Time Travel with a Red-Winged Blackbird

By Alicia Fecker

(May 2018)

The wooden planks are set into the hillside and make for an easy climb up the to the highest discernable elevation within North Park Village Nature Center on Chicago’s Northwest Side. I am unsure if this mound of earth was the work of nature, is made from remnants of a long-ago excavation project, or was an intentional intervention to provide park visitors with a different perspective from which to view the surrounding nature. Regardless of how it came to be, this flat oblong ridge would soon provide me with not only a new outlook on my city but also a renewed appreciation for nature in my daily life.

The author at North Park Village Nature Center, Chicago IL, May 2018 (photo: M. Bryson)

This is day two of my Writing Urban Nature class, a week-long environmental humanities course at Roosevelt University that would take us all around the city and suburbs in search of urban nature. I had to request vacation time from my 9-5 job in order to attend. Copious rainfall the day before meant a promised canoe trip on the Chicago River’s notorious Bubbly Creek had been postponed. But today it was sunny and warm so I shed my raincoat and rolled up my sleeves. It is late May but the weather has been obstinate and only recently allowed any semblance of springtime. What a relief to be outside, unencumbered by the gear required for surviving Chicago’s fickle climate.

Moving more freely, I sit down and get work. The class has been tasked with finding a place to contemplate these surroundings and how they make us feel. As I take in the bird’s-eye-view from this relative mountain top, birdsong fills my ears. A feathered choir is hiding amongst tree branches, lush with the nearly neon-green leaves of spring. Their chirps, cheeps, and chatters are so familiar and yet so foreign. I do not manage to identify a single species. Surveying the miniature woodland and wetland that fills the center of this 46-acre nature preserve, I am reminded so much of other places that I’ve visited.

In my youth, I spent time at Forest Glen Preserve and Kickapoo State Recreation Area, both just outside my hometown of Danville, Illinois. Like North Park, they feature native ecosystems of Illinois such as prairie, savannah, woodlands, and wetlands. In doing so, they give us a glimpse into the past and allow us to imagine what the state looked like before European settlers and modern agriculture left only fragments of what was surely a stunning landscape.

In my regular life, I spend my days in a generic beige cubicle in a downtown office building and spend far too many hours sitting and staring at my computer screen. The potted plants scattered around offer nice bits of green in a rather bland space but they do little to satiate a human need for interaction with the natural world. For several years now, my so-called free time has been spent chipping away at credits required for a degree in sustainability studies. Unfortunately, this daily grind of paper pushing followed by nights spent reading about the environment have left little time or energy for actually experiencing it. Mostly, I only observe it through windows while I tend to other things.

Consequently, I am now intimately familiar with the seasonality of the tree outside my apartment window. It morphs through seasons while I tap out classwork on my laptop. Bare branches first don violet-red blooms, then deep green leaves before laying down an orange carpet in the courtyard. Through many apartment moves over the years I have tried to maintain walking distance between myself and Lake Michigan. The vast open horizon of moody water and sky are only minutes from my door but I catch only brief glimpses of blue or gray as the express bus whisks me home from the office and back to my studies.

Normally when I do get outside I am on concrete, surrounded by the glass and steel of skyscrapers and inundated with a constant wail of sirens, car horns, and the rumbling L train. A variety of smells assault the nose. People are everywhere. But today I’m on soft earth. Instead of tall buildings, lithe trees tower overhead and dance with the wetland cattails in a sun-warmed breeze. The air is sweet and filled with bird song instead of the downtown cacophony. No throngs of people flood the sidewalk. I see only a couple of my classmates along the gravel path, off in their own quiet worlds of thought. I start to relax as I feel the breeze on my skin. Breathing deeply, I take in the fragrance of spring growth and loamy soil. Nature surrounds me; it covers me and simultaneously lifts my spirit while grounding it to the world around me.

