Since the beginning the forest has been singing its song, but few there are who have cared to learn either the words or the melody. Its chorus differs from that of any other part of the music of nature, and the price that must be paid to learn it is higher. The forest is of such gloomy and forbidding aspect that intimate acquaintance is required in order to learn to love it truly. So only a few peculiar souls, caring for solitude and far places, and oblivious to bodily discomfort, have answered this wildest of calls, and gone to the great song carnival among the trees. - Gene Stratton Porter, Music of the Wild
And it was with this attitude that I drove down SR18 towards Geneva last Saturday. I had spent many weekends wandering around the Limberlost Swamp. I’d tackled the new Deacon’s trail and enjoyed the Loblolly prairies and marveled at the beauty of Woodie Retreat. I’d explored Rainbow Bottom and driven around every county road in the area…but I'd yet to step foot into Music of the Wild or the Bird Sanctuary. There was something about those trees – that forest – which had kept me scouting the outskirts but never venturing inside.
A month earlier I had seen that Curt Burnette would be leading a new hike at Limberlost – in the Music of the Wild. This was the one area of the Limberlost that I had yet to explore. What better way to explore a new area than with Curt as my guide? And as I made the hour drive to the Limberlost on that day, I pondered what the day would bring. What wonders were hidden in those trees that I had carefully avoided? What beauty lay beyond the tree line? What chorus sang among the branches? What creatures fluttered among its leaves? I was about to find out.
We met at the visitor’s center in Geneva before our hike. We checked out the beautiful art in the Now and Then exhibit and listened to a few words of instruction from Curt before we headed out. We then drove down US 27 a few miles to our first stop: the marked entrance to “Music of the Wild.” We parked near the entrance sign and started walking north towards Limberlost Creek. Curt told us we were walking along the old railroad bed. In Gene’s time, the road used to run on the other side of the railroad bed. Not far from where we parked the path dead ends at the creek. Here Curt stopped and read to us a section of the book Music of the Wild. This is one of the spots in Geneva that we can match up to where Gene is describing as she wrote her book. She describes the place where the railroad bridge crossed the creek. “Here the creek reaches deep-shaded channel once more, and bursts into song crossing Armantrout’s pasture; for it is partly shaded, though many large trees on the banks are being felled. A happy song is sung on Rayn farm, where it is sheltered by trees and a big hill. In full force it crosses the road again, slides below the railroad bridge, rounds the hill, chanting a requiem to the little city of the dead on its banks, flows through the upper corner of the old Limberlost swamp, hurries across the road once more, and so comes singing into Schaffer’s meadow.” Currently the only way over the creek is on the road, as the railroad bridge is long gone. It was amazing to think of Gene standing in this spot one hundred years before. We back tracked our steps and turned to enter the forest just before it meets the creek. As we entered into the woods, a chorus of birds sang to us from high up in the treetops. One could almost see Gene standing on the edge of the creek, as the water trickled by and the birds sang their majestic songs. Did she have her camera in hand to capture live pictures of the creatures she so loved? Or did she have a pen and paper to record her observations? Or did she just simply stand – and enjoy the beauty that surrounded her? Because there is no bridge over the creek and with thanks to the several inches of rain Geneva had received in the days leading up to the hike, the rest of the Music of the Wild preserve was cut off from this small section. We returned to our cars and drove around to the other side of the preserve.
On this day, we had received special permission to park in the DNR Maintenance Building lot. To visit this side of Music of the Wild you must normally park in the Bird Sanctuary parking lot as parking is normally not allowed in this area. We walked back past the DNR building and into the trees. As we first stepped into the forest the tree canopy shaded our path but as the sun broke through the clouds over head, bits of sunbeams danced on the path as if beckoning us to travel deeper within. Off to the right, we quickly spotted a Brown Thrasher’s nest low among the branches of a bush to the side of the path. Much to my surprise we quickly turned to our right and walked out of the canopy of trees and into an open meadow with a nicely mowed path for us to follow. We walked along the path and appreciated the summer beauty that was still abundant on this fall day. The last of the purple asters and the bright yellow shafts of goldenrod poked out among the browning grasses of the prairie. A robin serenaded us from a power line above. Gene writes in Music of the Wild, “Robins are the alarm clocks of the fields, for almost without exception they wake the morning and all birds with their glad cry, ‘Cheer up!’” Good morning to you, too, Mr. Robin. Further along the path, Curt found part of a snake along the path, which had met an unfortunate end most likely by the mower. Just to our left along the path a small wetland was visible through the prairie grasses. As we walked, we talked of berries and plants and trees and leaves. Curt found a gall on the stem of a plant and explained to us how it was created. Suddenly a Song Sparrow flittered among the dormant branches of a bush as we walked by. As we approached the backside of the forest we had visited earlier, the path again became very soggy and we decided to take a shortcut to avoid the wet area. Suddenly a Red-tailed Hawk soared over our heads as we walked along. Curt told of a pair that had nested in the forest ahead – perhaps this was one of the pair? “By no stretch of the imagination could the big hawks be coupled with melody. They are the kings of the treetops, but they use a sign language that all other birds readily translate,” Gene writes in Music of the Wild. A little further along she continues: “There is not much to be said for hawk music, yet the voice of the forest would lose the charm of its wildest note were this great bird extinct, and it is because it is wild and different from sounds of every day that we love it. Then, as a picture seen from afar, the forest never would be complete without these birds of tireless wing hanging over it and reining upon their thrones of air.” As we came to the end of the prairie trails, we walked along the edge of a freshly cut farmer’s field. We marveled at the ability to see the hills and valleys that were suddenly visible in this flat open space. We admired some hollowed out trees and pondered what lightening strikes, insects, or animals that may have caused them. And then once again, we stepped into a forest. Colorful leaves scattered the forest floor as we walked along. Bright greens and yellows reflected the sun light from above. Thorny arms reached out to grab onto our sleeves as we walked along. Beautiful fungi of all kinds were growing in this part of the woods. The warm temperatures and wet weather had made conditions just right for their growth. A doe appeared at the edge of the woods and disappeared just as quickly. Before long the path emerged into the parking lot of the Bird Sanctuary and we checked out the map posted there to see where all we had traveled. We then followed the path further into the trees. After walking through the Goodrich Forest along paths of pine needles and enjoying more beautiful fungi blooms, we came upon another slightly larger wetland. We were careful to watch our step, as muskrat holes were abundant along the path. We didn’t see any muskrats on this day, but they were obviously around. We circled the wetland and headed back into the trees and followed the path back to our cars. At the edge of the forest, before we departed ways, a chorus of song filled the air as cardinals, finches, and sparrows sang adieu from the branches.
We spent three hours together exploring two miles of some of Geneva’s finest land: prairies, wetlands, fields, and yes-- forests. After finally deciding to venture into some of Geneva’s forests, I agree with Gene who wrote further into Music of the Wild: “But to all brave, happy hearts I should say, ‘Go and learn the mighty chorus….’” I’m glad I finally decided to listen to the mighty chorus of the forest and I cannot wait until I can again return. If you are like me – and have explored much of the Limberlost, but avoided the Music of the Wild - I encourage you to take the time to visit the Music of the Wild and listen to the “chorus of the forest.”