This is the 50th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Lorena Lopez is Community Engagement Specialist at Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center, responsible for interfacing with communities including on the city’s Far South Side and in Gary. She shared her story with us in her own words. Her comments were slightly edited.
“I’m getting ready for the Beaubien Woods celebration [June 14]. We’re giving out nature bags: native plant plugs and native seeds, milkweed, goldenrod and nodding onion. People really respond to that. We’re lucky enough at the museum to be able to grow these seeds, collect them and put them in envelopes to give to folks. It really feels like I’m Johnny Appleseed.
“My job is to be a connector with communities, connecting with local organizations and community councils in Altgeld [on the city's Far South Side]. It’s an environmental justice community. What’s happening is a bridge and connection to Beaubien Woods [Forest Preserve]. We’re advocating for safe passage from the community to the woods and stewarding Beaubien Woods once a month. We’re connecting with the community.
“I’m not a naturalist and not an ecologist. I don’t specialize in birds, I specialize in people. People need nature, and nature needs people. It’s a duality that’s been present since the creation of this earth. Sometimes a lot of people in conservation forget we need people to thrive.
“A lot of people on the South Side have gone through gun violence and systems to oppress people of color. I have found nature to be completely healing and want to introduce people to its healing powers. We are going to need [nature] to heal. I’m here to support them.
“I started with LVEJO (Little Village Environmental Justice Organization) 15 years ago. As a community we saw a lot of environmental justice issues, starting with a coal-fired power plant and high levels of toxins. I was an open space organizer for more than five years and worked to have a park developed in a just way for communities.
"I want to be clear that conservation is a tool for people. But I will never push my communities to make our programming a higher priority [than addressing health risks]. Removing buckthorn is important, too, but people's lives are at stake.
"It’s not the same thing as when people can’t breathe, and they’re being rained on by toxic chemicals. These people’s lives are really at risk.”
The Field Museum has two upcoming trainings for its Monarch Community Science Project. The trainings will take place June 18 in Spanish and June 20 in English. Learn more here.
This is the 49th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
For two long, pandemic-riddled months, Cook County forest preserves were havens for invasive plants like Lesser Celandine and Garlic Mustard. The thought of the plants flourishing nagged at Brenda Elmore.
“It’s almost when you’ve worked on these sites for so long, you feel like you’re neglecting them,” Brenda says. “And that all the work is for nothing.”
Invasive species crowd out native species and have profound effects on ecosystems. Brenda has been working in habitat management for more than a decade, currently serving as Senior Crew Leader for Friends of the Forest Preserves’ Conservation Corps. The pandemic kept her and all of the crews away from the forest preserves until May 11.
“I was going crazy, I was like ‘oh my goodness,’” Brenda says. “The Lesser Celandine was so bad. I would go out there and update the team. It was terrible at Kickapoo Woods.”
The natural lands we enjoy today have benefited from decades of careful restoration and management. The truth is that without human intervention, the Chicago Wilderness region would be choked by invasive species. Even now, many areas of invasive species persist.
The Conservation Corps recruits high school students, young adults and adults, often from low-income neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago, to learn about conservation while gaining vital leadership and teamwork skills that can be used in future careers.
Brenda had little exposure to nature until she signed up for a horticulture class after her husband’s passing in the 2000s. She applied for a job with another restoration organization and found that she enjoyed the time spent outside and helping preserve ecosystems.
“The very first time I went out to Hegewisch Marsh, I was in awe of a whole field of purple flowers,” the Lansing resident says, “then [my boss] said ‘we’re going to pull up all this stuff. I was thinking ‘why are we killing this beautiful plant?’”
Fast forward to more than 10 years later, and Brenda was leading her crew early in the morning recently at a woodland along Michigan City Road in Calumet City. They took their temperatures before starting to work, donning face masks, surgical gloves, eye protection and safety vests. They stayed at least 10 feet apart and hand-pulled Garlic Mustard, facing a few fierce mosquitoes on a humid spring day.
