David Monk

Cultivating a Love of Prairie

A look at the life and work of C-U's "Prairie Monk"
by Molly Stephey

When Australia native David Monk first came to Champaign-Urbana, he had never before seen prairie. But having recently earned an agricultural degree from the University of Sydney, Monk was eager to learn everything he could about the native and fertile ecosystem of "The Prairie State." He had just one problem.

"I couldn't find it," he said jokingly.

The year was 1961, and agriculture had already replaced much of the state's native ecosystem. Before European settlement, prairie covered more than 60 percent of Illinois , or approximately 22 million acres. Today, just 2,000 acres remain - less than one-hundredth of 1 percent, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey. Most of the state's remaining prairie can be found in corridors along the state's railways and highways.

Monk said he was shocked to learn how little prairie was left. Though he had originally come to Champaign-Urbana for a University assistantship to teach the integration of art and science, he found himself focusing more and more on local prairie. In 1983, he founded Heartland Pathways, a non-profit organization dedicated to landscape restoration. Since then, the organization has acquired more than 33 miles of prairie from Champaign to Clinton, Ill. The organization's livelihood, and to a great extent Monk's own livelihood, depends on donations and grants.

But the self-appointed "Prairie Monk" has come to know much more about central Illinois than its landscape. For him, the concept of "environment" includes society and culture as much as plants and animals. In fact, a great deal of his work involves the restoration and preservation of the area's historic buildings, bridges, railroads and cemeteries. One of these buildings includes the Pepsin Factory, which earned the town of Monticello, Ill., the nickname "patent medicine capital of the world" for an extremely popular cure-all it manufactured during the 1920s.

"These are the stories that make the Midwest more wonderful than most Midwesterners believe," he said.

For most residents of central Illinois, vast fields of corn and soybeans have come to typify the landscape, said Eric Freyfogle, a central Illinois native and professor of environmental law at the University. Monk seeks to reconnect local residents with their environment by building trails, bike paths and natural history museums, he said. His passion for this often over-looked and under-appreciated ecosystem has inspired others to follow his lead. Successful organizations such as the Grand Praire Friends originally began with Monk's help.

"He is a visionary in the sense of thinking big about our regional landscape and imagining new ways to use it," Freyfogle said.

Monk has spent many of his weekends during the past 10 years at a 19th -century truss bridge in White Heath, Ill., called Shady Rest. The area used to be a popular recreational site for family outings, outdoor parties and campfires during the 1950s. Monk and his friends, including Joel McDonald, a biology teacher from Mahomet, Ill. , are trying to restore the bridge to make a trail for local residents. McDonald said Monk has as much enthusiasm and energy as anyone he has ever known.

Monk's career path forks in many different directions. He considers himself an artist, a sociologist, an ecologist, an activist, a journalist and a historian in equal parts. He is known for big ideas such as a national park in central Illinois and the revival of railroad transportation. With his peppered beard and curly gray ponytail, Monk stands out as a non-traditionalist.

"I've had people tell me if I cut my hair and wear a tie, I'd be in better shape and they're probably right," he said. "But I'm making a statement, too."

Thanks to Monk, local residents can find prairie in an unlikely location - downtown Champaign. Fifteen years ago, Monk planted more than 55 species of prairie plants in a small plot across from his home and office on 115 N. Market St. Monk said since people won't go out to the prairie, he brought it to them.

The front room of his building is stuffed to the ceiling with books, letters, filing cabinets, posters and an assortment of natural artifacts and specimens from the field. Monk's next-door neighbors include the 90.1 WEFT radio station, where he hosts a Sunday talk show. He said the radio station has provided him with an outlet to reach more people. Throughout the years, he has become a well-known figure in the community,

"Everybody knows Dave Monk," Freyfogle said.

But while Monk is well-known throughout the community, he is not universally loved. Because there is so little prairie left, Monk has clashed with farmers and conservation groups about how the land should be used. Battles are fought often, and more are lost than won, Monk said.

"I'm not a compromiser. I am sometimes a lone body doing my own thing and making decisions without consulting with the world," he said.

Over the years, Monk has been cursed at and nearly run off the road. One local resident even told him she would put buckshot up his ass. Still, he understands that such conflict comes with the job. It is all part of the art of activism, he said.

"I have had a lot of challenges in the past few years and I feel like I have grown immensely," he said.

Still, most people who know Monk have a great deal of respect for him.

"Some people think he's eccentric because he's an artist," McDonald said. "But everybody knows he has good intentions."

While some environmentalists say they regard his work as Godly, Monk said he does not consider himself a very religious person.

"My spirituality is mostly pragmatic and mostly a search for the rightness of preserving the dignity of an ever-decreasing natural landscape," he said.

He said he is grateful toward the University and Champaign-Urbana for allowing him to offer what he can to the environmental discussion. Monk recently gave a lecture in Champaign to a gathering of local and Australian scholars, including the chancellor of his alma mater.

"I have been able to come to this country as an immigrant and been allowed to ask questions and make comments on an equal footing. That is very rewarding and almost spiritual. To be sitting in a room with three Nobel-Peace prize winners... I could be digging potatoes in Australia," he said with a grin.

Copyright 2005. The Green Observer. For corrections, questions, comments: please write to gomagserver@gmail.com

Return to About