Saturday, May 28, 2016

Children and Nature Network 2016 conference debrief

I've just returned from the Children & Nature Network International Conference and it was just love all around. It is always validating and inspiring to be among people who share your values and ideals--particularly when those people love children and animals. I feel energized and focused personally and professionally. I think the main takeaway is The Future is Here. To whit:

1) Buildings don't have to keep doing things the same way. Conventions don't have to keep doing things the same way.

The location of the event was the St. Paul RiverCentre, a model of sustainable practices. Think about the last time you went to a major convention or conference. Did you notice all the horrible waste? I always do. Paper programs, plastic bottles, cups, and utensils, no recycling, over-air conditioned rooms, lights on everywhere. The RiverCentre uses windsourced energy and green cleaning products. They have recycling and composting receptacles everywhere. Their "plastic" cups and cutlery are compostable! They capture and use natural light. They are LEED, Green Globe, and APEX/ASTM certified. Of course, all this saves them an immense amount of money, now that it's in place, in energy savings, trash hauling, and other factors. Buildings don't have to keep doing things the same way. Conventions don't have to keep doing things the same way.

2) Mayors must be responsive innovators. People who elect mayors must expect responsive innovation.

St. Paul's mayor, Chris Coleman, is no-b.s. serious about doing things in a reasonable way that makes sense with today's world. "Good things happen when you put children at the center of policy," he said in the opening plenary--and by all accounts, it looks like he means it. He outlined seven additional principles, starting with "Cities are leaders and innovators." Chicago, I'm afraid, seems to do its best in many matters NOT to innovate.

Other Coleman principles include: All city departments play an important role; public input is important; partners are crucial to sustaining impact; all the levels of government need to be involved; equity, sustainability, and greenspace have a role in design; and you need vibrant spaces and places for people of all ages. How many of these does Chicago's leadership do? More importantly, perhaps: How many of these do we Chicagoans expect of our leadership?

3) The environmental movement might finally be getting smart about authentic transformation that puts forward a diversity of young environmentalists as leaders and partners, not as "inclusion goals."

CN&N's Natural Leaders is a diverse group of young, talented, charismatic, and dedicated conservation leaders. They featured prominently in the event on a number of levels, and the difference in the level of conversation about youth and diversity, about the movement's present and future, was clear in comparison with other conferences I've been to. Not that there's not more work to do, a lot more work. But I feel like CN&N has made some smart moves in this realm. The tired, somewhat colonialist talk of "inclusion" is being retired to make way for notions of partnership, connecting, and capacity building.

4) The future is not top down, nor bottom up--it's a living, changing network.

CN&N focused a lot on networks -- not just "networking," but on the power of network weaving for collaboration, support, resource mining and sharing, and planning among organizations. In our resource-poor field (current America doesn't care a ton about children or nature) in our super-connected world, learning and leveraging these tools will be very powerful.

I've brought home with me a ton of ideas from the conference. I can't wait to get started.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

This week's chewy question: What is the goal of our state flower?

I've been chewing on an interesting question that came up during the Morton Arboretum Spring Woodland Wildflowers class.

Kankakee mallow
Chris Benda of the Illinois Native Plant Society was talking about the Kankakee mallow, an extremely rare flower--one that was until recently thought to be  extinct--found only on an island in the Kankakee River.

Common blue violet
There is a movement afoot, he said, to declare the Kankakee mallow our state flower, replacing the violet, a pretty but extremely common, almost pest-like flower chosen by schoolchildren over a hundred years ago.

Changing the state flower has become a bit of a rallying cry for folks in the botany-know: "Don't be shallow; vote for mallow!"

So that got me thinking. What is the point of having a state flower? Is the point to highlight rarity, or to highlight shared experience? Should the state flower be special to botanists or to schoolchildren?

Is the point of a state flower to advise residents to heed the warnings of extinct, or nearly extinct, or extirpated flowers past? The state flower could be a powerful symbol to remind people that unique living things are lost without stewardship. But do we want to lead with near-extinction insofar as getting young people interested in nature? Do we want to integrate near-total habitat destruction into our state symbols?

