Fen is a word I know only because there’s one just a few miles from where I live. The Bluff Spring Fen is not very big. From its paths you occasionally hear highway traffic and a passing train, and at certain places you can catch a glimpse of the equipment of the nearby gravel company rising above the trees.
Those signs of industry cause you to marvel all the more at the unusual combination at your feet—kames (gravel hills left by the movement of long-ago glaciers), prairie, bur oak savanna, and fen. Within a short distance, one finds prairie wildflowers, woodland trees, and sedges reaching higher than my head.
A fen is a distinctive kind of swampland fed by water seeping up from underground. This particular fen is even rarer because it’s calcareous; the water bubbles up through calcium and other minerals to create an alkaline environment that can host only the most adaptable plants. The water emerges at a constant 53 degrees year-round, creating a unique habitat in our northern climate.
Our local fen is home to about a dozen plants that can be found nowhere else in the state. But this was not always the case. Previously, this rare spot of nature had been used for mining and as a dumping ground for construction waste and abandoned cars. During all those years, the water persistently made its way through limestone deposits and up to the surface.
Thirty years ago a group began to haul away the debris and repair the land. Even though I never saw the place in its previous state, I am in wonder at its re-creation. I have visited in spring, summer, and fall, and each time I learn a little more.
How grateful I am for those who can see beneath a wasteland and identify the relentless movement of the deep. They have a clear picture of the outcome, even though the transformation will require years. In a world weighed down by so much, we need those who teach us how to uncover the holy.