Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Outdoors Chicagoland: McHenry County Conservation District

This spring I've been applying myself to learning about the State of the Nature here in my native Chicagoland, as my experiences with nature--recreational, pedagogical, emotional--were mostly forged in the Bay Area in California, where I moved after high school and accidentally lived for fourteen years before returning to my hometown. I backcountry camped in Yosemite and Big Sur,  went hiking almost every summer weekend on Mount Tamalpais, and sought solace and solitude in walks up Twin Peaks and bike rides through Golden Gate Park and along Ocean Beach. Mount Tam was particularly special to me.

So, I signed up for McHenry County Conservation District's Weekend of Restoration in April, taking place at Glacial Park. MCCD manages over 25,000 acres of open space, including the woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and oak savannahs that marked much of Illinois prior to European settlement. They provide outdoor recreation spaces, environmental education programs for children and adults, and hands-on opportunities for volunteers. Their mission is "to preserve, restore, and manage natural areas and open spaces for their intrinsic value and for the benefits to present and future generations."

We "camped" outside of this interns' bunkhouse, down a gravel road from the visitor's center. Nighttime wind, rain, and temperatures were chilly for the three-season tent I borrowed, especially the first night, but the days were perfect for working--low '60s, abundant sunshine.

Newly created kames, location based on local memory
Nippersink Creek's restored meandering curves

MCCD's restoration work is focused on removing or controlling invasive species and restoring the landscape to its pre white-settlers appearance. (The Weekend of Restoration  facilitators made a point to observe that what one considers a "restored state" is arbitrary and, in this case, ethnocentric, as, of course, Native Americans manipulated the landscape as well.) Settlers first came in the mid 1800s to farm; in the first half of the 20th  century, they got more ambitious with the expanse and extent of their cornfields, flattening out kames (hills formed from glacial deposits), straightening and damming creeks and rivers, and filling in wetlands with soil and
 thirsty invasive plants.

McHenry County staff have pieced together clues from ecological considerations, physics, and living memory about how the landscape used to look. From elderly folks who lived in the area as children, they learned hazel bushes grew in thickets and oak trees often grew nearby; so, our task for the Weekend of Restoration was to plant 300 oak and hazel bush saplings on a rise near a (newly restored) marsh.

The term "restoration" is in the weekend's title has two meanings, as the weekend is meant for  personal as well as ecological restoration. We learned as much about local history and folklore as we did about the local ecology and restoration methods, and there were readings, discussions, and activities meant to help us identify our personal connections to the area and the work we were doing. Also, the food was excellent.

We visited a beautifully preserved mid-19th century farmhouse on the property and learned about its history and restoration. Unfortunately, I don't have photos of the inside.
Regular ol' 19th c. farmhouses like this one are rare, as most have long been torn down
The first evening we went for a night walk, led by ecologist Tom Simpson. We walked among kames, through prairies and past marshes, as night took over and bugs and frogs started calling. We were standing next to Turtle Marsh, which, Tom was telling us, had in 2011 and 2012 been recovered from underneath farmers' fill and ringed with tree seedlings--when we heard a frog chirp or two. Tom fell silent for a moment, and then said, with reverence and emotion, that the frogs must have have discovered and recolonized the newly restored area--that this is the first time frogs had been heard here. It was a lovely moment.

Here is the new marsh. I know it doesn't look like much, but, in the eyes of those who had worked on it and the other MCCD faithfuls, it was a beautiful, treasured thing--and I have to say, that reverence was pretty catching. Our planting area is in the foreground.

Here we are walking to the site--the marsh is to the right of the photo.
Placing saplings next to holes
My first of many plantings

I have no personal or childhood connection to Illinois wetlands and prairies, and, while ecologically important, they are not terribly eye-catching--I mean, not the way Mount Tam is, or Yosemite, or Big Sur. So being around a group of people who loved this land, nurtured it, provided for it, and hoped for it as they would a child was personally and pedagogically helpful for me. I see so much more in these areas now, and I also know how very important to cultivating stewardship it is to help children and adults discover a strong, and in some ways private, personal connection.

There are more wondeful photos of this weekend on the event's Facebook page, here.

MCCD also has some pretty awesome sounding education programs--professional development for teachers as well as programs for schoolkids and families--on my list for further investigation.

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