Wherefore Walking?

110331 jim and ruth

After a morning of volunteering, what better way to spend the rest of the day than walking through the recovering landscape of Midewin with a poet? My dear friend Jim Ballowe is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University, where a personal essay contest is named in his honor. He’s the author of a recent biography of Joy Morton (of the Morton Salt Company and Morton Arboretum) and the even more recent Christmas in Illinois, a collection of Christmas stories by such Illinois luminaries as Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Royko, and Carl Sandburg.

But it’s Jim’s poetry I most love. And as he, his wife Ruth and I stroll through the restored Prairie Creek Woods and out into the recreated prairie along South Patrol Road it’s hard not to think of Jim’s “Wherefore Walking:”

Take ten thousand steps marching

toward a healthy life untouched by wildness.

Sure. It’s done almost everywhere:

on city streets, unrestricted lakeshore,

on paths through parks, restored woods and prairie.

 

How then along the bourne, bedraggled,

accosted by devil’s beggartick, nettle, and wild rose,

startled by a ravening coyote pursuing a doe,

do we emerge, feeling in fine fettle,

cheered that ferity, unleashed, has not forsaken us,

while civilization’s  abominable accoutrements

— bags, bottles, and boorish babble — have vanished,

and we, dwelling in our savage imaginations,

think ourselves in the presence of good men and lovers?

Out of the Bunker and into the Light

110331 bunker interior 1

One of my favorite rites of spring. The annual moving of native plants out of the bunkers. During the arsenal years, the bunkers stored TNT or finished bombs. The reinforced concrete bunkers, covered with earth, are just as perfect for overwintering plant plugs.  The cool, constant temperatures allow the plants to go dormant during the winter, as they need to do, but keep the root plugs from heaving in the natural freeze and thaw fluctuations of winter.

And so, as the sun warms the morning from a start of 27 degrees to what will top out at 50, more than a dozen volunteers and staff pile into trucks and vans and venture deep into the east side of Midewin. Some of the bunkers are open to visitors to explore. But the one we visited has been sealed up since last fall. It takes two pairs of strong arms to unwedge its explosion-resistant locking mechanism. And then, with all the excitement of opening an ancient tomb, the heavy steel door groans open.

110331 bunker exterior

But rather than dead things, the bunker is filled with trays upon trays of native plants that are but sleeping. Many hands make light work and soon the bunker is empty and a truck and trailer filled to the brim.

Back at the “Hort Building,” we unload the plants into one of several outdoor shade houses, where diffused sunlight and warmer temperatures, along with a little water, will wake the roots and send new green sprouts into the world.

Over the course of the next couple of months, there will be plenty of workdays to plant these plugs in seed beds or one of several areas under active restoration.

110331 shade house

Calling All Frogs

chors frog 3

After the thrill of the woodcock flight, it’s time for the trill of chorus frogs. Walking along Boathouse road, lit up by the perigee moon, I hear plenty of individual frogs in the wet areas that dot the western edge of South Patrol Road Prairie. The mating call of a western chorus frog – typically the first one heard in our region – sounds like running a fingernail across the teeth of a plastic comb. A big sound for a frog that measures barely an inch and a half in length.

A bunch of chorus frogs calling together sounds almost like sleigh bells with a living pulse. And that’s exactly what I hear at the far northwest corner of the prairie, where lies a good-sized ephemeral pond – a pond that holds water during the spring but typically dries up over the summer. Ephemeral ponds are havens for the smaller frogs because they don’t harbor any fish, which feast on their eggs.

Following the established frog monitoring protocols, I record the air temperature – 46 degrees. I take the water temperature – 46 degrees. I look up and then record the sky code – #1, meaning partly clouded. I estimate the wind speed according to the Beaufort Scale – #1, meaning a light breeze (1 to 3 mph) in which rising smoke would drift a bit. And then I record the ambient noise level – #1, meaning I can hear a faint din of traffic from Interstate 55 about a mile away. Finally, I check my watch – 8:03. For the next 10 minutes, I listen and then record the level of frog calling – #1 would mean no calls, #2 would mean distinct individuals, #3 would mean distinct individuals overlapping. I record #4 – an indistinguishable number of frogs overlapping.

On to my second monitoring location. The enormous full moon casts sharp shadows along the path through Prairie Creek Woods, leading me to Buttonbush Pond. A dammed up former oxbow lake, the pond is home to lots of fish. And therefore few frogs. At least not the smaller ones. But the absence of frogs is important data, too. Perhaps there will be some bullfrogs and green frogs later in the season, but tonight all is silence.

It’s just me and the moonlight reflecting on a perfectly still lake save for the wake of a late-working muskrat.

Sky Dance

110304 woodcock

Not two weeks ago I came across a dead woodcock in a downtown flower planter. The victim of a collision with a skyscraper. The dead bird, for me, was a double sadness because I had never seen a live one.

Today, hiking into South Patrol Road Prairie, I expect to see lots of ducks. I am not disappointed. Countless mallards accented by a few northern shovelers and blue-winged teals. I expect to see a few more meadowlarks and harriers, some tree sparrows and killdeers. Check. Less expected are the scores of common snipe and a lesser yellow legs that lands with a piping whistle not ten feet from me.

 

woodcock 4

Totally unexpected is the chunky, long-billed bird I flush from some short grasses. An American woodcock. As with common snipe, woodcocks afford you a few seconds at most to identify them before disappearing back into the grasses or, in this case, a nearby island of woods. But the bird’s plumpness and clearly visible rust colors among the otherwise excellent camouflage strongly indicate woodcock.

To be sure, I return to the site at dusk. Normally, Midewin is closed at dusk. But as this is my first calling frog monitoring night of the season, I am permitted by the Forest Service to be on site in a particular area after dark. The place where I saw the woodcock is near to where I monitor frogs. And so, in the fading light, I stand at the edge of the island woodland, staring out over the adjacent grassland.

And then I hear it. Peent. Peent. At first, it sounds to me like the buzzy flight call of a nighthawk. But scanning the skies, I see nothing. Then I realize that the sound – or the many sounds, now – are actually coming from the ground in both the woodland and the grassland.

woodcock 3

And then I see it. The dark silhouette of a chunky bird, fluttering straight up, higher, higher, all the while twittering melodiously away. And when it is nearly out of sight – in spite of the biggest full moon I can remember seeing (tonight, I would learn later, marks a perigee moon; the biggest in almost 20 years) – the bird flutters back to earth. Not like a crippled plane, as Aldo Leopold described. But rather as a large autumn maple leaf.

For a taste of the experience, here’s a video clip, taken from Heller Nature Center: woodcock sky dance. (For those who prefer their woodcocks set to pop music, I’d suggest: you’ve got to move it, move it, mr. woodcock.)

Sowing Seed

 

Nippy today. Overcast. A cold wind out of the west, occasionally pitted with pellets of icy snow. Perfect for a volunteer day in the field.

buttonbush seed

After months of cleaning seed, it is time to sow some of it. My first assignment is to scatter buttonbush seed around the perimeter of the pond named in its honor. The seed looks like tiny arrow heads, about 20 of which would fit on the face of a dime.

Buttonbush Pond is one of my favorite places at Midewin. It’s where I’ll be spending several evenings in the coming weeks counting calling frogs.

For my second seeding assignment, I join about a dozen other volunteers at South Patrol Road Prairie. Each of us load up with a bucket of wetland seed mixes, which we spread by hand among a patchwork quilt of wet areas.

Last week, these areas were teeming with ducks and geese. Today, there isn’t an aquatic waterfowl to be seen other than a few mallards winging high over head toward some distant pond. But I do rustle up my first meadowlark of the season. Just the sight of that one bird – populations of which have declined 72 percent from 24 to 9 million over the past 40 years – is enough to take the chill off the day.

porcupine grass seed

After we spread all the wetland seed, we move on to porcupine grass, which comes by its name honestly – the tips of its seed are as sharp as pins. Even more astonishing, however, is the fact that they twist in response to moisture changes driving their sharp points into the ground. Many volunteers learn this lesson first hand as a wayward seed works its way through jeans and wool socks.

One by one – on hands and knees – we stab the porcupine grass seed into the ground in an upland area recently cleared of a hedgerow. Removing the hedgerow opens up the landscape, creating more of the kind of open prairie habitat that grassland birds like eastern meadowlarks require. Planting porcupine grass is one of several steps to be taken to heal the hedgerow scars.

Crippled Planes

Here’s another reason I volunteer at Midewin. Every year, thousands of migrating birds die by crashing into downtown Chicago buildings. I found this American woodcock today in a planter on Michigan Avenue near Randolph.

110304 woodcock

Every spring and fall, thousands of migrating birds collide with downtown buildings, confused by their bright lights; this in spite of a fairly successful Lights Out, Chicago! campaign, by which building owners voluntarily turn out or dim their lights during spring and fall migration season (http://lightsout.audubon.org/lightsout_home.php.)

And there’s also a dedicated band of volunteers who patrol the streets of Chicago pre-dawn to rescue migrating birds that have crashed into buildings over night (http://www.birdmonitors.net/intro.html.)

