Her job is to make the surroundings beautiful, though most of her work is decidedly unglamorous. Patti Jo Callahan is the landscape coordinator at Wildlife Prairie State Park, a profession which allows her to spend all day in the outdoors she loves—even when it’s freezing cold or hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk.
Callahan, a central Illinois native, received an associate’s degree from Illinois Central College, but she said the majority of her education has come from more than 10 years of on-the-job experience at Wildlife Prairie State Park. “I got my start in horticulture by volunteering at the Park. I worked with the landscape crew on several different projects such as burning prairies, seed collection, brick repair, and other labor-intensive jobs. After getting a little dirt under my fingernails, I was hooked,” she said. In 1991 she was offered a position in the Landscape Department, which she happily accepted. “After working on the crew for a year and a half, learning all of the ins and outs of the job, I was offered my current position as landscape coordinator,” Callahan said.
She said attempting to describe a typical day at work is difficult because there’s nothing typical about working at a job that revolves around nature and all of its elements. “I start my day by checking the weather forecast on my drive to work. The weather plays an important role as to what projects will be worked on that day. A ‘good’ day finds me doing anything from mowing, running the chainsaw, woodchiping the Park trails, burning prairies, or a wide variety of landscaping jobs.”
A “bad” weather day consists of other activities, Callahan said. “I do anything from plowing or shoveling snow to mechanical maintenance on mowers, vehicles, power equipment, or planning the next ‘good’ day project. My work constantly changes quickly with each passing weather front and each new season.”
Callahan’s family helped develop her interest in her current line of work. “My mom has a green thumb with both flowers and vegetables. My parents helped begin my love for the great outdoors,” she said.
Having that love is essential to someone who’s interested in the field of landscaping/horticulture, as is an appreciation for both science and art, she said. “I would have to say landscaping is both a science and an art form. It’s about taking both of them and creating something that accomplishes all of the goals of your project. At the Park, it’s about the blending of both native plants and natural materials into a visual form that both beautifies and enhances the area.”
Yes, art and science are important, Callahan said, “But it requires much more. You need a good understanding of plants and how they interact with both nature and people. You need to be hardworking—and enjoy working in all types of weather. I also found being flexible and a Jill-of-all-trades doesn’t hurt, either.”
She said when planning or designing new landscape projects at Wildlife, she takes many things into consideration. “Those things include the cost of plants; building materials; time to complete the project; and the safety of staff, visitors, environment, and animals during the project. Other things to consider are how the visitors, Park staff, or the Park’s resident animals will use the area. When designing a new project at the Park, the area should enhance our visitors’ time educationally and/or visually. Some projects are planned to grab the visitors’ attention right away; others are just waiting to be discovered.”
Callahan’s duties don’t include giving tours of her completed labors at Wildlife Prairie State Park, however. “The area is designed to be a self-guided landscape tour. Visitors can enjoy our Prairie Species Garden with labeled prairie plants, find the marked tree species throughout the Park’s main area, or explore the trails with their own plant identification book, discovering new plants as they go.”
She said the best part of her job is interacting with visitors and working at such a beautiful and rewarding place. “Where else can you go in Illinois and see prairies waving in the wind, tall trees covering hiking trails, flowers blooming in a rainbow of colors, bison grazing in the distance, and wolves howling a morning greeting? That’s where I go to work every day. The Park staff, including my very dedicated landscape crew, all help to make my job a fulfilling and pleasant one. It’s also been a very rewarding experience working at Wildlife Prairie State Park and helping to continue the goals of education, conservation, and recreation Mr. and Mrs. William Rutherford envisioned when they created the Park many years ago.”
Callahan doesn’t even mind the seasonal surprises. “Although changes in the weather and the seasons sometimes make my job a little more challenging, those changes also bring with them hidden beauty and lessons to be learned.”
Because most of her duties at Wildlife Prairie State Park are related to preservation, thoughts of the future are always uppermost in Callahan’s mind. “While maintaining the landscape at the Park is an ongoing project in itself, it’s my hope we can continue improving existing areas with new projects, and that we restore more areas to native prairie so future generations can enjoy them, too,” she said. “As a member of the staff, a volunteer, and a member at the Park, it’s also my hope I can continue to work, improve, and enjoy the Park for many years to come.” AA!