Somewhere out there is a major metropolis but it has receded and for a moment I feel calm, peaceful and in utter awe of what are probably rather ordinary trees, flowers, and birds. Everything around me seems brand new, as though I am a foreigner and setting eyes on this kind of scene for the first time. But why? Surely I have been somewhere like this before. After all, I have lived my entire life in Illinois and grew up only few hours away. Then again, how long has it been since I went outside with the sole purpose of experiencing nature? I cannot recall and I decide to capture this moment so that I may revisit this feeling of appreciation in the future. I pull out my smartphone first to take pictures, but decide instead to record the birds. They seem to be singing in surround sound. One voice in particular seems to be calling me and reminding me of a place I have not been in a long time. As I hit record, I start to remember. [click here for info and a song recording]

* * *

My childhood home in Danville overlooks Lake Vermilion. The reservoir was created in 1925 when a dam was built on the North Fork Vermilion River and flooded a shallow valley (Illinois CBMP). The house is still there on the northern end where the lake narrows to meet its river, but my family moved away years ago. The town is located directly south of  the Great Lakes region and is a popular stopover on a major bird migration route. It was wonderful to have a lake in my backyard, albeit at the bottom of steep and erosion prone hill. Like the wildlife, opportunities for exploring and learning were abundant. I am sure it was there that my love of nature and animals was born.

A diverse menagerie of great blue herons, egrets, and ducks plied the waters. Hummingbirds and songbirds of all kinds snacked at the feeders my parents filled. Raptors were represented by owls, hawks, and notably, a pair of bald eagles that nested in a tall tree near the water. Woodpeckers feasted at the massive old growth maple. Raccoons and opossums were at home on the river bank while more typical yard creatures like squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits populated the trees and lawns. We used binoculars to spy on deer that traveled the hillside across the lake.

As for the less charismatic fauna, bats, insects, and unsettlingly large spiders were in no short supply. I was always thrilled to discover roly-polies underneath damp rocks or logs in the wood pile. One of my earliest memories is of finding an earthworm in the sandbox. I built a little sand house for it and kissed it goodnight before tucking it, or rather burying it, inside. My mother’s garden beds lined the fences and tall trees provided shade and places for all those birds to hide. If only I had known then what a gift it all was, to have this just steps from the back door.

Despite growing up feasting on this wealth of flora and fauna, somewhere along the way, I lost my love of simply being outside. Whether it was homework, the lure of television, or friends at the mall, the older I got it seems the less time I spent outside. After moving to Chicago, the elements became something to be managed or even dreaded and too often have served as a barrier to being outdoors. The short mild seasons are sandwiched between long periods of hot or cold extremes and transitions can see temperature variances of 30 degrees in a single day.

In those moments the glorious days from June to September are easily forgotten: I may leave the house in a light jacket in the morning but need a parka by nightfall or a sudden storm while schlepping groceries means I’ll squish the rest of the way in wet sneakers. If the temperature is below zero, the wait for a bus feels like an eternity as the wind cuts my face and weakens my resolve to continue living in this city I love. Add these petty complaints to work, college courses, and other responsibilities and you can end up like I had lately, spending almost all of your time inside.

* * *

Fortunately this class has brought me here, perched in a small nature preserve jotting thoughts in the notebook on my knee. With each new observation, I notice parallels between present and past and my thoughts begin to ping pong back and forth in time and space. I have not been to that beloved home on Lake Vermilion in nearly twenty years, yet I keep hearing that one song. It is a the red-winged black bird and that sound never fails to take me back that old house. That yard. The other birds I hear now, they could they be the same ones that woke me with chirps and chatters on spring days just like this, when it was finally warm enough to sleep with the windows open. Yesterday’s rain would have left a monumental puddle in front of the house where my brother and I would spend hours splashing. The blanket of flowers on this hillside could be in my mother’s garden. They remind me of the time I was scolded after I picked all the grape hyacinths and delighted in pulling the little purple beads off their stems.

As I look down to the wetland below I’m taken to that old backyard where I’d peer over the fence and see fluffy cattails along the edge of the lake and hear the bullfrogs croaking, seemingly in competition with the deafening trill of cicadas as a I drown in the muggy summer twilight. I do not know the names of these trees that surround me now, but I remember helping to rake up their fallen leaves into a burn pile and toasting marshmallows in their ashy flames as if it were only yesterday. I’d rather not dwell too much on winter. After all, this year, it snowed in April. Like most children, though, I did not dread the snow. I waited for it. Impatiently. When it finally arrived, I welcomed it as an excuse to go out and play.

Sounds can trigger powerful memories and today it took only the trill of a little black bird with flashy red wings to transport me to a very special place. Bouncing back and forth between present surroundings and past memories is disorienting. Reflecting on those times spent enjoying the back yard, class trips to Forest Glen, and family reunions at Kickapoo, I begin to wonder what happened to the curious little girl who scanned the tree tops for bald eagles and kissed the worms goodnight.

