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.”