SEEN FROM THE AIR, the land of Illinois reveals graphically the agricultural importance of the State. Carved by intensive cultivation into an intricate mosaic of squares and rectangles, the level prairie resembles nothing so much as a vast stretch of modernistic linoleum. In the grainfields no land is wasted; pasture adjoins field, farm fits snugly against farm, and between them is nothing but the straight line of a fence or hedgerow of osage orange.
Lying between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, Illinois enjoys a drainage system extraordinarily complete and extensive. Water from 23 of the 48 States crosses its surface and flows along its boundaries, eastward through Lake Michigan to the Atlantic Ocean and southward in the Mississippi to the Gulf. Although its topography presents no striking contrasts of surface contour, the State is separated into seven gentle but distinct basins, bearing the names of Lake Michigan, the Illinois, the Rock, the Kaskaskia, the Big Muddy, the Wabash, and the Ohio Rivers. The arteries and branches of these six great rivers serve 87.2 per cent of the 56,665 square miles of the State's surface. The largest, the Illinois, runs from northeast to southwest and drains an area 250 miles long and 100 miles wide, comprising 43 per cent of the State.
The conception of Illinois as an unrelieved table-top admits pleasant and unexpected contradictions. A portion of the hilly Wisconsin driftless area projects into the northwest corner; there, at Charles Mound, is the highest spot in the State, 1,241 feet above sea level. An extension of the Ozark Range, with several hills exceeding a thousand feet in altitude, crosses southern Illinois. The Mississippi and its tributaries, especially the Illinois, have carved long ranges of bluffs, the more rugged portions of which have been enclosed in State parks.
Elsewhere is prairie, but its original extent and appearance have been greatly altered. The earliest settlers found almost half the State in forest, with the prairie running in great fingers between the creeks and other waterways, its surface lush with waist-high grasses and liberally bedecked with wild flowers. Here occurred the transition from the wooded lands of the East to the treeless plains of the West.
Since this was the pioneer's first encounter with the prairie, Illinois came to be known as the Prairie State, although westward lay lands more worthy of the title than the semi-wooded surface of Illinois.
The pioneers admired the grasslands, but clung to the wooded waterways. At the time of early settlement the fertility of the prairie was not known nor was it available until the invention of plows capable of breaking the tough sod. The waterways furnished timber for fuel and building, a convenient water supply, and protection for the settlers' jerry-built cabins from prairie fires and windstorms. Fires invariably swept the grasslands in the late summer, when the Indians burned off the prairie to drive out game. When the settlers at last began to venture cautiously out from the groves, they took the precaution to surround their homesteads with several plowed furrows as a fire check.
The fame of the great stretches of treeless grasslands spread eastward, even to England, and magazines carried articles of description, speculating upon their origin (which is still unexplained) and the possibilities of their cultivation. Dickens, while visiting St. Louis in 1842, especially requested that he be shown the "paroarer," as he noted it was pronounced locally. A rumbling, ancient coach took him out to Looking Glass Prairie, near Belleville, and he returned to write:
. . . . there lay, stretched out before my view, a vast expanse of level ground; unbroken, save by one thin line of trees, which scarcely amounted to a scratch upon the great blank . . . . a tranquil sea or lake without water, if such a simile be admissible . . . . and solitude and silence reigning paramount around . . . . I felt little of that sense of freedom and exhilaration which a Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs awakens. It was lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony.
Lumbering activities and the pioneer's early preference for the woodland reduced the forests from their original extent, 42 per cent, to little more than 5 per cent. What is now commonly thought of as prairie is often the increment gained from the clearing of woodlands. Given over now almost wholly to farms, the prairies are constantly in flux as the landscape alters with the agricultural season. April transforms the Illinois country into a vast patchwork quilt of fresh color. Spring planting brings forth teams and tractors that comb and dress the land with geometric nicety. By summer the contours of the prairie are soft and round with ripening crops. July ushers in three months of intense industry. Crops are gathered, threshing machines build mounds of chaff, trucks and trains loaded with grain begin to move toward the cities. When autumn comes, the prairies, gashed by plows and stripped of their harvest, have a worn, desolate aspect that is heightened by the somber browns and yellows of the season. The prairies are dull throughout winter save for intermittent snowfalls, and then, in late March, the land stirs, splotches of green appear, and farmers turn again to the soil.