Friday, July 7, 2017

Work day at Labagh Woods and play day at Bluff Spring Fen

Last weekend's work day was at Labagh Woods, in a wetland area. See those big spiky clumps? That's yellow flag iris. Blue flag iris is native to Chicagoland, but yellow flag is an old-world invasive that rapidly chokes out all other plants. 

This is a before-and-after in one area - ignore the lighting difference.

The area was apparently ALL yellow-flag iris as recently as a year or two ago, but volunteers have been restoring the area. The stewards saw the effectiveness of their earlier efforts, which prompted this continued work. I and other volunteers collected the stalks of seed pods in trash bags for composting and lopped off the juicy, celery-like leaves. Then the steward leaders sprayed the tops of the lopped-off stalks with pesticide so the plants wouldn't grow back.

Here's another before-and-after view.

See that clearing in the photos? That is a sign of deer having bedded there the previous night. I know deer are far too numerous, they strip natural areas of native foliage, and they spread ticks, but I was totally charmed by the fact that we had come upon the sanctuary of this peaceful (and cute, ok? They're cute) species.

This was a wetland area, right off the edge of a slough, and I don't know wetland plants. I took a couple snaps and, when I couldn't identify them from iNaturalist, asked the amazing Illinois Botany group on Facebook for some IDs. They are Carex albolutescens, Greenwhite sedge (left) and Sium suave, water parsnip.

The next day I was out in the once-country-now-'burbs so I stopped by Bluff Spring Fen. Land stewards and conservationists get super excited about this area because of its unique ecological characteristics and hospitable conditions for birds and other wildlife, but the only entrance is through a cemetery, and I arrived close to when the cemetery closes, and my car had its Check Engine light on and my phone battery was close to empty, and I'll admit I felt like I was maybe walking into a scary after-school special.

But here are some photos of the fen.

There was a prairie section, too.

Prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata) and lead plant
Lead plant (Amorpha canescens), one of my faves

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Tall thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)?

Spiderwort (Tradescantia), all closed up for the evening

Pretty. I'll have to return with a little more time. And some juice in my phone. And after the car gets checked out. And with a friend who can distract me from my irrational fear of the dead. Okay, let's get out of here.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Prairie ID walk: summer blooms still cloaked for spring

A couple weeks ago I went on a prairie plant ID walk with Cindy Crosby at Morton Arboretum's Schulenberg Prairie. This was an Advanced class, I think because we were looking at summer blooms in the spring, identifying plants just by their leaves.

I was amazed by how much I somehow absorbed over the past two years of taking guided and unguided walks through prairie and woodland areas.

"Hey! That's gentian!" I said.

"Now how the heck did I know that?" I next said.

Admittedly, its leaf arrangement is distinctive, as is its color (more so later in the season when the nearby plants aren't in their baby stages).

For me, it's good enough at this point that I can figure out the genus (gentian). But it's probably time to start being a little more precise (cream gentian, Gentiana alba). In bloom there behind the gentian are a couple shooting stars, Dodecatheon meadia.

Another genus whose leaves are easy to spot is wild indigo, baptisia. Look at that steely color and the pea-leaf-like shape (baptisia are members of the pea family). You can see one or two buds just starting to open on this one, cream wild indigo, Baptisia brachteata.

This is starry false Solomon's seal, Maianthemum stellatum.

Or is it regular false Solomon's seal?

Anyway, it's just starting to bloom. The leaves of Solomon's seal (starry, false, and smooth) have parallel veins and so are pretty easy to spot.

I like how the leaves are splayed to echo the starry shape of the flower in this photo.

Note the prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) there in back. By the end of the year those sweet fuzzy leaves will be rough as extra-coarse sandpaper, and gigantic.

Speaking of gigantic, big bluestem is below—little bitty baby big bluestem. These little grass blades will grow to tower overhead by mid-late summer.


Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), on the other hand, doesn't grow higher than a foot or eighteen inches. It's not a grass; it gets its common name from its thin, grasslike leaves. The "blue eye" is the dot at the base of the v formed by those...things the petals attach to. Now what are those called?