“As a kid, I was taught to stay out of the forest preserves,” Brenda says. “As an adult to come to a site and see the beauty in it, that was an eye opener for me. I got involved late in the game, but now I’m making a difference and I’m here doing my part.”
This is the 48th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Bird monitors may have some of the mightiest responsibilities among our conservation volunteers. Their duties provide us with a sense of the population status of our most fragile species. The fate of a species could depend on what we learn from monitors.
"I do get familiar with the places and do anticipate seeing birds," says Jenny Vogt, a bird monitor for 13 years. "I'm disappointed when a bird I expect to see isn't there. It makes me think, 'Hey, what's going on here?'"
Monitors visit specific locations across the region at least twice each breeding season to check on birds. They wade into prairies and trek through woodlands, looking, listening and keeping careful track of species and their GPS coordinates. The days can be sweltering, and the locations are often remote.
"Some years the grass is as tall as I am by June and dripping wet with dew," Jenny says. "So it's quite the adventure at 5:30 in the morning. For me the biggest challenge is getting just drenched with dew."
Jenny monitors parcels of the Cook County Forest Preserve District in the far reaches of northwest Cook County. She’s familiar with less common bird species of the Chicago region, both by sight and by sound. On a recent day, Jenny observed Bobolinks, Henslow's Sparrows, Sedge Wrens and Willow Flycatchers.
The data help land managers improve habitat and researchers prioritize species of growing concern. Jenny's gotten to see firsthand the influx of species at a property that had once been an agricultural field.
"Nothing more exciting than having my first Henslow's Sparrow show up and hang out and start breeding," she says. “It's been really awesome to watch the area grow up."
Jenny conducts her surveys as part of the Bird Conservation Network, a volunteer-led coalition of 21 organizations that has preserved and restored bird habitat in northeast Illinois, southern Wisconsin and northwest Indiana for more than 15 years.
This is the 47th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Jeff Skrentny started the year with a stunning goal--to identify 2,500 living things in Cook County: plants, birds, insects, mushrooms, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, arachnids, mollusks and even protozoa. Last year all observers in Cook County had 2,472 observations, according to a piece Dale Bowman wrote in the Sun-Times in late February. The 2,500 goal is a lofty one, to say the least.
'I'm only about one-third of the way to my stated goal," Jeff wrote last week on Facebook. "It is going to be a pretty big stretch goal."
Jeff is at 828 peer-reviewed observations via the iNaturalist mobile app. Kingdom Plantae has the most sightings with 420. Next comes Class Aves with 220.
"I am very proud of my 220 documented bird species, but I will likely only add 30 to 40 more if I am VERY lucky," Jeff wrote.
One of the more surprising finds was a Painted Bunting, generally a bird of the southern United States, in the West Ridge neighborhood on May 2. "A one-day wonder," Jeff calls it, as the Painted Bunting disappeared after that day.
Jeff notes the quest has benefited from tips from an array of friends.
Says Jeff, "One of my best finds of the year, Dwarf Periodical Cicada, was seen thanks to a friend letting me know she had them in her yard. Best bug of the year thus far."
This is the 46th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Even 100 years ago, Vermont Cemetery no longer was an active cemetery. As the years went by, the 1-acre parcel became a time capsule of the Illinois of prior millennia.
"It's hard to find prairie in Illinois, even though we're called the Prairie State," says Don Nelson, longtime site steward at Vermont Cemetery along with his wife, Espie.
The acre benefited by being hemmed in by a railroad grade, which made it doubly difficult for farmers to reach the land with their equipment. What resulted is rare Grade A dry-mesic prairie harboring more than 100 native plant species.
The acre, which is fenced in for fear of it being "loved to death," requires near-constant management, particularly of invasive species such as sweet clover. The Nelsons have pulled enough of it, though, that they can take in a pleasant view of a previous era.
"At least for 100 yards, everything we see is what Illinois would have looked like a 100 years ago," says Don.
This is the 45th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
It was a habitat restoration work day just a year ago that started Refugio Mariscal on a path to a career in conservation and a position with Audubon Great Lakes.
