By Karen Craig
I gaze upward from the prairie-style meadow as the polka dot sky sings in constant motion. Venturing under the canopy of trees the blue sky is replaced with tones of brown, yellow and green. A scutter in the underbrush draws my attention from skyward to the foraging and nesting taking place below, until the fluttering off to another spot that I as a stranger to the winged world am not privy to. Soft edges of sand dunes with endangered species of beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata) and worn driftwood contrast with the harsh elements. Winter storm winds can brutalize this fragile yet resilient ecosystem, but a more merciless force is human manipulation.
The story of benign neglect that shapes the history of Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is a romantic fragment of the full creation narrative. As a man-made extension of Lincoln Park, the site of Montrose Point was created by landfilling Lake Michigan with material dredged to create a new harbor and subway in the 1930s. The Prairie School landscape architect Alfred Caldwell developed plans in 1938 for naturalistic plantings, although at the time they were never fully implemented. What remains true is that the future requires our best effort at attentive patience and intentional action informed by chronicled knowledge of the land (Figure 1).
I venture out toward the shore along the water inlet that follows the fishhook shaped pier (Figure 2). A Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) sleeps with his head curved sideways, undisturbed by a shorebird, perhaps a Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla), probing nearby with its small bill in the wet sand. Further along I pass heaps of surf-mounded dried grasses and notice a finely crafted nesting burrow. No wonder this place has been designated by the National Audubon Society as an Important Birding Area (IBA).
Sanctuary. Not far from Montrose Point, still within greater Lincoln Park, the site of a Victorian garden built in 1889 that displayed tropical lilies and other aquatic plants became the Lincoln Park Lily Pool. It eventually declined in popularity and fell into disrepair until 1936, when Alfred Caldwell redesigned the pool and its surrounding area. By the 1950s, the lily pool again languished and was reclaimed by the Lincoln Park Zoo as the Rookery, an avian exhibit, which eventually caused further deterioration until it was closed to the public. In Alfred Caldwell’s 1998 obituary, the Zoo Rookery was described by a Chicago Tribune architecture critic as “… an intimate bird sanctuary with massive limestone walks and walls.”
Elizabeth Dodd writes that “Sanctuary is the term of this anthropocentric millennium,” as she contemplates the history and contemporary use and meaning of the word in her article by the same name. The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is now a National Historic Landmark and a Chicago Historical Landmark because of restoration efforts completed in the spring of 2002. Strolling into this tranquil environment, the term sanctuary becomes historically relevant for me as I feel as protected as the wood ducks (Aix sponsa) and their ducklings in this composed, safe haven (Figure 3).
Restoration. The Cold War era began in the mid-to-late 1940s, and experiments for what became the Nike missile program began around the same time, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that Chicago had operational battalions of anti-aircraft guided missiles — 22 missile sites to be exact, three of which were on the lakefront. One missile launch site, C-03, was at Chicago’s Belmont Harbor with radar control towers near Montrose Point (our bird sanctuary); another site at Jackson Park, C-41, was leased by the government on August 28, 1951, and became operational by March 1955 (Figure 4). Landfill believed to be manure sourced from the stockyards and dirt of unknown origins brought in by railcars was placed on site in Jackson Park in 1893 for the Columbian World Exposition; more landfill was brought to the site in the 1950s for the creation of the missile site, and again, more landfill, after it was deactivated in June and finally closed on July 19, 1971.
Around 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described the Jackson Park Nike Site C-41 as a Defense Environmental Restoration Program – Formerly Used Defense Site (DERP-FUDS). On January 23, 2014, the USACE released the Hazardous Toxic Radioactive Waste (HTRW) Report for Jackson Park. The HTRW report evaluates the risk of contaminant levels less rigorously for recreational use than they do if the land were designated for residential use.
Unfortunately, the red-winged blackbird does not know the distinguishing features of parks for recreation versus parks for residence, or acknowledge any level of contamination that precludes certain activity. However, I believe that there exists a partnership between humans and nature, such that the neglect and abuse from the hands of our species can be the fostering force of regeneration. As J.B. MacKinnon explains in his article “Facing Fear” in Orion Magazine, “The going theory, probably impossible to prove, is that our baseline appreciation of nature is a paleo-phenomenon, hard-wired into our genes and grounded in the fact that the natural world is our ancestral home, where our species evolved over millions of years. Our minds, as much as our bodies, were formed in the presence of the wild” (para. 8).
Respire. Bubbly Creek is officially the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the hydrology before the 1830s was a prairie slough that sluggishly meandered through prairie wetlands and “drained five square miles of a pristine aquatic and interconnected terrestrial habitat.” As I paddle in a canoe along the creek with my Friends of the Chicago River guide, all traces of engaging beauty from a prairie wetlands have vanished and restoration is nowhere in sight, yet by proximity I feel a connection and responsibility to the ecology of this waterway, regardless of the unseemly state it is in.
There were two forks of Bubbly Creek, once upon a time — a natural one that flowed west and another, excavated in 1869 when clay was dug to make bricks, that flowed east along the northern edge of the then-newly-constructed 320-acre Union Stock Yards. Known as the Stockyards Slip, for three-quarters of a century this modified waterway was filled with the wastes of the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants: the manure that did not find other uses (e.g. landfill), the unusable body scraps, the blood and entrails of tens of thousands of animals per day (Figure 5). This post-prairie manifestation is what my excursion harkens to. The execrable decay caked on the bottom of the creek rising up in stench-filled gas bubbles is literally emblematic of the decay of the Chicago River as an ecosystem at the hands of human exploit.
