March 24, 2020

It’s Wild Out There

sandhill cranes.jpg

First, you hear the sound — guttural, otherworldly, ancient. Not a caw or a cluck. What is it? Then, gazing up — oh, oh, there! High overhead, graceful, legs trailing. Sandhill cranes. Circling once over the meadow, then flying on, migrating from their winter homes to summer places in the north. It is spring.

As attenuated as our lives have become, I write to you today with an invitation and a plea: Get outside!

It’s going to be sunny and warmer on Wednesday and in days to come. Let’s plan a field trip to get some fresh air, to stretch our legs and find some reprieve from electronics and wired connectedness. We are directed to stay at home, yet isn’t our home Planet Earth? Isn’t it also the habitats we share with so many other animals and plants? In these times of stress and close quarters, what better way to seek solace and delight than in exploring nature close to home — in the forest preserves (which remain open for hiking and biking that still permits safe social distancing), in parks and public gardens.

Here’s something you may not know: the crescent of protected natural areas stretching from southeastern Wisconsin through the Indiana Dunes harbors the greatest concentration of threatened and endangered plant and animal species in the Midwest. As you travel west and south from Chicago, you enter corn and soybean land: essential for our sustenance, sure, but depauperate of biological diversity. Remarkably, it’s the metropolitan area — not the surrounding farmland — that harbors the world’s best remaining assemblage of our true and original Midwest “wilderness:” the tallgrass prairies and oak woodlands, the savannas and marshes.

In the mid-1990s, the leading conservation scientists, advocates and volunteers in the Chicago region, seeking to do more to protect and restore biological diversity here, established a regional alliance of public and private groups to work together toward that goal. They called themselves — and the nature they sought to protect — Chicago Wilderness.

The alliance has grown to more than 200 member organizations and the natural areas cover more than 545,000 acres in portions of four states. (The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has been a member of Chicago Wilderness since its early days and some of the land owned by the MWRD, such as Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve, since sold to the Forest Preserve District of Will County, is home to federally-endangered species, such as the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, leafy prairie clover, and lakeside daisy.)

For almost 10 years, from 1997 until January 2007, I edited a quarterly magazine that emerged from the alliance called Chicago WILDERNESS. (You can find the archive of all issues here.) Each issue contains a center section called “Into the Wild” that serves as a guide to different natural areas throughout the greater Chicago metro area with maps, suggestions of things to do and see, and what to look for in each season. Some of the information is undoubtedly outdated and you should certainly check to see if some parks are closed temporarily, but these places still await your visit, still harbor marvelous communities of plants and animals, and remain nature’s discovery zones for your wonder and pleasure. (Public health advisory: please check yourselves for ticks after your visit. Some species like to stick with us!)

chicago wilderness cover.jpg Check out, for instance, the Spring 2009 issue, which has a special insert on Discovering Calumet, an area of Illinois and Indiana where intersecting geographies of industry, nature, and culture have a rich history and, many think, a ripe promise for renewal.

Why am I urging you to get out? In a recent op-ed titled “The Beautiful World Besides the Broken One,” Margaret Renkl wrote,

“Here is the alternate world we need right now, one that exists far beyond the impulse to scroll and scroll. The bluebird bringing pine straw to the nest box she has chosen in a sunny spot of the yard, like the chickadee bringing moss to the nest box under the trees, is doing her work with the urgency of the ages. She has no care for me at all. Even her watchful mate ignores me as I pull weeds in the flower bed beside our driveway.

“The natural world’s perfect indifference has always been the best cure for my own anxieties. Every living thing — every bird and mammal and reptile and amphibian, every tree and shrub and flower and moss — is pursuing its own urgent purpose, a purpose that sets my own worries in a larger context.”

This is your assignment, then: Find an open meadow at the edge of a wooded area in some of our forest preserves. Go at dusk, dress warm, and wait. Disregard the chorus frogs’ insistent calls. You are listening for the raspy peent….peent…peent of the American woodcock. Males will ascend high into the sky, then fall precipitously in a dramatic whirring mating flight. Wait for it! Again it comes….peent….peent…peent.

Nature presses on, with urgency, vibrancy, and hope for a new generation. Dear readers, so shall we.

Resources for exploring, indoors and out: