Natural Wonderland of the Suburbs

By Ema Gavrilovic

(May 2015)

Ever since toddler age, nature always fascinated me.  My short stature, and that inquisitive trait all children possess allowed me to witness without judgment multiple insects and little critters around our landscaping at my family’s townhome.  Noticing ants, playing with praying mantises, and following earthworms allowed me to explore the natural world.  Generally, although I grew up in this quiet, northwest suburban neighborhood for twenty years, I witnessed not much in terms of change in the way tenants keep their landscaping impeccable.  However, I continued to explore the natural environment even with neat, monotonous grass yards.  After all, those little insects and critters reside among clean lawns.

More and more, residents begin to see the importance of nature and biodiversity, and how it benefits their lives.  Biodiversity is a fancy term for biological diversity, or the vast array of organismic life in an ecosystem (Mermel, 2011).  With the advent of man-made development, biodiversity starts to deplete under the stress of habitat destruction.

Loss of biodiversity happens all around us, especially in the sprawling town of Schaumburg, also home to the sustainable suburban campus of Roosevelt University (an exception to this depletion).  Inhabitants of towns must address the loss of biodiversity in order to sustain it (Mermel, 2011).  It is overly optimistic thinking in believing that these accepting residents are outnumbering the ones who shame nature.  It feels as if everywhere one turns, someone downgrades nature: who has ever complained of geese poop on sidewalks?  We hear it almost incessantly during summer days while strolling in any park.  Little annoyances at daily encounters of nature only facilitate a culture of contempt for nature.

Prairie

Illinois was once a prairie land. Now, human establishments destroyed them to form shopping centers, parking spaces, and offices.  Looking at maps of the Schaumburg area in 1831, a vast expanse of undeveloped land existed mostly in the form of prairie and wetland (Buckley, 2011).  True, it is probably not surprising that nearly 200 years ago there existed less human settlement, however the photos of before and after construction of what we know today as Woodfield Mall, O’Hare Airport, and multiple other buildings are striking.

Despite degradation of prairie land around the suburban landscape, numerous efforts to revive some prairie land started to take hold.  For example, the aforementioned Roosevelt University’s Schaumburg campus where a new prairie establishment flourishes amidst human development: some forms of development include the Ikea across the street, the campus building itself next door, and concrete pavement that maneuvers around both.  The most striking feature of this prairie reestablishment is the “Detention Basin Native Plant Restoration” site.  This expansive prairie land serves as a home for native plants and animal species that thrive in a prairie type condition, yet it also serves as a catch basin for excess water, which molds into a wetland when the valley floods.  Thousands of people notice this site daily: school commuters that walk by it, locals that drive to work down the adjacent street, even workers that maintain the school’s grounds.

This wetland prairie hybrid sits near Roosevelt University's Schaumburg campus. Notice its presence amidst a commercial area: it blends in with nearby human development. (photo: E. Gavrilovic)

This wetland prairie hybrid sits near Roosevelt University’s Schaumburg campus. Notice its presence amidst a commercial area: it blends in with nearby human development.
(photo: E. Gavrilovic)

When plans for this prairie project first arose, not everyone seconded the idea.   Local officials and residents argued dangerous critters would lurk near the edges and ambush unsuspecting professors, pests would accumulate in the surrounding areas, and the prairie plants themselves would look ugly.  It took persistence for a prairie to flourish in this space.  Since this successful installation, I hear no reports of “scary beasts” that attack pedestrians that come near it, no excess of animals deemed as “pests” that scurry, and the prairie definitely looks beautiful in a free-spirited, illusive kind of demeanor.  Today, it seems as if more of the Schaumburg community is accepting of this extra installation of natural land in the middle of its developed surroundings.  No one complains directly about the once thought-of patch of overgrown grasses.

With this acceptance of prairie reestablishment, more wildlife welcomes itself into the area.  A flock of red-winged blackbirds make their shrill cry above the tall bluestem, their proud calls echoing in the parking lot.  Another unnamed critter rustles underneath the rubble, elusive as always.  Colorful wildflowers grow along the edges of where the prairie meets the blacktop.  Biodiversity regains its hold once more in the community.  Of course, this little patch of grass is a perfect start to sustainable suburbs, yet there still exist plenty of small spaces waiting to be reestablished.