I applaud these efforts. I’ve even helped rescue wounded birds one spring season. But if our birds are to survive long-term, they need more than triage and minimized dangers. They must have large, healthy habitats in which to rest and feed and rear their young. I’ve yet to see an American woodcock at Midewin, but others have. I look forward to what Aldo Leopold describes as their “sky dance:”

In late April/early May, At daybreak and dusk, the male “flies in low and at once begins…a series of queer throaty peents. Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting sound.”

Were he alive and writing today, Leopold certainly would have chosen a different metaphor to describe the descent of a woodcock attempting to impress a mate. Describing anything as tumbling out of the sky like a “crippled plane” in a post-911 world is dicey, even if so many woodcocks and other migrating birds literally do so given the exponential increase in the number and height of skyscrapers over the past 60 years.

Harbingers of Spring

Some days the joy of Midewin lies in a long hike. Other days, it’s all about standing in one place and letting nature come to you.

Today is unseasonably warm, even as the late afternoon fades to evening. Standing alone in the middle of South Patrol Road Prairie, I feel myself at the very center of spring as the skies are filled with birds winging their way toward me. Well, not toward me exactly, but rather to the patchwork of wetland areas strewn throughout the recovered prairie.

canada geese 1

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold observes that “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.” Today, the sky is teeming with wave upon wave of geese. Canada geese. Flying in from all directions in their tell-tale V formations. Trumpeting their arrival as the heralds of spring.

We wander the sky with many a Cronk

And land in the pasture fields with a Plonk

Hank-hank, Hink-hink, Honk, honk.

Then we bend our necks with a curious kink

Like the bend which the plumber puts under the sink.

Honk-honk, Hank-hank, Hink-hink.

And we feed away in a sociable rank

Tearing the grass with a sideways yank,

Hink-hink, Honk-honk, Hank-hank.

But Hink or Honk we relish the Plonk,

And Honk and Hank we relish the rank,

And Hank or Hink we think it a jink

To Honk, or Hank or Hink!

Actually, this sky song belongs to white-fronted geese. At least according to T.H. White in The Book of Merlyn. (You’ll find it in the chapter in which Merlyn changes the ancient and ailing King Arthur, on the eve of his final battle, into a white-fronted goose to learn their peaceful ways.)

white fronted geese

In counterpoint to the tuneful hinks, hanks and honks are the ribald quacks of mallards. In some circles it’s a sin to anthropomorphize nature, but to me their quacks sound like laughter. Spend a little time around a springtime pond littered with ducks and tell me they’re not telling each other jokes that always begin with “two geese waddle into a bar…”

Quack, quack, quack!

mallard

The geese are lovely. The ducks crack me up. But for me the true harbingers of spring are cranes. And earlier than I expected comes the first squadron of the season. Fourteen sandhill cranes. Hovering like Japanese kites. Their wings – more than six feet from tip to tip – like crepe paper. Their chortling calls like toy trumpets.

sandhill crane 1

And in the tall grasses around me, male red-winged blackbirds – arriving before the females to stake out a nesting claim – add their territorial “conk-la-REEE” to the evensong.

red winged blackbird

And is that thumbnail across a comb sound the first chorus frog of the season I hear?

For this. For just this moment is all the effort worth it. The removal of miles of drain tiles, acres of hedgerows, and an elevated rail line. The recountouring of the landscape. Raising seed stock. Harvesting seed. Cleaning it. Planting it. By spreader. By hand. Burning the prairie. Planting more seed. More plugs. Managing for invasives. Expanding into adjacent acreage and repeating the entire process.

Happy Birthday

I turned 51 today. To celebrate, I took advantage of the unseasonable sunshine and 40 degrees temperature to take a day-long hike at Midewin.

110301 signage

Within a half mile of the Iron Bridge Trailhead, you can take in a bit of what Midewin was, is, and yet will be. And the limited palette of early March – before everything starts growing again – affords the opportunity to see such things more clearly; sort of like how certain details are clearer in black and white rather than color photographs.

Within a few steps of starting out, you can peruse the foundations of one of the early farmsteads, most of which were moved or torn down once the land was acquired by the federal government at the start of World War II.

Beyond that lies a bunker field that once harbored armaments during the Joliet arsenal years.

110301 prairie pasture view

Heading west, the trail – itself a raised railbed relict from the arsenal years – forms a dividing line between pasture and prairie. To the north is one of the more recent prairie restoration efforts – Iron Bridge Prairie. Even dormant, its restored wildness stands in stark contrast to the shorn non-native grasses of the south side pasture lands; lands that one day will be likewise filled with prairie grasses and flowers.

