeling was very similar. I had worried about what would happen to Gladstone Fen after Lee and Gertrude died (they were in their seventies when I met them), and I’m pleased to see it in such good hands.
Part of yesterday's work crew. L-R: Will, John, Lorna, Leon
One afternoon about a year after Gertrude had passed on, I was walking through the Museum where I work and happened upon Lee sitting on a bench in one of the exhibits. Lee’s city home was just a few blocks from the Museum. He and his home care nurse had gone for a walk because it was a nice day, and had stopped in. I had no meetings or deadlines that afternoon, and got to spend about a half an hour chatting with him. He seemed much more subdued than usual. One of the things that I had always liked about Lee was his vibrancy as a person, and I remember feeling that his wife’s death had affected him very deeply. I will always treasure that particular conversation, because just three weeks later I would learn of Lee’s death.