Woodland 

Another prominent feature in Illinois are the different kinds of temperate, leafy forests with tall, artful trees.  In local suburbs, one is hesitant to believe forests such as these exist nearby, or even in the middle of them, but one would be surprised.  One such prominent feature in the northwest suburbs is the Ned Brown Forest Preserve, better known as Busse Woods.  This wide area features hundreds of acres of forest, and even contains a nationally protected section of forest in its center.  This treasure amidst the hustle and bustle of fast-paced modern life sits next to several large and urbanized suburbs, such as Elk Grove Village, Schaumburg, and Arlington Heights.  Even though people enjoy the lifestyle of towns with sophisticated shopping centers complete with lavishly paved streets, tasteful architecture on the facades of boutiques, and cappuccinos on the corner of a boisterous crossing center, they also need a quiet setting for revitalization, and the natural setting of Busse Woods helps achieve this.

However, settlers first arriving to this area did not always think Busse Woods should be preserved.  Scanning over the map of the region in 1831, the area designated as the future Busse Woods at this time is marked “Timber” (Buckley, 2011).  Obviously, settlers had failed to think twice of preservation of natural land, and deemed the rich woodland to be profitable for construction sites.  Sadly, the fate of the surrounding areas of natural landscape soon fell prey to development.  However, officials finally realized the importance of sustaining the remaining habitats, and miraculously, spared Busse Woods for today’s generation’s recreational use.

Busse Woods is located in the center of several residential areas. Hiking deep into the woods one would never suspect this. (photo: E. Gavrilovic)

Busse Woods is located in the center of several residential areas. Hiking deep into the woods one would never suspect this.
(photo: E. Gavrilovic)

As a child, my parents took me to Busse Woods.  Even though it was practically across the street from our residence, I was still too young to go alone.  Thus, in between my visits to Busse I looked for natural woody growth around my house that resembled the forest preserve to obtain a similar, peaceful yet re-energizing effect.  I realized that numerous little nooks near my home saved (and still save) decades of years worth of trees and organisms that thrive in the woody habitat.

My backyard holds a dense tree line separating one area of housing from another.  More than a decade ago, this tree line was even denser: with numerous formidable elms, all of which raised their giant branches to the sky in triumph for residing there among man-made development.  Concentric shrubs stowed away stealthy possums and raccoons.  Decaying tree stumps housed silent rabbits.  All in all, this tree line is a grand sight to behold.  I still think so even after twenty years of exploring it, even after a dramatic decline in shrubbery and trees.  In time, this tree line was slightly diminished, as mentioned, due to storms knocking down trees, lumberjacks striking down old, grandfatherly elms, and landscapers dismembering shrubs nearest the edge where the common grass meets the soft and rich, yet dry, untouched earth. After I witnessed every season a newly destroyed portion, I worried the woody growth would completely diminish.

After several years, however, I noticed neighbors starting to take care of it: one neighbor planted a baby tree near the fat stump of a previous elm; some added bird houses and feeders to attract more birds (and our backyard area, because of this tree line and its generous citizens, houses dozens of sparrows); I tried watering some seedlings I had found.  Finally, the caring neighbors and I can rest in peace knowing our own proactive stance on helping the woody growth to continue to flourish will benefit both ourselves and other smaller organisms that call this place their home.  The great horned owl, coniferous pine tree, and red-tailed hawk thank these thoughtful neighbors.

Landscaping

Prairie restoration at RU’s Schaumburg campus snakes its way around the parking lot, marking little islands as part of the plan as well—instead of common green grass, energetic spurts of indigo, green, and quirky shapes and sizes of native Illinois plant species proudly call attention to themselves among the parked cars.  Three reasons exist as to why parking islands are creating a life of their own amidst a sea of concrete pavement.

The first reason deals purely with aesthetics: is it not more entertaining to stroll through a lush garden on the way from a steely parking lot as opposed to one stepping over conforming grass?  It is quite pleasant looking at a changing landscape such as these mini plots of green miniature shrubbery gently waving in the breeze.  Second, small pieces of nature such as this landscaping on islands allows a larger diversity of organisms, no matter how small in physique, to thrive, as opposed to a desert land of low-nutrient turf.  This turf grass, in its entirety, serves limited purpose to the rest of the natural flora and fauna.