The trail soon thereafter leads to the namesake iron bridge, which spans historic Route 66.

I am welcomed to the west side of Midewin by a half dozen eastern bluebirds – the first I’ve seen this year. And twice as many goldfinches, the males inching toward their lemon yellow breeding colors.

The trail next winds through a large expanse of harvested hay field. Like the pasture land south of the Iron Bridge Prairie, it is managed for agricultural purposes on an interim basis, until such time as the resources are available to recover the native landscape. Until then, the hayfields and cattle pastures provide critical habitat for grassland birds. Today, there’s not a meadowlark, dickcissel or grasshopper sparrow in sight. But, even now, they are on their way from wintering grounds as far away as the rainforests of Brazil.

The trail leads past several former farm fields that now lie fallow. They provide a reminder that “letting nature take its course” inevitably leads not to healthy habitat, but rather to tangled thickets of aggressive non-native species.

110301 brush hog

A few miles into my hike, I come across a work crew tackling some of those thickets. Along with lots of other volunteers, I’ve certainly cut my fair share of brush. But for big jobs – clearing out large sections of woody growth – only big equipment run by professionals will do.

But there are some jobs that must be done by hand. Largely by volunteers. And such work and such a volunteer I find just a little further down the trail. In her second year as trail steward, Margaret spends at least once a week at her site. Today, she’s pulling garlic mustard, a pernicious non-native invasive that can quickly overrun woodland areas, choking out all other native wildflower species.

Another mile or so down the trail, I come to South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration site at Midewin. Today, Midewin crews are over-seeding the site with additional prairie seed, including seed that staff and volunteers have collected and cleaned over the past several months.

It’s heartening to see all this hard work happening today. Next Thursday, I’ll be out here for a volunteer day of brush cutting. But today, I’m content merely to saunter (derived from the 15th century French word santren, “to muse, be in reverie;” to count the returning birds; to find a dry patch of thatch and take to heart Walt Whitman’s invitation “to lean and loaf at my ease.”

Ghosts of the Prairie

For me, the football season ended January 23 when the Packers beat the Bears 21-14 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. And so I venture out to Midewin for a quiet walk on Super Bowl Sunday.

Since my last visit, a little more than 20 inches of snow has fallen in the Chicago area – the third largest snowfall on record. Added to that is what looks like another couple of inches of fresh powder that has just fallen today on South Patrol Road Prairie.

Even with such an unusual amount of snow on the ground, it’s hard to imagine what Midewin may have looked like 20,000 years ago. That’s about the middle of the last ice age when glaciers covered much of North America, including the northeastern third of Illinois. The snow today is about two feet deep. I stand a little shy of six feet. The tallest prairie plants top out around 12 feet.

The bur oaks in Prairie Creek Woods rise to about 100 feet into the air. The last glacier to cover this area may have been as much as 700 feet thick – as tall as the 52-story IBM building in downtown Chicago.

ibm building

(If you’re wondering, the IBM building is the 20th tallest structure in Chicago. The Willis Tower – formerly Sears Tower – is #1 at 1,451 feet.)

The glaciers are long gone, of course. The last one retreated out of Illinois about 13,500 years ago. Gone, too, are the mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths and giant beavers that once roamed the tundra of Illinois. And as tundra gave way to prairie, then came wolves, bears, elk, mountain lions and bison that one by one were hunted down or otherwise pushed far to the north and west as prairie gave way to farmland and towns.

A few mile walk on such a cold, snowy day leaves the impression there is no wildlife left at Midewin at all. The rich abundance of amphibians, birds and assorted small mammals is either hunkered down until the skies clear or hibernating until warmer days return. Or not yet returned from wintering grounds elsewhere.

And then I spy the coyote. Like other native, top-of-the-food-chain predators, coyotes largely disappeared from our state in the 19th and 20th centuries, but have recently made an extraordinary comeback. Even so, these “ghosts of the prairie” come by their nickname honestly – they are rarely seen.

But that hasn’t kept many in our region – fearing that coyotes prey on pets and small children – from calling for their re-elimination. (Here’s a good website for debunking a lot of fears and misconceptions: http://urbancoyoteresearch.com.)

The myths of many Native American cultures reveal coyotes as tricksters, alternating between cleverness and buffoonery; wisdom and lechery; equal parts imp and hero; “a rebel against authority and the breaker of all taboos…turning quickly from clown to creator and back again…representing the sheerly spontaneous in life, the pure creative spark that is our birthright as human beings and that defies fixed roles or behavior.”

