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UNKNOWN ILLINOIS: Fugate Woods in wintertime

Fri, 22 Feb 2013 03:51:44 CST
By: Special Correspondent Judy Valente

UNKNOWN ILLINOIS: Fugate Woods in wintertime Today you'll hear the first of an occasional series we'll call "Unknown Illinois," highlighting parts of Illinois rich in natural beauty, but little known to many nature lovers. We begin with Fugate Woods Nature Preserve outside of Fairbury, less than an hour's drive from McLean County, where special correspondent Judy Valente went to explore the magic of the woods in winter.


Listen to caretaker Sara Hostetter describe some of the massive trees at Fugate Woods.


See photos of Fugate Woods in the winter.

Tomorrow, February 23, the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalists will hold a special public event called "Stopping by Woods: A Winter Day of Discovery," featuring presentations by nature writers Michael Jeffords and Susan Post and a guided tour through Fugate Woods. Learn more about the event and Fugate Woods.

It's a typical winter day, overcast skies, dull light, temperatures in the mid-20's. But, here at Fugate Woods outside of Fairbury, Illinois, caretaker Sara Hostetter sees a hidden beauty. "The woods become pretty quiet in winter and it becomes a stark beauty that one looks for out here, the subtlety in the changes between the different species of trees and the stature of their architecture is interesting to me. I know many people come here just for the quiet and solace of stepping out of their busy lives and reconnecting with nature a bit. Anytime I step in here, find myself much more centered on what's meaningful in life with time to reflect on that and find my small place in that as well."


Fugate Woods lies just beyond a cow farm and several fields of corn and soybean along County road 1000 North in Livingston County. The late Howard Fugate and his wife Bernadine, the last caretakers of a multigenerational family farm, donated the land to the community 10 years ago. But the nature preserve has only been fully open to the public for the past three years, since hiking paths were put in. Paths with names like "Stand Tall Tree Trail" and "Sky Spirit Trail" that reflect the soaring, 200-year old oaks and hickory trees that reside there. Hostetter says being in Fugate is a spiritual experience. "For those of us who've had a long-time relationship with the woods this feels for all of us as we stand under these red and white oaks and the aged shagged bark hickories, much like a cathedral."

Hostetter grew up on a farm not far from the woods and as a young girl, rode her appaloosa pony beneath a canopy of basswoods, buckeyes and rare Kentucky coffee trees. When she retired as a school librarian in 2009, she was named the first steward of the woods. People think of winter as a kind of sleeper season, that nothing is happening, but really a lot is happening during this season. Hostetter agrees, and says, "It's always a discovery every time I step in here, whether it's a change in the fungus that are on the dying logs, the change in the sound, the color of the forest floor, especially in the winter. To many people it might be dull, but to me it's just a wonderful tapestry of texture and color.


Occasionally, winter outdoes itself with surprises. Hostetter says one planned event took a different turn in large part because of the wintry environment. "About a year ago we had an owl prowl," she says, "and about 30 or 40 people hardy folks showed up when it was 20 below, but the thing that really caught everyone was that we had a snow cover at that point and a full moon, and the beauty in here was just indescribable. No one was really concerned about whether they saw an owl that night or not.

Marcia Rossi often visits the woods in winter. She's president of the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalists, a group of citizen scientists who volunteer to care for the environment and teach others about the beauty of nature. She says, "I come out here to Fugate because this is the time of year when you can see the forest for the trees. It's stark out here and frankly I don't miss the clutter of summer. I can see relationships, I can see old storms and ice tracks. But mostly I come here for the quiet. Sometimes when I come to Fugate, I'll look at my watch and think, it's been 30 minutes and I haven't heard a single internal combustion engine! Standing here in this cold, with my nose dripping and my fingers like icicles, I just know I'm alive."


Fugate Woods eventually opens to a restored prairie of about 30 acres. Phil Houser, a civil engineer and the immediate past president of the Grand Prairie Master Naturalists, finds inspiration for his landscape paintings in the palate of muted colors that cover the prairie in winter. "It's truly amazing the stalks of prairie grass and prairie flowers that are dead, even the single stalks range from gray to gold to orange to brown and the grasses have all different shades of all these colors with the sometime whitish of frost on a day like this when it's in the twenties. It just adds a little ever more silvertone to the picture and it's just gorgeous. Without the leaves on the trees you can see the bird's nests that were built the previous spring and you can also see, beyond the birds, you can see squirrel nests in multitudes around.

Houser stops to look at a wandering ride of soil on the ground. "It looks like we've come across a mole track here that's probably 50 or 60 feet long, in a nice meandering pattern. It's something you might not normally see in the prairie in the summer when all of the grass and flowers are raised. You would walk right past this, but in the winter, it becomes pretty obvious.

The woods are lovely dark and deep, the poet Robert Frost observed. And never moreso than in winter.


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