April 22, 2019

What Do We Owe Mother Nature?

Will You Get Muddy With Me?

What do we owe Mother Nature? How do we thank Mother Earth? How do we thank the atmosphere for sheltering us with life-sustaining oxygen? How do we thank the lake for its abundance of fresh water? How do we sing back to songbirds, give a throaty chorus to frogs, flutter with butterflies, buzz with bees, and tilt our faces in gratitude to the warmth of the sun? What say we to mycorrhizal fungi decomposing matter and enriching soil so that we may eat? Is it not incumbent upon us, at least once each season (if not as part of daily devotion), to give back to Mother Nature for all we have received from her? To endeavor, literally, to repair the world in humble recognition of the harms we have done?

Chicago Wilderness

Photo by Stephen Packard. Chicago WILDERNESS Magazine was published from 1997–2009. I was the founding editor. An archive of the issues can be found here.

For nearly 30 years, I have endeavored to render thanks through the act of habitat restoration. The Che-ca-gou region—yes, the great metropolis and its environs named for the nodding wild onion that grew in profusion along the soggy riverbanks and that grows here still—harbors globally significant, globally rare communities of plants and animals, most of them thriving in places where generous and visionary forebears preserved the landscape—forest preserves and parks, conservation districts and wooded islands.

These places, threaded throughout the great metropolis, came to be called Chicago Wilderness through the establishment in the mid 1990s of a novel alliance between public and private organizations, land-owning agencies and nature advocacy and study groups. But long before a passion for preservation found expression in collaborative organizations and structures was a yearning to explore our natural heritage, the ecosystems that had evolved for thousands of years after the retreat of the last glacier that made Illinois the prairie state. 

In the late 1970s, photographers like Torkel Korling and amateur botanists like Stephen Packard found remnant prairie patches in old cemeteries, railroad rights-of-way and forest preserves. Could they collect seeds from the lingering tall grasses and asters and extend the prairies? Could they clear away invasive brush like buckthorn imperiling oak woodlands? Could fire be reintroduced in carefully controlled fashion to restore the ancient forces under which these ecosystems evolved? With permission from the Forest Preserve District, these plucky folks recruited volunteers and gave birth to a movement: citizen stewardship. Regular folks who care about nature near where they live and want to help. Pharmacists and teachers, computer coders and homemakers, students and elders. They gather on weekend mornings throughout the Chicago region to cut brush, pull weeds, collect seeds. All year round. I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years and I love it. “Restoration,” writes Bill Jordan, “is a reciprocal act.” Restoring nature, Jordan means, restores us—our bodies and our spirits. And I believe it places us in “right relationship” to the land. No longer are we merely users or abusers of natural resources. We can make amends. We are caring kin.

And that’s what’s paramount about giving back to Mother Nature, about caring for Mother Earth. Finding humility in our connection with the rest of nature. 

“In a time of climate chaos, humans are beginning to feel the sting, the consequences of ignoring the rights of the Earth,” writes philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore in great tide rising, Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. “… That means that humans are called to acknowledge new moral and legal responsibilities toward the Earth—to honor the inherent worth of life, living things, and the natural systems that support them; to restrain their own behavior in order to bring their narrowly self-regarding urges into balance with the creative urgency of the natural world; to accept full membership in the family of living things, an interdependent whole that is beautiful and astonishing and alive.”

On this Earth Day, will you pledge to do one thing each season to restore the earth, to repair the world? Send me your favorite ways to give back to Mother Nature—I’ll publish a list!

If you want to try habitat restoration, there are many groups throughout the region who welcome volunteers. Generally, they supply gloves and tools and snacks. You show up in clothes and shoes that can get muddy.

Here are a few resources I know of, but there are many more:

North Branch Restoration Project (working at sites along the North Branch of the Chicago River from Edgebrook in Chicago to Northbrook)

Forest Preserve District of Cook County

Friends of the Forest Preserves

Habitat 20/30 (younger folks who sleep in a bit later…)

Chicago Wilderness

Deer Grove Natural Areas Volunteers

Lake County (IL) Forest Preserve District

McHenry County Conservation District

Shirley Heinze Land Trust (IN)

National Drug Take-Back Day — Saturday, April 27, 2019

Never flush unused meds down the toilet or pour them down the sink as some of the chemicals will end up in Chicago’s waterways. Safe, secure collection and disposal of pharmaceuticals is one way to help the environment and protect public health. To find a collection site near you, go to takebackday.dea.gov and type in your zip code.

Also, remember that the MWRD has collection boxes for your use at the Calumet, Skokie, and Stickney treatment plant gatehouses and in the lobby of District headquarters at 100 E. Erie St. in Chicago.

Book Now for My Summer Solstice Celebration

Book your place now for my annual summer solstice celebration on Thursday, June 20 at the Erie Café.

Thursday, June 20
5:30 – 7:00p.m.
Erie Café in Chicago
536 W. Erie
Free valet parking and a Divvy stand nearby
Make a contribution here.