What do you do with your leftover Christmas cookies?
On Saturday, I participated in a Bluff Spring Fen tradition that goes back a good 10 years. It’s called Cookie Day. Nominally, it’s a way to get rid of all of your leftover Christmas cookies, but it’s really an excuse for an extra-big workday with a party atmosphere. The idea is that you bring any excess cookies that you have from the holidays and share them with everybody at the workday.
Unassociated woodland vegetation. The grass under the trees is Hungarian brome, a non-native species
Cookie Day generally initiates the season of major brush clearing at the Fen. The Fen, like most of the native ecosystems in northern Illinois, requires fire. Without fire, shrubs and trees, including many non-native species, invade the area and shade out the prairie vegetation. Throughout much of the 20th century, the effects of fire suppression became increasingly evident regionally. What was once vibrant prairie was replaced with a species-poor shaded assemblage of plants. Botanists sometimes refer to this as "unassociated woodland vegetation."
Cut brush waiting to be thrown on the fire
We are now reversing this process of degradation by removing the invasive vegetation and replanting native species. Sometimes the vegetation removal includes things like chainsaws. For Cookie Day, a professional ecosystems manager comes out to the Fen a few days before the event, cuts down a bunch of invasive trees and cuts them into small chunks. On Cookie Day itself, we start fires, and volunteers drag the cut-up wood onto the fires. We toast hotdogs over the bonfires. In the past few years, our friend Dave (who is the chainsaw operator that does most of the tree felling) has brought his cast-iron cookware and made beans and chili over coals from the fires.
Needless to say, we eat well. It’s low-guilt eating, however, because you really get a workout hauling all of the wood. Plus, you get to get rid of extra Christmas cookies. Well, for the most part. One year, I actually had leftover Jan Hagels that I brought with me. It’s unusual for me to have any left, so the next year I didn’t bring any. Big mistake. Now I’m not allowed to come without them, so I have to make a special batch. I’m sure Lemuel has had similar experiences, as he makes the same cookies.
Some of the cookies
It’s a fun day with good companions. It’s also very well attended. We had over 30 people helping this year. Consequently, we get a lot done. The before and after pictures only give a small hint of how changed the view is after a typical cookie day. The transformation is only partly complete, however. This March, we will set out prairie seeds in the cleared areas. It typically takes only two to three years for the native prairie plants to dominate the site to the point that they will provide fuel for a prescribed burn. It’s some of the most satisfying work that I do.
Before and After