My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago

In my quest to visit 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year, I could almost make the case for adding a whole bunch more to my list from having spent this past weekend at a single site: Printers Row Lit Fest.

A first-time book author, this was my first time as a participant in Lit Fest — “the largest free outdoor literary event in the Midwest.” Through the grapevine I’d learned about Windy City Historians and was delighted to be invited to share their tent.

My fellow writers offered books on a wide range of subjects — from historic bridges to presidential biographies, from Maxwell Street to labor history. My good friend Rich Cahan and his CityFiles Press publishing partner, Michael Williams, were there with their wealth of photography-based titles, including the heartbreakingly beautiful and timely, Un-American — The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.

Also there was Mike MacDonald, whose exquisitely handsome My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago bears a direct connection to my book, Force of Nature. George Fell spent his life protecting the natural area remnants of Illinois (and beyond.) Mike MacDonald has devoted himself to photographing and writing about a lot of those very same natural lands that George protected.

Mike features 28 nature preserves in his book, from Chiwaukee Prairie in southeast Wisconsin to Cowles Bog in northwest Indiana. In between, in northeast Illinois, Mike celebrates a number of sites, including at least 16 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves.

Among them is one of my favorites–Bluff Spring Fen. Over the course of the past three decades — due largely to countless hours of sweat equity by a dedicated corps of volunteers — this Forest Preserve District of Cook County site has been transformed from an abandoned mine/dumping ground/off-road vehicle course into one of the state’s premier Nature Preserves.

Bluff Spring Fen

For such a small site — the dedicated Nature Preserve comprises about 2/3 of its 160 acres  — it boasts an exceptional diversity of habitat types: dry gravel prairie, mesic black soil prairie, bur oak savanna, sedge meadow, marsh, and its namesake feature, fen. Fens are exceptionally rare, occurring only in the northern third of Illinois. Calcerous fens are the rarest, with only 14.5 acres remaining in the entire state.

Bluff Spring Fen is home to an astonishing richness of plant and animal species, including at least 39 different kinds of butterflies (according to the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network.) Doug Taron, a long-time site steward and Chief Curator at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, is trying to add one more–the swamp metalmark. This small, orange and richly-patterned butterfly was last recorded at Bluff Spring Fen around 1940, and last seen anywhere in Illinois in the 1980s. Taron and his team have been raising swamp metalmarks at the Peggy Noteabaert Museum and releasing them at Bluff Spring Fen, which is one of the few places that contains its favorite food plant: purple-flowered swamp thistle.

Bluff Spring Fen is a living laboratory for restoration and butterfly reintroductions. But as one Chicago Tribune writer observed, “Beyond its scientific value, Bluff Spring Fen is, to put it unscientifically but truthfully, beautiful.”

So are Mike MacDonald’s photographs. So beautiful, in fact, that looking at them is almost as good as being there.

There’s hardly a dull moment in Bluff Spring Fen’s prairie. Just as blooms of leadplant and coreopsis fade, purple prairie clover rises to take their place.

But as I’m sure Mike, Doug and many others would agree, don’t cheat yourself. Head out to Elgin. Meander through Bluff City Cemetery. Park your car and wander into a richness and diversity of beauty that rivals any museum, anywhere.

And then keep going. Check out all the preserves featured in Mike’s book. And then keep going some more, and visit all 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, each of them waiting just for you.