Friday, July 19, 2013

"Learning to read the city" with John Tallmadge and the Center for Humans and Nature

One of the folks I met on the Hegewisch Marsh tour is Gavin Van Horn, a director at a thoughtful, heady sort of thinktank called the Center for Humans and Nature. Gavin described the organization's work as exploring ethics and nature; its website explains that it partners with "philosophers, biologists, ecologists, lawyers, political scientists, anthropologists, and economists" to explore the relationships between humans and nature--"to think creatively about how people can make better decisions."

They do this through projects, events, and writings via their journal and blog--and by posing thought-provoking questions that scholars and experts in various fields then answer, and that readers are also invited to comment on. One of their recent questions is "How is nature critical to a 21st-century urban ethic?" This question drew me, since, as you will know if you've been following my blog, I've been exploring ways educators incorporate urban green spaces and other nature into K-12 education. And this answer, penned by nature writer and scholar John Tallmadge,  just said it all for me. I tried to pull quotes but it's so lovely and wise and true in its whole that I didn't want to pull it apart. Just read it.

And once you've read it, then (and only then--seriously, go to the link first. You won't regret it) reread its final words:
So the real question is not how to bring nature back into our cities; it’s already there. It’s what makes every neighborhood, no matter how blighted, a landscape of opportunity. All we have to do is wake up and embrace the possibilities. Make ecological literacy a core value of education and reconciliation ecology a guiding principle of design. That will take us a long way toward preserving the world through an urban practice of the wild.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Outdoors Chicagoland: Hegewisch Marsh

This spring I began a sort of survey of Chicagoland natural areas. As I wrote about earlier, I spent an April weekend at Glacial Park, a part of the McHenry County Conservation District. A few weeks later, as part of Urban Biodiversity Week, I toured Hegewisch Marsh, a lucky little wetland located in Southeast Chicago that somehow survived 150 years of intense industrialization all around it. Restoration of the marsh began in 2004 and continues today.

Isn't it beautiful?

The area was formerly a dumping grounds for the heavy industry in the area; there are still chunks of slag all over the site. More recently, it was used for recreational offroading, another significant environmental stressor. The deep gashes in the earth left by the offroad vehicles have been left alone, though, as nowadays they make good vernal pools, spring nurseries for baby frogs. 

Hegewisch Marsh is across the Calumet River from an old landfill.

You can see the landfill has been covered over such that it looks like a natural feature; in fact, there's been a moratorium on new or expanded landfills in the city of Chicago since the '80s. (On a side note, this is great for Chicago, but our garbage has got to go somewhere. In what community will the garbage you took out this morning be next week?)

Anyway. Hegewisch Marsh is part of the Calumet Basin, a treasure of wetlands, waterways, dunes, and woodlands that follows the southern curve of Lake Michigan.
This map the Calumet Stewardship Initiative website (the rest of the photos in this post are mine)

The network of organizations and people that make up the Calumet Stewardship Initiative work hard and love this place, much as the McHenry County Conservation District folks love theirs. It's heartening and motivating.

One restoration challenge that remains is less directly man-made than the industrial and vehicular damage, but equally significant: the growth of invasive plants, which choke out native plants and animals. While our little tour group talked about the health of birds and trees and the rather existentialist nature of non-native species control (we can't get rid of these species entirely, so what's the goal, I asked, and do we have to work forever simply to not lose ground?), I leaned on this wooden rail.

Whence came the ticks I found later, I'm guessing. One on my scalp and another on the rim of my ear. Gaahh! I had tucked my pants into my socks but I hadn't covered my head. After finding those two guys, I spent a full ninety minutes monkey-grooming my entire head of hair (I have a lot of hair) and checking and rechecking the rest of me and found no others--but I took a long, hot shower just in case, and it's a good thing, because I found a third on the shower wall the next evening. Yiiiiii! Fortunately, there were (apparently) no more, and none of those three had attached. Just writing about it now sends shivers down my spine and causes me to twitchily scratch through my hair again. Aaah, lovely, serene nature, except then there are the blood-sucking parasites.

But I digress. Let's see, I was talking about how awesome these wilderness initiatives are in and around Chicago, and about the Calumet Basin. The Calumet Basin: it includes the wetlands and woodlands I mentioned, but also old and new industry, railways, freeways, dams, mills, landfills. I guess that is the reality of caring for the world's natural areas today, isn't it? --Some of it is pristine, and here's hoping we manage to keep those areas pristine; but most of it is "used," available for reclamation and restoration, its existence a compromise with our existence--which seems a necessary trade, as we seem to want to exist, too. I just hope we can do so more thoughtfully as we learn about our impact.

A note: I took pictures and ticks home with me, but not notes, so much of my memory of the tour was fact-checked and supplemented by this and this article.