Truly a place of wonder, the Garden of the Gods is a place that displays the power and mystery of Creation.
There are several states in America that are largely nothing but an endless flat landscape. People have jokingly referred to the ordeal of driving through Kansas, compounded by eastern Colorado. For me, my introduction to the mixture of caffeine and long-distance driving was my journey across Illinois on my way to Michigan, with nothing to distract me except thousands of square miles of corn and an interstate covered in potholes.
But Illinois surprised me. I had driven through southern Illinois on several occasions. So I knew that for a few miles near the Ohio River the amber fields of grain were replaced by rolling hills of forests. Yet I was always on my way to somewhere and never took the time to take a closer look. Until now. By some stroke of Providence some friends of ours purchased an enterprise near Herod, Illinois renting out cabins and treehouses. The big draw in this region is a recreational area managed by the US Forest Service called The Garden of the Gods. So we booked a couple of nights in February. We were traveling from Missouri to south Georgia and saw this as a great opportunity to get reconnected with our friends and learn something new about America.
As it turns out, a highly unusual warm front rested over the Midwest in mid-February and this mid-winter venture turned out to be quite comfortable as we observed daffodils opening up (about two months ahead of schedule). We visited our friends and then took leave to explore the countryside. It had rained heavily the previous night with thunder. The day was overcast. As we journeyed up the road to the Garden of the Gods, the mist thickened. The timing could not be better. As we wound up the hillside we stopped to observe deer casually crossing the road. We arrived at an empty parking lot. We had the entire place to ourselves.
For people like my wife and I who live in Southeast Alaska, the Garden of the Gods was a familiar experience. To my surprise, due to the constant presence of moisture at this altitude (probably attributed to the Ohio River nearby), this place in southern Illinois is like a rain forest. Lichen and moss are everywhere. Remarkably, the weather conditions caused the mushrooms to thrive. For us, walking on what most mid-Westerners would call a “bad” day, was a typical day in Juneau, Alaska. I felt I was meeting an old friend.
What strikes most people is it’s chief attraction — the peculiar rock formations. The geology around this place is truly bizarre. Amidst rolling hills and farmland is this island of ragged hills and forests which sit atop one of the more active earthquake zones in the country. The fault lines go in all directions at this juncture, like a child scribbling jagged lines in the middle of a white page. It is not far from here when the New Madrid earthquake erupted in 1814, reportedly ringing church bells as far away as Philadelphia. The shifting of the earth was so great that it reversed the flow of the Mississippi River.
Yet you can see that you are standing on something far greater, more ancient than a recent earthquake. What you see before you is estimated to be 350 million years of geological history. While you stand atop this large hill you walk amidst rock formations that once resided below an ocean. Then as the land rose, its peculiar mixture of hard and soft rock succumbed to the endless pounding of wind and rain, countless billions of cycles of heat and cold. What would be shaped would truly be wondrous to behold. What would be exposed would be the artistry of creation.
It was winter. The mist was heavy. Moisture dripped from the trees. Off in the distance a crow could be heard, or an occasional woodpecker. But other than that, the place was silent, almost as if you stood in a holy place. There were no flowers. No animals to observe. But life yet thrived.
As I noted earlier, I felt I had met an old friend. In Alaska, where I live, I worked for several years as a trail guide and one of the most wondrous things I shared was the transformative power of creation. As I pointed across a glacier valley we could see the progressive change to the landscape. From barren rock, to hues of green colored rocks, with a few patches of moss. Gradually, flowers and tiny shrubs joined the moss. Then followed small shrubs and struggling deciduous trees. As you climbed up in altitude, you began to clearly see where conifers began to flourish. I would ask the tourists how many years they thought had progressed from barren rocks to trees? Some would guess thousands of years. To their surprise, it was barely 100 years.
Thus you see this endless battle going on at the Garden of the Gods. We walk amongst it, hardly noticing. What you see in the adjacent photo is quite commonly observed in Alaska, the effects of micro-climates. In this case, it is the difference between facing the prevailing winds where one side is exposed more directly to the moisture, and the other is less so. One side is green, the other stubbornly remains barren. The side that is green is blanketed with mosses.
Lichen gets its nourishment from the air. You see it everywhere, whether it is your concrete driveway or brick facade. I have seen it grow on plastic! One of the peculiar attributes of lichen is that it has this tendency to make what appears to be impervious stone into a more hospitable place for more complex plant forms. This is when mosses begin to tenaciously cling to the rock. And mosses have a diversity of forms that could fill a book.
