Expert Hears the Land Whisper History

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Byline: Stephanie Price Daily Herald Correspondent

A pile of stones. A cluster of oak trees. A virgin patch of prairie. Letters left by landowners who worked the land years ago.

Edward Collins uses these types of clues to research the ecological and cultural history of the land. Through his study of historic journals, public records and maps, Collins can read the stories - both human and ecological - that the land is waiting to tell.

His 23 years of experience as an environmentalist and natural history speaker has earned him the reputation as one of the foremost experts on pre-settlement landscape of Northern Illinois, according to the McHenry County Defenders.

For that reason, the Defenders organization selected Collins as this year's recipient of its highest honor, the Theta Award. The award annually recognizes a person or group that has made an outstanding contribution to the improvement of the environment in McHenry County.

"Edward Collins was selected because of his work in landscape genealogy," said Lenore Beyer-Clow, executive director of the McHenry County Defenders. "Through his work, he recognizes what the origins on the land were before humans were here, and then he promotes this through educational seminars.

"He helps people understand what the natural environment was like here so they appreciate it. He's another resource for people to understand the importance of environmental protection."

Collins, a natural resource manager for the McHenry Conservation District, stumbled into his historical work quite by accident some 22 years ago. Working in his first environmental job at the former Pleasant Valley Outdoor Camp, located south of Woodstock near routes 176 and 47, he noticed a section of the camp that was never used and had never been plowed. It was a small patch of native prairie, and the curious Collins, director of environmental education at the camp, was so struck by the patch, he began researching anything he could get his hands on to learn its history.

"It really was very serendipitous in how I got started with this," said Collins, now 44 and living in Ringwood.

From there, a passion was sparked. …