Lastly, native vegetation has a better consumption rate of water.  Thus, it is able to catch precipitation to allow the ground to soak in water, and therefore, it maintains the water cycle.  The unpleasant alternative is a grassy island, with turf grass being a poor medium for soaking in excess runoff.  This water would evaporate or be washed away again without ever reaching its destination in the underground aquifer, where millions of years’ worth of freshwater was stored for the nation’s now-dwindling supply.  After all, the concrete parking lot that surrounds these islands does not serve as a porous surface for rainwater collection, so it is important to facilitate other sections that would allow the soil to act as a sponge.

Instead of monotonous, manicured grassland, these parking islands contain tall prairie grass. This vegetation resembles a prairie reestablishment. (photo: E. Gavrilovic)

Instead of monotonous, manicured grassland, these parking islands contain tall prairie grass. This vegetation resembles a prairie reestablishment.
(photo: E. Gavrilovic)

A few streets away from the campus, one can spot several residential neighborhoods.  Just like these in Schaumburg, walking through my own serene neighborhood I enjoy viewing the creative landscaping that residents apply to their houses’ facades.  Some display elaborate flower pots holding only a couple lone flower petals, precise mini petunias and bright, water-leeching tulips evenly spaced, allowing for a wide birth of open ground between each one.  Others allow for a more rugged quality to their crafty landscaping, adding large, leafy shrubs in clumps, quick-developing hostas spreading like wild fire, and roaming ivy.  One set of landscaping screams refined French garden, while the other envisions wild, yet natural terrain.

In the first type of landscaping, neighbors expect to see limited signs of wildlife roaming around (since there is no shelter behind a stack of tulips and miniature flowers), or if they do, they wish to attract the “cute” kind, such as monarch butterflies that search for pollen, the occasional robin, or a bunny that happens to hop nearby.  Now, the other kind of landscaping, the more natural type, offers ample space for a mini temperate habitat for critters to find shelter: a common garter snake hides underneath the bed of ivy hunting for that little field mouse so many people consider a pest; a lone frog sings out its long chorus, hidden under a small patch of greenery; a sneaky possum makes its nest near the tangled patch of low-lying shrubs, hidden from a watchful hawk’s view.

This latter landscape, sometimes what others would see as rugged or improper, is important to generating biodiversity in the environment of the densely developed suburb.  Some residents that contain these rugged looking, yet still beautiful landscapes, pride themselves by knowing extra critters venture into their yard to call it their home.  These homeowners help suburbs regain their label of sustainability.  They understand and appreciate nature and all that comes with it, such as the meandering toad, a critter that other residents may deem dirty.

Analyzing the nature journalist Leonard Dubkin, Roosevelt University Professor Michael Bryson explains how Dubkin believes one can find solace and reflection in one’s own yard by closely examining the surprisingly vast amount of flora and fauna located there (Bryson, 2014).  Everywhere around the suburbs, if people allow it to grow, nature ensconces them with its peaceful setting of teeming life.

However, some residents with this more festive-looking natural yard, remain preoccupied on preventing critters to roam there: they start to destroy the fauna that venture into their yard through mouse traps, raccoon poison, and critter cages.   This striking irony of people having a yard teeming with green vegetation, yet limiting the animal part of the ecosystem to appreciate it are only minimizing their own chance for finding solace within their garden, as well as harming the community of animals or plants that do start to “accidentally” venture there.  It is more entertaining for one to explore a secluded nature setting, one which shifts occasionally as a little field mouse pops its head from under a pile of decaying oak leaf litter, than a “garden” with one or two clumps of furtive grass stems.  It is also unfortunate that these people only wish for the flora without the fauna due to the impossibility of this total extermination and sad life expectancy of the animals that are “found out.”

In the future, with more awareness towards sustainability and access to nature, people will be less likely to shun critters and may accept them, instead.  However, keep in mind it takes a village to drastically change conditions.  For more on the idea of appreciation of natural beauty directly outside one’s home, click here.  This reflection on Leonard Dubkin’s writing may sway naysayers to finally help their green surroundings.  It may also strengthen the resolve of everyday environmentalists that already feel this natural wonderland’s envelopment of all people.

References

Bryson, M. (2014, May 7). Commonplace nature, close at hand: Thinking about Leonard Dubkin as spring emerges. City Creatures. Retrieved from                   http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/commonplace-nature-close-hand-thinking-    leonard-dubkin-spring-emerges

Buckley, G. (2011, May). The past. Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future. Retrieved from           https://futureofschaumburg.wordpress.com/time/the-past/

Mermel, J. C. (2011, April). Biodiversity. Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future. Retrieved from https://futureofschaumburg.wordpress.com/biodiversity/