On the other hand, is it a good idea to choose as our state symbol the most common and unchallenging image possible? What is the point of that? What action, image, or feelings does that galvanize in Illinoisans?

There aren't a lot of guidelines for states choosing state flowers. Many states haven't even chosen native blooms. So I'd be very interested in your thoughts on this question: Why does Illinois have a state flower?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Lunchtime walks through suburban woods

I am contracting right now at an office located near a wooded area humbly named Dam #4 East. The wood is close to the airport, situated within the long swath of Cook County Forest Preserve following the Des Planes River. I often head over there at lunchtime to practice and build on the spring-wildflower identification strategies I learned in that short course at Morton Arb.

The first day I went out there, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I recognized, and frankly kind of proud. I felt pretty thoroughly novice in the class.
wild ginger
I love peaking under the distinctive heart-shaped leaves to find that weird hairy little organ-colored flower tucked away just doing its job, attracting flies and other non-glamorous spring-pollinators.


I love the mayapple's big, weird, meaty flower under its big weird, simultaneously gaudy and elegant umbrella of leaves. The umbrellas seem to like to travel in herds.

I conflated the phlox and the geranium at first because of the flower color, but the flowers and especially the leaves are very different. After just a couple encounters it seemed weird I ever made that mistake.

woodland phlox
wild geranium

Anyone have any idea why these two trillium have such very different shaped leaves? Are the narrow leaves just a younger plant?

toadshade trillium
toadshade trillium

I also took pictures of species I didn't recognize, and sleuthed out what (I think) they are later.

This is called a Virginia Water Plant, so named because of the spots on the leaves, which resemble drops of water. The following week, the plants had flowered, and it looks like they also pretty promptly started to produce fuzzy balls of seeds.
Virginia water plant

I read that only the early spring individuals get the water-droplet look. You can see this difference in the two photos.

On the left...this little beauty is called 'Spring Beauty." And on the right, "Ooooh!" I  thought. "What is this pretty interesting nodding trio of leaves?" Ummm, thar be poison ivy.

Spring Beauty
Poison Ivy

Every time I go I see something new, and new flowers blooming. I think this is rue anemone. It doesn't appear to be false rue anemone, which is more common, as it looks like it has more than five petals.

The other photo is of a pretty little sedge that caught my eye. I just planted one of this type in our new backyard native-plant garden.

rue anemone

And now, to end with a question. I saw one of these just today in Oxbow prairie, so I don't think it's an errant, I don't know, chard or anything. What is this?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Spring Visit to Schulenberg Prairie

With the help of a Woodlands Spring Flowers class at Morton Arboretum (recommended!), some  books, and the Internet, I have embarked on the next step in my Illinois ecology self-study.

First, I went to Schulenberg Prairie at Morton, one of my favorite places ever, to see what I can recognize. They must've had a burn; everything looks completely different. The prairie is a flat, very green carpet of fresh, low leafy plants--nothing like it was in past visits, when I wandered among grasses and forbs taller than me, whooshing and shushing in the wind.

Pick a spot and look down, and you see it is not a carpet, but a series of tufts and clumps and spots of various colors green.

All those tufts look like prairie dropseed to me, but I know very little. Maybe they are another type of grass or sedge. (Now that I know just how very little I know, I want to be able to name everything.) These tufts were everywhere, with endless constellations of young-bright leafy plants filling in the gaps between.

This plant creates these lovely fairy-circle patterns. At  the time I thought this was the same as those tufty prairie-dropseed clumps, but looking at the photos now it seems clear they are different.  Can anyone help me identify them? Comment or email me!

In the spring, seeing all the textures and rhythms of the prairie requires zooming in--just looking at a couple square feet. Look at this lovely grass, wood betony, and compass plant composition.

The rain brought out the luminous, delicate qualities of the spring blooms, such as this shooting star.

I also saw trout lily, golden alexander, toadshade trillium, and more. This caught my eye, but I don't know what it is. Can someone help me identify it?

After an hour communing with the prairie, it was time for the Woodlands class, taught by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic president of the Illinois Native Plant Society, Chris Benda.

And then, last week, I was delighted to be able to put to use the identification skills learned and practiced in class on my lunch hour at work! More on that coming up.