"It was just by chance," says Refugio, who was working as an educator at the time. "I'd been a volunteer for Lake County Forest Preserves for a number of years. I was invited to go to the next Lake County Audubon Society meeting. Before that, I had no affiliation."
Now Refugio, who has a degree in geography, has the role of mapping and tracking some of our most sensitive marsh birds including species like the Black Tern, Common Gallinule and King Rail to name a few. He receives data from monitoring efforts across the Great Lakes, ranging from Minnesota to New York. The data help scientists understand how species and breeding locales are faring. Refugio credits his colleagues Stephanie Beilke (Conservation Science Manager) and Carina Ruiz (Community Engagement Manager) as important mentors in the past year.
"Hopefully our work in restoring areas has helped," the Round Lake Park resident says. "That's our goal, the reason for monitoring. To make sure that what we are doing is actually working, and learning what we can do to improve.”
The importance of the work extends to nearby communities and beyond habitat preservation and wildlife management.
“Our goal isn’t to only restore these areas for birds, but also for the benefit of the surrounding communities,” Refugio says. “Those benefits can include flood mitigation, cleaner water and a safe and welcoming place for recreation.”
This is the 44th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
David-Anthony Gonzalez has always been into nature, but his Instagram feed has exploded with sightings since the start of Covid-19. Take this example from May 18, when David-Anthony encountered a Killdeer, a type of plover, in a shopping center parking lot.
The Killdeer was performing a broken-wing display to distract from its nearby nest.
"Plovers are pretty cool birds and very good parents," David-Anthony wrote. "She was behaving as if injured and lame, aka an easy meal. But it's just a trick, as I approached she appeared to be just fine and lured me away from what I only imagined was a nest."
Aside from David-Anthony's lifelong interest in nature, he's something of an Instagram power user, having served as a moderator of accounts such as @CHIToday and @IGERSMiami (when he lived in Florida). The Humboldt Park resident's day job is as a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service.
"I work in a very forested area and I'm always posting stuff about some sort of nature and things of that sort," he says. "I'm blessed to be working in a job that's in the outdoors and outside.
"People are definitely showing a little bit more appreciation for nature. I follow a range of people, and I've noticed that the friends I follow who are not into nature are getting out and being more open to their park.
"This is a good opportunity to sit back and observe animals behaving a little differently due to less activity out."
This is the 43rd of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
The truth is that the enjoyment of our natural areas is a privilege available to some more than others.
“Some people are genuinely afraid of being in the woods and in the outdoors,” says Jen Johnson of Audubon Great Lakes.
Jen is Coordinator of Audubon Great Lakes' Wild Indigo Program in Northwest Indiana. Wild Indigo is a community engagement program that seeks to build lasting relationships between urban communities of color and their local natural areas.
“That feeling of ‘I belong here,’ that's what's been driving us, whether someone is black, Latino, from the South Side or Gary,” she says.
Jen works with local organizations to develop custom programming. That includes partnerships with schools and community groups but also--prior to the Covid-19 pandemic--monthly Wild Indigo talks at the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education in Indiana Dunes National Park.
“Sometimes, with large science organizations, there's a stigma that we're not here for long-term relationships with the communities we’re in,” Jen says. “We want to also be a help to people and not a burden to people.”
Community collaboration and in-person interaction is at the core of Jen and Wild Indigo's approach. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has made that impossible. Instead, Wild Indigo has provided webinars and Facebook live events, including a recent bilingual nature walk and tips on backyard birding (a video clip featuring Jen is included below).
“We've really ramped up a lot of [digital] engagement,” the South Side resident says, “but there's the challenge of the digital divide and that not everybody is tech savvy or has a phone and good internet access. We do acknowledge that.”
Jen notes, though, that nature can be found everywhere, a sentiment shared by longtime members of Gary's many block clubs and community groups.
“I'm learning so much from them,” she says. “Gary is a town that's in transition from being heavily industrial. The people of Gary belong in nature, and nature belongs around them as well.”
Learn more about Wild Indigo Nature Explorations.