As early as 1905, residents were pushing to either clean up Bubbly Creek or bury it. By 1919 the west fork had begun to be filled in, by 1937 the east fork was covered, and by 1960 the west fork was a mere vestige of the original waterway. When scientists studied the creek in 2004 they found “fibrous material” up to three feet thick, remnants of cow and pig parts dumped decades earlier — wastes that created a soft, highly organic, anaerobic material along the channel bed that produces gas. Large bubbles still rise from decaying matter in Bubbly Creek. This, too, is part of our natural world — but it was not planned or designed as such, and therein lies part of the problem (Figure 6).
Our discourse about nature often invokes the imagery of wilderness. The Wild. Amongst this wildness millions of species exist in sometimes savage harmony. I like to imagine that if nature had economic and political leanings, there would be an adoption of laissez faire and anarchy as the means of governing the kingdoms of life. Stepping into this unrestrained world I can leave behind the conformity of society and the built world, to relax my posture and my mind.
Open Space. Open Mind. One may think that urban nature offers juxtaposition to the built city, but more often than not, urban nature is just as contrived as the most demanding engineered skyscraper. Nature exists simultaneously in the “wilderness” and in the “asphalt jungle” and there is no separating the two from one another. Besides – most species do not recognize human boundaries. Evident as I listened to the loud song of kon-ka-RHEE from the South Side to North Side of Chicago, the red winged blackbird does not discern between a city park and a bird sanctuary, or seek to determine the original creation provenance for its natural habitat.
The reality of the Anthropocene is that ecosystems across the globe, no matter how remote, are often unwittingly touched by humankind through the atmosphere, hydrology, and carbon sequestration on land and in the sea. The environmental, economic, and social value of even the smallest of natural areas cannot be understated. “And as cities confront climate change, rising sea levels, increased storm water runoff, or drought, and in some cases burgeoning populations, their parks and especially their natural areas, will play even more important roles, particularly as they are recognized for providing ecosystems services and other benefits” (Benepe, 2014, par 3).
Nature can have wildness to it and/or it can be orderly. Ornamental placement gives way to cultivation of culture through designing nature. This enhances the human experience, but the bees do not care about the location – just the flower itself (Figure 7). Boulders add grace to the design at Ping Tom Memorial Park located just north of Chicago’s Chinatown business district (Figure 8). Some cultures believe that rocks are spiritually powerful elements of the natural environment. Here at Ping Tom, the red-winged blackbird is calling to me again, this time from the clusters of tall, thin bamboo reeds. Varied surfaces and decorative bridges entice the visitor to follow a particular pathway.
Planning, design, and management strategies are requirements critical to the successful balance of creation, preservation, and restoration of natural areas. In order to allow people to benefit from nature there must be a road, trail, path or bridge that gets us to it. Quite simply, to gain access to nature we need entry into this other terrain. Designated pathways help maintain respect for the other creatures in our natural community and offer us the invitation that we so desire.
Many miles away in the Busse Forest Nature Preserve a single bird call turns into a chorus. I am a traveler in this foreign land and struggle to understand the language. One does not need to be versed in taxonomy or binomial nomenclature, though, to have an enjoyable and meaningful experience of walking through a forest preserve. I find myself treading quietly upon layers of organic matter, calmly straining to give audience to those who dwell in this place.
Listen. My reward is a hammering serenade of rap-a-tap-tap that echoes of hollow wood. I cannot see but my ears do not mistake the quintessential woodpecker sounds. The songs of so many birds bounce across the crown of tree tops suspended for a moment until the wave of sound descends to delight my hearing. A trill, a caw, chirp, and warble elude any changes over time. Observe. Spontaneous patterns of sunlight rays create in an impressionistic depiction of the flora residing beneath the golden crown. Photosynthesis is the precious emerald (Figure 9).
When we explore and seek direct experience of the world, the relationship of our seemingly separate worlds of human nature and wild nature display their connectedness. I feel like a tourist at times when I am taking photographs at every step of the way to capture the beauty of biodiversity that exists every day. Nature does not need me to notice it in order to thrive.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a raw gem that is being polished and placed on display. Promoted as the place where “people and the prairie restore each other,” it is exemplary as a damaged landscape that will outgrow its flawed history. Former home to a U.S. Army Arsenal in Joliet, Illinois, this site of decommissioned ammunition plants and bunkers and is now just over 20,000 acres, the largest of protected areas that collectively comprise the Chicago Wilderness.
A shining facet is the Prairie Creek Woods trail, teeming with surprises and beauty and willing to give visitors a glimpse of more to come. A remarkable day in May provides encounters with and sightings of a range of species: Milkweed Leaf Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) (Figure 10), Meadow Anenome (Anemone canadensis), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum commutatum), Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), a Lemon Cuckoo bumble bee (Bombus Citrinus), swarming bees, a deer, a turtle, and an earthworm. Completion of the project to return the tallgrass prairie is an achievable goal and the process is worthy to witness.
Alone I can piece together the stories, but not the broken remnants of fragmented habitats. As I describe what my sensory experiences extract and absorb from the physical landscapes of places I visit, I am also relating the values of how I define myself. “Our understanding of nature and human relationships with the environment are really cultural expressions used to define who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be at this place and in this space” (Greider & Garkovich, 1994, p. 2). We are connected to nature and these natural areas throughout the Chicago region sharing common threads: a landscape designer, prior military use, flora, fauna, and ourselves as an integral part. As I ponder on what I have seen in nature, it is really a mirror of what I see in myself and humanity. What I see in nature is a reflection of me.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, concurring in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184 (1964), provided the following opinion on obscenity, more specifically “…hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” We may not always know what nature was, and the changes and evolution of the landscape may not be readily defined — but when it comes to nature, I know it when I see it (Figure 11).
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