I find that observing its delicate, slightly fringed petals has a calming effect. You can see those petals a bit here.

Below is trout lily (Erythornum albidum), a spring ephemeral—you can see the flowers are gone by now. Cindy, who also writes beautifully about the prairie in her blog and has a new book out, explained that trout lilies mostly reproduce through rhizomes, connections underground. But occasionally a mature trout lily will produce that podlike thing you see below, which attracts ants, who then disperse the seeds within to farther-flung locations.


One treat of late spring/early summer at Schulenberg Prairie are the wild hyacinth. Deer love them so they can tend to have a hard time establishing themselves in preserves in the Chicago area. Unfortunately I only have a fairly cruddy picture from our May 13 walk (right, below), but here's a link to a better photo from a post from last year. On the left below is a wild hyacinth bud. I love examining the neat little patterns of stored energy evident in flower buds.

The prairie in the spring is a huge quilt of patterns created by plants growing up together. Here—enjoy the swirls and bends of coreopsis, golden alexander, and prairie dock intermingling.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A response from Starbucks

A while ago I wrote to Starbucks about their use of throw-away materials and the lack of composting and even recycling at many sites. I got a letter back, almost immediately, actually.

Chris Johnson (via US Fish & Wildlife HQ) CC 2.0
Dear Kaara, 
Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company. I just finished reading your email and appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns with us.
Starbucks is committed to significantly reducing the waste our stores generate - especially when it comes to recycling. 
We know this is important to our customers, to us and our planet. In fact, we get more customer comments about recycling than any other environmental issue - especially when it comes to our cups.
To learn more about our work in recycling read our Starbucks Global Responsibility Report at
Starbucks white paper cups, used for hot beverages, are made of paper fiber and the industry standard liner (low-density polyethylene plastic). The paper provides the rigidity for the cup, while the plastic layer keeps the paper layer intact by protecting it from the hot beverage. This plastic layer also makes the hot beverage cups unrecyclable in most paper recycling systems. We are continually evaluating alternatives to the current plastic coating, and are currently conducting life cycle assessments for bio-based plastics.
Other actions taken by Starbucks to reduce the environmental impacts of our disposable cups include:
  • Working to eliminate most double-cupping by utilizing corrugated hot beverage sleeves made of 60 percent post-consumer recycled fiber.
  • Offering the $1.00 reusable, recyclable Starbucks cup with lid
  • Giving customers a $0.10 discount when they use their own reusable cups.
  • Providing "for here" mugs for customers who choose to enjoy their beverages in-store.
  • Please know that we appreciate your comments and that we take our responsibility to the environment very seriously. Your concerns will be forwarded to our utility specialist, who manages in-store recycling for North America

For more information, please visit us online at
If you ever have any questions or concerns in the future, please visit us at
Have a great day, Kaara.

Tammy H.customer service

They've clearly gotten this question before, and this is clearly a form letter. Recycling is not the only issue I mentioned, and is an unsatisfactory solution. Reduce, Reuse, then Recycle.

Not that it's Starbucks' problem only, of course. It's our problem, that so very many of us purchase throwaway/recyclable-in-theory items day after day after every damned day. But since Starbucks is socially responsible in many ways and is a powerful and influential leader in its field, it could really make a dent in changing people's behavior. I am disappointed with their answer.

By Dhscommtech at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, April 9, 2017

From buckthorn jungle to oak savannah

Another day cutting buckthorn, this time at Forest Glen, a site new to me, and new to restoration. The buckthorn are so big here they are trees, big, thick trees. The goal is to turn the place back into prairie, rolling into oak savannah. I'm so excited! As you might recall , prairies are my jam.

I also enjoyed looking for tiny little sproutlings.

I was very proud of myself for recognizing these as trout lilies.

There were also spring avens, which are common but native, and loads of these low-to-the-ground spring plants with yellow flowers and which name I can't remember, dangit, but which are invasive and everywhere (anyone?). There were also the soft, fuzzy-leafed beginnings of what looked like mullein, which was brought over by Europeans for medicinal purposes. I wish I'd taken pictures of these things.

Chief Forest Preserve Friend, Josh Coles, showed me some other things growing there: cow parsnip, golden alexander. He said they'd put a seed mix a few weeks ago and some of the other tiny bladelike sprouts we were seeing were likely from that.

Little baby cow parsnip
Little baby golden alexander
We couldn't figure out what this is. Does anyone know?

The anticipation of spring is so fun, plant-wise. I'm looking forward to visiting and working at this site again, watching the plants we identified grow and change, and seeing what else comes up from the ground.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Stewardship day at Labagh

Saturday was another stewardship day Saturday cutting buckthorn, this time at LaBagh Woods. The group was large and included a crew of diligent kids from Curie High. 

Most of the buckthorn was fairly small—we used loppers and hacksaws. No chainsaw crew on this site. More time consuming than the actual cutting is disentangling the brushy, thorny, spreading branches from other trees. The stuff is like velcro, catching on anything when it falls.

Maybe one day I'll actually be able to recognize buckthorn with a degree of certitude, but for now I followed the steward's spray-painted orange marks to know which tree to cut and which to leave. There are hawthorns and oaks in these woods, native flora that belongs in this ecosystem.

There is also invasive honeysuckle, which was let stand, with some reluctance, to appease the birding groups, who just want cover for their birds and so operate under different priorities from the restoration folks.

It has rained throughout January and February, but snow has barely fallen, and what has fallen hasn't stuck. On this day it was appropriately seasonally cold and the brushfire provided welcome warmth, but the  dusting of snow that came midway through the morning still disappeared almost immediately. I'm glad I snapped the picture when I did. I miss snow.

For break, the stewards grilled hotdogs on the buckthorn brushfire, and a couple called the Martons brought out delicious home-made beans and cole slaw, apparently a regular perk of volunteering at LaBagh. The students also brought marshmallows for roasting, after the work was done. 

Note: I made a correction to the name of the food-making couple. Previously I had written "Hortons." Sorry about that, Martons!


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A letter to Starbucks

I read this concise and useful post by Sarah Wilson about ways to reduce plastic, and it led me back to a refrain that repeats often in my head:

Why does Starbucks continue to produce so much garbage?

Starbucks is an excellent corporate citizen, treating its staff and suppliers as humans who have aspirations and needs and are deserving of respect. They are big-picture and root-cause-based about it. Why don't they apply this thinking to their use of packaging?

They do have an environmental and climate-change policy, including a page addressing container waste, but it doesn't seem to add up to enough.

So I wrote them a letter. Here it is:


I really appreciate that you are an excellent corporate citizen when it comes to your staff and suppliers. It makes a difference and provides a model for other companies. I also read on your website about your environment-related efforts, and appreciate those...but I still hate that when I walk in to a Starbucks all I see are throwaway items. *Sometimes* the Starbucks has a recycling area for *some* of the elements, but it is absolutely not enough. Recycling shouldn't be our go-to, anyway: reduce, reuse, THEN recycle. I feel that there are so many ways you can do better, especially given the innovative and thoughtful ways you address other social issues.

--Can you have washable plates, cutlery, and mugs for people who stay? I understand this will up your energy because of washing needs. So, if not...

--There are SO many compostable options now. There are compostable-plastic cups, food containers, cutlery, and more. Certainly for customers that are staying with you, you could give them their stuff using compostable packaging and add a composting service to your garbage pick-up. People could throw out almost all of their packaging and their food leftovers into the compost; it would reduce your garbage immensely.

--Unless you live in a city that has composting, the compostable stuff won't help to-go customers as much. But there have GOT to be better recycling options for your lids, cups, food packages, cutlery, napkins...Your efforts in this area just do not appear to be very sincere. This effort could be combined with a lot of very clear reminders to customers about recycling, and maybe even marketing-type accountability incentives such as pledges to sign or photo contests or something, since most of your customers are to-go and won't be tossing their empty containers on site.

--You could offer a pretty steep incentive for people to bring their own (Starbucks-branded if you like) reusable packaging. You website says you encourage this but I definitely have not seen that. Some serious public education needs to happen with your customers.

--I'm going to suggest, too, given your influence as a popular and ubiquitous business in most places, you might be able to leverage your opinion and suggest to many of the cities and towns where you are located that they start regular composting. It is part of the cycle of life -- this notion that we use a thing once and its waste is garbage is insane -- and we must must MUST get ourselves out from under the mountain of garbage we are burying ourselves in along with the rest of the world.

Those are all the ideas I've got at the moment, but I'm sure you and your team could generate a ton more, and from those develop an innovative and smart suite of changes that not only reduces the garbage Starbucks produces but actually helps launch the groundwork for a healthier environment for all.

Thank you.

I'll report back if they respond. Meanwhile, I'm going to finish my cup of coffee.

Er, home brewed. I don't really like Starbucks coffee. But I do appreciate their business practices!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Back at it with the loppers

Saturday I finally got back outside to do some restoration/stewardship work with North Branch Restoration Project and Forest Preserve District of Cook County. It felt SO good to be outside, and to be helping a hawthorne grove near Linne Prairie grow stronger. I wish we'd taken before-and-after photos — we cleared a ton of buckthorn! But I only took photos on the walk there through Linne Woods.


It was a beautiful, muddy morning—very springlike, wholly unFebruary-like. I don't think we've had snow since December.

Once on the prairie, I recognized a few plants in their winter guise, but only the most obvious, such as this compass plant and prairie dropseed. 

Linne Prairie is interesting because, while it's come a long way, according to the site stewards Marian and John, it is still recovering from its degraded state as former farmland and fill pit. I look forward to walking here, and working here, in the spring and summer.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Loss, and growth

Since mid-November, I have been writing every day for hours — it's the most disciplined I've ever been with writing — with anything,  actually — in my entire life. I have been writing and sending out a newsletter about daily actions anyone can do to strengthen democracy, a free press, a healthy environment, and people's civil rights and liberties.

It has not seemed relevant to this blog so I haven't been posting in this blog. I don't think I want it in this blog. But it leaves this blog neglected.

This blog has morphed over time as well; it started out being largely about my search for a more responsive education system that supports and respects teachers and students. When I observed the wedges being driven between various education stakeholders in Chicago and across the country by the privatization movement, I created an education idea-exchange, H.e.a.r. Chicago Talk, and this blog became a companion for that. As my freelance and my personal work changed, my interest in nature-based formal education changed to a love and fascination with local greenspace more generally.

I have considered letting the blog morph again into an instrument of civic participation and activism. I don't think that's the right fit for this blog. You can receive my daily five-minute actions by going to (click on the red link to see an archive, and yikes please excuse the massive typo in the first sentence of today's letter). You can also find me occasionally guest blogging about activism on, a lively space for unique interviews with fascinating people and examinations of work, life, family, and society.

This blog may morph again; actually, it might be bound to. I think I need to embrace my tendency to wholeheartedly explore many things — all kinds of things, interlocking things and very different things, things that do not meld into one cohesive Big Picture — as a feature rather than a bug.

I have been thinking about this tendency, and this blog, and my work, and my interests, and my way of going through the world, and I do perceive a thread. What I want to do in all these things is facilitate equitable access to things that make life free and worth living — access to nature for all people, access to a good and respectful education, access to the resources needed to do one's job right, access to civil rights and liberties.

In my consulting work, I do an array of things — line editing, curriculum development, content architecture, nonprofit program development. I have been advised to narrow my focus or it'll never all work. But I have accepted, I think, that I can't; or rather, that narrowing my focus means doing a wide array of consulting with one thread in common: helping people and organizations with a mission to better help their clients access their content.

Meanwhile, while Resistence is Necessary and Not Futile, I sorely miss my forays into the urban wilds. I hope to continue to explore nature in and around Chicago and elsewhere, and I hope to explore this thread of access more; and I hope my newfound writing discipline will actually benefit, not continue to silence, this blog!

Thanks for your support while I sort out these new priorities for this new era.