After glimpsing the coyote at Midewin, that night I would dream that a coyote was loose in a neighbor’s backyard. I took a shovel and chased it, swinging wildly, trying to beat it to death, but always missing. Exhausted, I retreat to my own back yard – a tiny natural oasis, with a pond and lots of native prairie plants. The coyote creeps into my backyard, along with another and another. Before my eyes, each of them transforms into the kind of young man I used to be. Or wish I’d been.

Cavorting with the Enemy

white tail deer 1

This past weekend I attended a state-sanctioned Hunter Safety Training course, a first step toward going on my first deer hunt next fall at Midewin. In some circles, this makes me a traitor. A Benedict Arnold. Hunters are the enemy. They’re not nature lovers. They’re killers.

The fact is, most everyone involved in natural areas restoration is a killer of some kind. While some may limit their activities to monitoring birds or butterflies or planting native plant plugs, many saw, chop and lop down invasive plants – including some aggressive native species such as gray dogwood – and treat the stumps with a heavy concentration of herbicide to kill the plants at their roots. Many participate in prescribed burns, setting controlled fire to natural areas, which kills off undesirable plant species along with a fair number of native insects and other critters that fail to escape the flames.

deer browse lineMany restorationists likewise understand that excess populations of native white-tailed deer must be killed in order to restore the health our woodlands. Drive by most forest preserves in Northeastern Illinois and you’ll see a distinct browse line, with deer having consumed virtually everything on the ground and on trees up to a height of about five feet. At Midewin, nine-foot chain link fences now surround the native plant seed beds to keep out deer that previously mowed through the beds like a plague of locusts. However, few restorationists actually take up a gun and do the deer killing themselves. But that often doesn’t stop them from looking down their noses at the hunters they rely upon to do the dirty work for them.

Of course, the hunting community is hardly short of individuals who return the favor by disparaging the entire environmental community as a bunch of “tree huggers” and “Bambi lovers.”

I didn’t have to attend hunter safety training in order to apply for a hunting license in the State of Illinois. Anyone born before 1984 is exempt. However, never having hunted before, it seemed to me the common sense thing to do, just as last fall I had enrolled in a course to be certified to assist with conducting controlled burns.

In truth, there was a significant degree in common between the two training courses. Both of them lasted about the same amount of time over two days. More importantly, both emphasized safety, safety, safety. Hunting and burning are activities that can have beneficial effects, but both involve no small amount of risk. To property. To human life.

For this reason, hunting and burning also share in common a fair amount of opposition. In part because some fundamentally oppose them, no matter their positive effects. Or for moral and ethical reasons. Or because they don’t understand the why’s and wherefore’s of each.

I’ve never hunted in my life. Never had the least desire to do so. The closest I’ve come is holding a trapped squirrel over a big bucket of water to drown it. Over the years, I’ve trapped a hundred or more squirrels in my backyard and transported them to various forest preserves. The main reason I do so is to keep squirrels from taking up residence in my attic as they have done on several occasions, repeatedly chewing through the wood soffits on my historic home. On one occasion, a squirrel some how got into my house while I was out of town and tried to get out by chewing through the sashes of my newly-installed historic replication windows. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to drown even a squirrel that caused significant damage to my home. So it will be interesting to see if I can pull the trigger on a deer that causes significant damage to a treasured natural area.

The two-day hunting safety course was good. In addition to firearm safety, a great deal of emphasis was placed on being a responsible and ethical hunter. Quoting Aldo Leopold, “the father of wildlife management,” the instruction manual stressed “ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Doing the right thing includes respecting natural resources, landowners, hunters and non-hunters alike. It includes obeying the law, exercising good judgment, safe judgment. It includes the concept of “fair chase,” a concept first purportedly developed in the Middle Ages and formalized in this country by the Boone and Crockett Club (founded by the conservation president Teddy Roosevelt) and woven into the laws of many states.

For all the information about doing the right thing ethically, there ran through the comments and conversations of the 60 or so people taking the course, and even occasionally among the instructors, a polite but pointed undertone of “us” against “them:” we need to do the right thing because “environmentalists” want to take away our sport; the government wants to take away our rights. Or, as one camo-clad dad of two young kids preparing for their first hunt chimed in unapologetically, “Democrats suck.”

hunter safety card

When I explained to a few folks why I was taking the course, they appreciated that someone from the “other side” would bother to walk in their shoes (or Gore-Tex hunting boots) for a change. “No one understands nature better than a hunter” was a common refrain. Come next November, I’ll see for myself. Between now and then, however, as I learned from the course, I’ve got a lot of practicing with a firearm to do so I can go into the field confident, prepared, safe and responsible.