And the creation is transforming life amongst the trees. On the bark are frequently spotted large patches of lichen. Yet to our surprise, due to the warm winter and the blanket of moisture common to this place, the mushrooms made an appearance. We saw several signs of large mushrooms having recently emerged. What is most peculiar is when fungi (which includes mushrooms) appear on trees that are living, sharing this rather symbiotic relationship.
The trees themselves are a bit unusual. Forests in the Midwest are noted for one prominent species: oak. But not here. Pine trees are quite numerous, the result of plantings that go back to the 30’s.
But fungi are also a part of death, doing its part in transforming a dead tree into rich soil. In Alaska, we referred to such trees as nurse logs. Like the Garden of the Gods, the top soil is quite thin and what is there is the result of countless centuries of transforming a log lying in a forest into a few more inches of organic matter. Growing upon that log will be the familiar cycle of mosses and fungi. Then a small shrub may appear. Even a tree may grow upon it before the log disappears into the soil.
The joy of living, of being human, is that you can marvel at the creation. With each new discovery you walk away with many questions. The Garden of the Gods is one such place that fuels the imagination and begs us to return, to discover more of its mysteries. The one short walk I took left me with enough questions to fill another lifetime. I wanted to spend a year there, to discover the birds that travel through the forests, that make nests in the nooks and crannies of those exotic rock forms. I wanted to see the trees that bloom, and to catalog each species and determine if they were unique to this place. As always, I wanted to meet all the mushrooms and fungi, a particular form of life that I believe I will never master.
Alas, I am not a biologist, nor did I have an arsenal of reference books to turn to. I was just a visitor.
What I find a bit of a mystery is where does the name “Garden of the Gods” come from, and whoever inhabited this place? The recreational area is part of the Shawnee National Forest. So the question is whether this place was ever a home to the Shawnee. The Shawnee nation, at its height, was centered in Ohio and Indiana. Their range, however, was considerable. They were a presence throughout the Ohio River basin. Daniel Boone and the settlers of Boonesboro would encounter them in central Kentucky, and the Shawnee were encountered as far south as the Carolinas. So I suppose calling this area of Illinois Shawnee National Forest is fair enough. There is evidence that the Osage migrated through this area as well. But when the forest was officially named in 1939, the Osage were more associated with Missouri and Arkansas, while the Shawnee appeared to be the best fit. There is ample evidence that they resided in the area near the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century.
Yet like the multiplex of fault lines beneath this place, numerous Native American tribes have traveled through this place. The US Forest Service has engaged eleven Native American groups1 that once resided in the area. Almost all the tribes currently reside in Oklahoma. It is unfortunate, at this point, that time and distance have dissociated much of their history and culture from southern Illinois.
These sort of remote anomalies of nature always held a special place in native mythology. Missouri is replete with unusual rock formations and many were assigned special significance. So it is quite possible that the Garden of the Gods may have had a spiritual connection. But the name is essentially marketing, a label that evolved in the 1930’s.
There is certainly something mystical about the place. For one, the forest on this mountaintop is not what you typically find in the Midwest. There are more pine trees. The prevalence of lichen and mosses is certainly unusual. It would not surprise me to find plant and animal species on this mountaintop that are unique to this place. Being alone, shrouded in mist, with nothing to hear but the wind and a distant call of a blue jay or crow, brought this sense of how special this place would have been to any Native American that may have settled in the region, and how it must have broken their hearts to be forced to depart.
1 Native American groups with ties to the Garden of the Gods region:
- Absentee Shawnee
- Cherokee Nation
- Delaware Nation
- Delaware Tribe
- Eastern Shawnee
- Miami Tribe
- Osage Nation
- Peoria Tribe
- Quapaw Nation
- United Keetoowah Band Cherokee
Special thanks to the US Forest Service for providing additional insight into the background of the Shawnee National Forest, the Garden of the Gods and Native American history in the area.
Guide to the Geology of the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Shawnee National Forest, Saline, Gallatin, Pope, and Hardin Counties, Illinois, by Wayne T. Frankie, Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability, November 14, 2009
Native American Heritage, Shawnee National Forest, US Forest Service
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Shawnee National Forest, US Forest Service
Amazing photographs of the area can be found at Getty Images.
As a final note — if you can identify more accurately the fungi and lichen in the photos, please feel free to leave a comment below. Your contribution will be appreciated.
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner