PAXTON — No one likely felt more sick to his stomach than Bob Reber when a violent windstorm in summer 2004 felled numerous trees at rural Paxton's historic Ten Mile Grove.
To the untrained eye, nothing good could have come out of the damage to the property at the Howard Thomas Preserve, where giant trees can be seen toppled inside the wooded region owned by the Paxton Foundation. Reber, the forest's steward, begs to differ.
"It's in surprisingly good condition," Reber said. "It's hard for us to look at it and see all those trees down. You think, 'Oh my goodness; the grove has been destroyed.'"
To Rebern;- who grew up learning the flora, fauna and all things natural that east-central Illinois has to offern;- the storm was a natural occurrence, something that happens every several hundred years.
Reber knows no force so powerful as the 2004 storm has visited the region since at least the 1830s when pioneers made Ten Mile Grove a regular stop while traversing the Ottawa Trail from the Wabash River area to the Illinois River.
About three miles west of Paxton, the region was a common stopover because, in addition to its tree cover, it offered a fresh-water spring. It was an early version of a motor home parkn;- an "ox home court," as Reber called it - for some pioneers headed west and others just making a routine trip for supplies or to see kin.
One account told of 40 wagons parked at the grove at one time.
In the mid-1800s, Ten Mile Grove was an open savanna with broad, spreading trees, many of them burr oak, the area kept open by periodic fires that swept through the area. "Since white people came (to the region) the (trees) grew to a more closed canopy," Reber said.
But as the tree-top canopy closed, it blocked off the light to some of the native plant species.
"Now, what this windstorm did in parts of the grove (some parts are almost untouched, and they will remain a woodland representative plant community) … you will get the savanna species coming to the forefront, and all it does is change the plant composition," Reber said.
Thirty to 50 percent of the trees were blown down in some portions of the grove, especially on the western side, he said.
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When the trees went down, species that had been hanging on for years will begin to flourish. And as Reber said, "Species that were a major player before the storm will get beat back and will barely subsist."
Every dog has its day, and now it's the turn for species to bloom and flourish such as the fall asters, including Short's aster and the arrow-leaved aster, as well as Virginia wild rye, silky rye, bottlebrush grass and starry campion.
Falling into the background are varieties that many of the settlers named, such as Jacob's ladder and Solomon seal. Others include wild geranium and rue anemone.
"Some of these grasses that will come in there will almost crowd (the other species out) because they will grow above and they'll put some of these other species on the back seat so to speak," said Reber. "They'll always be there, if not in plant form, then in the seed bank."
But nothing lasts forever. When the canopy closes overhead, the "old guard" will begin to reassert itself, and the species that were so common before the storm will push once again to the forefront.
Reber is a professor in nutrition at the University of Illinois. He serves as steward at the forest preserve because "somebody needs to do it," he said.
The most immediate reaction by many people in the wake of the storm was that the downed trees need to be removed from the 17-acre preserve, but Reber said removing many of them would do more harm than good.
"If you move (them), you scarify the dirt, open it up, and there's a chance to get exotic species in there such as honeysuckle and garlic mustard," he said.
The only way some of the trees could be removed practically would be by helicopter or Belgian horses that are used to skidding logs. Reber said that would cause a great deal more damage to the area.
And many of the trees are unusable for furniture because they are cracked, and they are unsafe to cut because of internal stresses in the wood due to the way they fell.
Instead, Reber and other volunteers, including Larry Schwing, Mark Anderson, Jim Ehmen and Ed Smith as well as his two sons, Ryan and Rob Reber, cleared only the trails and let trees that came down in the natural areas remain.
Reber spent every weekend for six weeks clearing the preserve's main trail, which had 17 downed trees across it.
The preserve trails are open to the public during the growing season from mid-March to November from dawn to dusk on weekends and holidays.
The downed trees are more noticeable this time of year since winter has robbed the preserve of its foliage.