Our writers help define
the state and the 'unique Illinois spirit'

by Peggy Boyer Long

"What is Illinois anyway? What is an Illinoisan?"

Contributor Thomas Simpson raises these questions in his essay, touching on the theme of this summer issue, the last edition of our publication year.

Simpson, writing for the first time in Illinois Issues, wonders whether there is anything that defines Illinois, or distinguishes it from any other place.

" If there is no unique Illinois spirit," he posits, " then what does it matter if our small towns are replaced by superstores identical to those in California and Pennsylvania?"

Ultimately, these are profoundly political, as well as social and cultural questions. And Simpson believes they underlie recent controversies over how we choose to use the land. Politicians and developers, motivated by profit he suggests, are " willing to supply easy answers." They give us nostalgia instead of truth, " leave us ignorant of the real past and cynical about tradition. Instead, for deeper reflection on local identity, we turn to our writers, our storytellers and poets."

The storytellers Simpson reviews, beginning on page 26, start with the land, the vast empty flatness of it. The landscape, and the violent unpredictable weather, shapes our character, inclines us to " a peculiar awareness of ourselves in relation to timeless and uncontrollable forces."

They don't romanticize the land, these Midwestern writers. It is, as one puts it, " basically a [grain] factory."

All of this month's contributors manage to turn these questions over, one way then another. Who are we because we are in this place and not another? What is worth preserving? What is not?

We start with the land too. To get another perspective on Illinoisans' relationship to their landscape, we asked Bloomington writer Bill Steinbacher-Kemp to take a closer look at Gov. George Ryan's new land trust initiative, the $160 million, four-year program to preserve open spaces approved by lawmakers during their spring session.

Along with applause from conservationists, regional planners and park advocates, he writes in an assessment that begins on page 12, " comes a sober realization that in the so-called collar counties surrounding Chicago, land is disappearing under developers' bulldozers faster than the public can purchase it." And undeveloped land, once relatively cheap, is now prohibitively expensive.

The state has been setting aside land for public use since the creation of Illinois' first state park in 1903. And, it turns out, preserving at least some of our natural areas is more than a romantic notion: It makes economic, as well as environmental sense. According to the Illinois Association of Park Districts, 18 of the 35 most popular tourist sites in Illinois are managed by the state or by local park and forest preserve districts. " With the growing popularity of closer-to-home mini-vacations," writes Steinbacher-Kemp, " local and state recreation sites are playing a greater role in the competition for tourism dollars."

Yet in the metropolitan region, almost 150 of 250 natural sites identified by the state remain unprotected, according to a study by the Openlands Project. And our efforts to preserve the landscape, Steinbacher-Kemp warns, could amount to too little, too late. Meanwhile, essayist Robert Kuhn McGregor, beginning on page 22, assesses threats to Illinois' water supply - the Great Lakes and downstate rivers - in the face of worries by some about a worldwide freshwater shortage. And reporter Jefferson Robbins, also appearing in the magazine for the first time, examines the evolution of Illinois' small public zoos into animal conservancies. Writers Terry Bibo and Bill Knight had a more disheartening task. They take a look at some Illinoisans' fears and hatreds. Their profile of white separatist Matt Hale, and of some of the hate groups in Illinois, begins on page 30. Finally, we look back - yes, with a bit of nostalgia - at who we were. Beginning on page 34, writers Ann Londrigan, Dan Guillory and new Illinois Issues contributor Lester Graham fill us in on what " used to be."

Have a summer filled with reading. See you in September.

4 / July/August 1999 Illinis Issues

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