Prairie Works owner, Cory Ritterbusch, has published a new book: H.S. Pepoon: Pioneer Conservationist of Northwest Illinois, is now available at many retail outlets in the Tri-State area and can be ordered here. Fans of Prairie Works should find this book very interesting. Below is it’s first review.
H.S. Pepoon: Prophet and Polymath
“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” – William Butler Yeats
Yeats could not have had Herman Silas Pepoon (1860-1941) in mind when he wrote his famous poem, but he may as well have. Pepoon, arguably one of the most gifted botanists of his era, has been all but ignored by historians and scientists alike. A prophet without an audience, he remained in isolation, a curio piece of Midwestern gentility.
But Pepoon’s luck is about to change and his work to be acknowledged. Cory Ritterbusch, of Shullsburg, Wisconsin, has rescued Pepoon from anonymity in his new book H.S. Pepoon: Pioneer Conservationist of Northwest Illinois. In doing so he establishes Pepoon as a touchstone of the natural history of Illinois and iconic of the Driftless Area.
Born in Jo Daviess County, Illinois in 1860, Pepoon set out as early as the mid 1870’s to record and document the cornucopia of Illinois plants, prairies and forests in Jo Daviess County. His works anticipate and make way for the likes of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry and others. His prose is richly evocative of the beauty he captures, a beauty he warns is endangered by the militant indifference of the putative stewards of the land. (See Destruction of a Farm Flora 1904 and Ecological Survey of the Driftless Area 1906)
In these early essays Pepoon limns the passion and conviction of Ralph Waldo Emerson in conveying the sense of mourning at the passing of the Illinois prairie, a victim of “soulless corporations,” of industry, of aggressive agriculture and public apathy. He writes of the prairie in elegy and in a way that is unimprovable by anybody’s art:
“The days are gone, the men are largely passed on, the flowers have disappeared, and into our hearts a feeling of sadness comes to realize that never again can these things be.”
The loss is all the greater because of the iconic status the Driftless Area would take on as a near geological singularity in North America. For Pepoon there was a clear message here, a counterpoint to a ceaseless and slave-like dependence on the utilitarian and quotidian. According to Pepoon, the “man who drinks in the hand of nature is not a wrecker of the commonwealth or a despoiler of his best interests.” He cares rather about the “higher qualities of the mind and soul,” and understands that the leisure induced by nature is the source of all civilization. In this regard Pepoon prepares a message that the twentieth century German philosopher, Josef Pieper will fully develop.
In his most fecund period, 1895-1935, Pepoon devotes a great deal of time to the study of the Birds Eye Primrose plant along the bluffs of the Apple River in Jo Daviess County. He provoked a minor controversy among botanists at the time who were unwilling to accept that the Primrose flourished in Jo Daviess County. Pepoon carried the argument in showing that the Primrose survived and thrived in northern Illinois latitudes precisely because the area had been spared by the glaciers millennia ago.
It was to the Apple River Canyon that Pepoon turned to argue the cause for the establishment there of a state park. He referenced the imposing, Primrose-laden bluffs reaching nearly one hundred feet and the many peculiarities and features of the Apple River environs typical of the Driftless Area. A park would serve as nature’s refuge and offer the working man and woman a release from the press and sometime banality of every day life. He was persuasive before the Illinois Academy of Sciences and ultimately before the court of public opinion, with the result that the state of Illinois set aside three hundred acres surrounding the Apple River. Today’s park bears no evidence whatsoever of Pepoon’s role in its creation.
Pepoon was an eccentric, an Emersonian, and possessed an intellect that matched his passion for nature and love of his fellow man. To his calling as botanist he soon added that of a physician and teacher. For thirty-eight years he combined teaching at Chicago’s Lake View High School with a practice of medicine and his writing on Midwest botany. He was both pioneer and polymath and one whose kind we are not likely to encounter again soon. Perhaps the publication of this book by Ritterbusch will stir some to see Pepoon gets his due, if perhaps by the placing of a plaque in his honor at the Apple River Canyon State Park. History and justice would be well served by the gesture.
H.S. Pepoon: Pioneer Conservationist of Northwest Illinois, designed and published as a period piece, is remarkable in its own right as a special publication that reflects and comprehends the substance of the writings of Pepoon. There is an informative, luminous Foreword by William Handel of the Illinois Natural History Survey that presents Pepoon in full character and joie de vivre, to which publisher Ritterbusch lends his own music to the dance.
Robert J. Klaus
- Robert Klaus is past President of the Illinois State Historical Society and the Illinois Humanities Council.
More info here: www.prairieworksinc.com/pepoon-book/