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Couple writes and photographs about restoring wetlands

The University of Illinois Press in July published Clare Howard and David Zalaznik ‘s – In the Spirit of Wetlands: Reviving Habitat in the Illinois River Watershed, an ode in black and white to restoration work in the state.

The former Peoria Journal-Star journalists, who are married, are the book’s writer and photographer, respectively. Environmentalists who’ve done the work and the wetlands themselves are depicted in the paperback. which is one of the Chicago Tribune’s 2022 summer reads.

At one point, long before western civilization came to North America, wherever there was a thriving wetland there was a thriving population of Native Americans, notes Zalaznik. Howard said 90 percent of what was wetland has been plowed or paved over.

“It's not like lost and misplaced. It's lost and destroyed. But they were destroyed before we understood they were useful,’’ Howard said. "When Illinois was being originally settled, acres of corn and soybeans were valued highly."

“And we looked at wetlands as unproductive as infested swamp land. And being productive people, we either drained with field tiles or diked to get the water off the field as fast as possible and planted row crops,’’ she said.

“Now we understand there was a purpose for the land remaining on the field. So more farmers are now taking sections of their row crop production out of row crop production and constructing wetlands to work to have a harmonious relationship with agriculture and water."

She noted that The Wetland Initiative in Chicago “hopes one day to see a string of 1000s of little agriculture wetlands on farm fields throughout the Midwest."

“In central Illinois, we are pretty much located not an hour's drive, maybe less than an hour's drive, between two Wetlands of International Significance: the Emiquon Nature Preserve in Havana, and the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Hennepin. They are internationally recognized for their beauty and importance."

Howard and Zalaznik have been interested in wetland restoration for about two decades.

“There is so much progress being made almost daily, that we learn more from wetlands visualizations we had even two years ago, now understand we were not clearly seeing what wetlands were doing. It's such an evolving understanding,’’ Howard said. “So, we started traveling around and what we found is this is not something for nonprofits only, or wealthy landowners. individual property owners really have a role to play and a contribution to make with understanding water and wetlands.”

She quotes Toni Morrison, the author of such books as Beloved and The Bluest Eye, who wrote, “all water has a perfect memory, and is forever trying to get back where it was.“

“What we have found when we talk about wetlands and concepts of cleaning water and restoring the environment, there's also the aspect of beauty. It's not something that we come to naturally, when our eye has been trained to see beauty in an iconic mountain range or in a surging ocean on the coastline of Maine,’” she said. "If we teach our eye, we can see something as beautiful in the wetlands of Central Illinois.”

"What we also found is that some of the constructed wetlands on farm fields or on former farm fields are beautiful."

“What is exciting to me if we open ourselves to see the beauty of wetlands, we are enriched and we are gaining knowledge and wisdom, but we deliberately need to open our eyes and see that what we've almost been trained to see as unproductive swamp land is actually a diverse beautiful ecological environment filled with life,” Howard added.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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