During my last semester at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, I was faced with a decision that was not really all that difficult to make. The factors influencing my choice of universities within Illinois were narrowed down, in order of importance by: price, parent review of the elementary school system for Julius, things to do outside of class like live music and camping, and a diversity of degrees offered (in case I changed my mind about Geography). All signs pointed to Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale with its easy access to Giant City State Park and the rest of the Shawnee National Forest, a hip downtown scene, a beautiful campus, a website seemingly dedicated to sustainability, and its short distance from St. Louis and Memphis, for potential concerts. I only once found myself driving to St. Louis and that was to pick up my brother from the airport, not to attend any live music. But we did catch some live music between semesters at places like Rustle Hill Winery, where we saw Del McCoury, PK’s for The Natives, and the Tall Tree Music Festival just outside of Marion. We partook in the gorgeous views of Giant City, hosted Julius’ 6th birthday at Castle Park, and ventured around to some of the idyllic wineries of the Shawnee Hills. Julius took wrestling at Carbondale Community High School, and swimming lessons and a young artist’s workshop though various SIU programs. We had a small garden, enjoyed many local restaurants like Fat Patties, Tres Hombres, The Longbranch Coffee House, and frequented the Farmer’s Markets.
It wasn’t until we’d been there a year or so that we learned about the Farm Beginnings program and realized that there was an abundance of local food and farms in the area. Southern Illinois’ hidden treasure really lies in it’s know your farmer, know your food mentality. There are so many people there dedicated to the slow food movement, alternative farming, and demand for local and sustainable foods. The Neighborhood Co-op has made great strides toward providing local and organic foods and paying local farmers a fair price. I took notes for a Food Works Committee meeting once and one of the ice breaker activities was to introduce ourselves and describe Carbondale in one word. Something about being at that table with those like-minded people made me think Community. And that is the word that I would still choose to describe Carbondale. I participated in numerous community initiatives such as Keep Carbondale Beautiful, Green Earth Inc, and SIU’s LOGIC (Local Organic Gardening Initiative), as well as making some contributions to the Gaia House Interfaith Center.
While SIU turned out not to be as sustainable as the website boasted, (a discussion for another blog post) I did learn a thing or two about sustainability and the barriers that make it a difficult goal to achieve for individuals, communities, and universities. So many light bulbs were turned on in my mind, not exclusively at SIU, but in Southern Illinois in general. There are so many things we learned and experienced there that will stay with us, including the lasting friendships we created. I feel like I really blossomed there in Carbondale. It was truly bittersweet toward the end of our time there to be meeting so many great people.
It is a shame that when I return to visit there in the future, one of Mother Nature’s beautiful resources, the Shawnee Forest, may be harmed by hydraulic fracturing and along with it, the water quality may no longer be as it was. It is also a shame that SIU is still researching “clean” coal despite 900+ signatures on a petition to retire the plant. However, Carbondale has a great network of people who are working very hard to spread awareness and put a stop to these fossil-fuel driven forces. That community-driven empowerment will continue to fight for what is right and I will always support them, for Southern Illinois holds a certain place in my heart and I will miss it dearly.