This is the 42nd of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Even the smallest patches of habitat make a difference. For a wonderful example, check out the many corner gardens of the Edgewater neighborhood.
"I just saw a female monarch [butterfly] laying eggs on my milkweed," says Kim Kaulas, who's worked on the same corner garden for close to 30 years.
The gardens started when a few area residents needed a home for the excess plants from their small yards. First, the Edgewater Community Council supported the efforts and now the Edgewater Environmental Sustainability Partnership provides small grants to take care of the plots.
"It definitely snowballs if one neighbor starts it and then another. It's keeping up with the Joneses," Kim says. "There's no doubt in mind that a beautiful landscape has a socializing effect on human beings. The aesthetic value of it is very pleasant to people."
For more info on Edgewater Glen's Garden Walks, Plant Swaps, and Parkway Corner program, visit www.edgeglen.com.
This is the 41st of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Daniel Burnham, architect, urban designer and Chicago hero, passed away on this date in 1912. Max Grinnell contributes this piece as a tribute to Burnham.
Right now, some of us might be thinking about how to get away, fly away, train away, drive away, or bike away.
Just to be away, even for an afternoon would be nice.
If you live in a city as I have my entire life, it can be terribly difficult, particular if you are sans automobile. I find myself thinking about this more as I’ve wondered "What would Daniel Burnham do?” I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with his buildings, his park designs, and his Plan of 1909 for Chicago. It’s true that he made no small plans and when he wasn’t thinking about the Big Picture, he and his collaborators often worked on more modest creations for a range of site-specific projects, such as the rather elegant Jackson Park Bridge in Chicago’s Jackson Park (where else would it be?).
Let me return to the word “modest." For the foreseeable future, we will be looking at local interventions in transforming cities in a modest fashion. This includes thinking about travel in a very hyperlocal fashion. The world around us is endlessly fascinating and if we slow down we will have the opportunity to see how the places physically proximate to us afford us a lens to understand a broader set of concerns.
I’m thinking now of those local places where I’ve communed with nature, fellow human beings, public art, and more in Chicago. It might take awhile before more ambitious trips will happen, so why not take a look at these suggestions and plan a short trip?
Nichols Park in Hyde Park
When folks think about green space and nature in Hyde Park, their minds might turn to the Midway Plaisance, Promontory Point, or Jackson Park. Nichols Park is just as important as all of these because it’s right in center of the neighborhood. There’s a charming wildflower meadow, the rather remarkable “Bird of Peace” statue (I’ve always referred to it as the “egg statue”) and a nice fountain surrounded by flowers near the 53rd Street side. It has a sizable footprint (a bit over 11 acres) and it has most, if not all, of the essential elements of a robust and varied urban park landscape. I’ll suggest that you go during the golden hour as that’s when everything takes on a different hue. But doesn’t everything do that in the golden hour?
The McCormick Bird Sanctuary at McCormick Place
Birdwatching is having a moment. For my part, I’ve been putting out suet along the nooks and crannies of a non-functional Dish TV satellite outside of my apartment window. Channelling my inner Roger Tory Peterson, I’ve identified at least eight or nine bird species over the past few weeks. It’s also a wonderful way to break from an inordinate amount of screen time. I can also suggest a visit to the expansive McCormick Bird Sanctuary, six acres of prairie grass that cover a massive parking facility. Installed in 2003, the sanctuary is a place for weary avian travelers during their migrations: during a single spring day here in 2004, birders counted 1,000 sparrows.
Take a moment to wander the grounds and note that the pond's water circulation system is powered by solar energy. It's a landscape of soft touches amid an aggressively hard-scaped environment.
And did Daniel Burnham ever visit either of these two exquisite spaces?
Do I know what he would have thought about them?
What matters most right now is that I hope you’ll make your way to one, if not both, of these remarkable places.
And maybe you will report back.
As an urbanologist, geographer, historian, and professor, Max Grinnell finds his raison d’etre in describing, critiquing, and analyzing the urban condition. Raised in Seattle and Madison, Wisconsin, Max was educated at the University of Chicago where he received degrees in history, geography, and community development.