Though I seemed to relive my entire life on that little hill, my reverie really lasted only a few minutes. The birds were still singing in the trees but other, larger birds were making it hard to concentrate, their engines screaming as they flew overhead to and from O’Hare Airport. Even though I could not see it, the steady stream of Peterson Avenue traffic drifted in over the tree tops and pulled me out of my nostalgic spell. I tried to keep focusing on the birds, the air, the sun and the memories of the house on the lake but the invading noises forced back into present day reality. I was not quite ready to leave it, or my seat on the hill, but I eventually peeled myself up to wander back down to rejoin the group. As did, I wondered how many people driving by even knew that this little oasis even existed. Until today, I had not.

* * *

Lorado Taft’s “Fountain of The Great Lakes” (2013) and a grid of trees lends a formal feeling to the Art Institute’s southern garden. (Source: A. Fecker)

Chicago seems to be very good at hiding peaceful bits of green where you might not think to look for them. When you do happen upon one, it feels like stumbling into a secret garden that you hope no one else knows about so you can selfishly keep it all to yourself. On busy Michigan Avenue, The Stanley McCormick Memorial gardens that bookend the Art Institute are just two of many such gems hidden in plain sight all around Chicago. The class made its first stop at these gardens before venturing beyond downtown. Both are carefully considered and ordered around straight paths and low benches; one has an impressive fountain and the other features several large sculptures.

Looking towards Michigan Avenue across a green lawn at the Art Institute. A sign reminds visitors to stay off the grass. (Source: A. Fecker)

Like the paintings on the museum’s gallery walls, the flowers and grass come with warnings not to touch them. Despite these formalities, the gardens are welcoming respites, each with a graceful canopy of trees and hedges that mostly block the sight and dulls the sounds of street traffic. Some people walk by seemingly oblivious to the peace that can be found within. But if you know they are there, they will wait quietly for your visit and do their best to help you push away the city for a few minutes or a whole lunch hour.

Looking at an online map of Chicago, you’ll see the blue swath of blue Lake Michigan and though the city motto is urbs in horto (or “city in a garden”), this map will not look very green. Instead, it is mostly light gray, indicating that the predominant surface material is pavement. It is unsurprising then, to learn that according to 2017 City Park Facts, a report by the Trust for Public Land, only 12,917 of Chicago’s 145,686 acres are public parkland (p. 9). Indeed, you have to zoom close in on the map to start seeing spots of green within city limits. Several of the largest patches are actually cemeteries which, though lovely to visit, their primary use obviously precludes them from being suited for much more than a quiet stroll.

The region is vastly different than its state before the arrival of Europeans. Less than half of the park acreage we do have are considered to be “natural” which is defined as those that are relatively unaltered or have been reclaimed from other uses (p. 24). Every single site we toured during a week of exploring nature had been used for other purposes at one time or another: a train yard, an actual train track, landfills, farms, and even a depot for arms and ammunition.

Busse Forest Nature Preserve in Schaumburg, Illinois was full of lush forest plants. Wild Geraniums seemed to carpet the entire forest floor. (Source: A. Fecker)

Schaumburg’s Busse Forest would help us feel a little remote. Here we had some time for quiet reflection while wandering soft forest footpaths that wound through carpets of pale purple wild geranium, goldenrod, and every imaginable texture and shade of green vegetation.

A former arsenal, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet gave us an unmatchable experience. It was the only place where there was some measure of escape from the noise of planes and road traffic. This is also where, after trekking on a gravel path through fields of yellow flowers and grasses, we climbed over a ridge of earth and came face to face with a small herd of bison. Our group stared, transfixed, and whispered in awe and appreciation at the sight of approximately 35 shaggy brown animals. Any jaded city dweller would have been enamored as I was. Unless you are at the zoo, the only shaggy creatures you see in Chicago come at you with woofs and tail wags on the sidewalk.

There was no guarantee that we would see bison while at Midewin Tallgrass National Prairie, so we were fortunate to find them so close to the trail. (Source: A. Fecker)

In the city, we visited Northerly Island. This is an odd spit of engineered land that sits in Lake Michigan, beyond the shadow of the inimitable skyline. It does not seem to know really what it is. Part bird sanctuary, part city park, and part concert venue, it exists somewhere between wild and controlled. It is nature on top of man-made refuse that the lake is doing its savage best to erase from the map and to some extent, the city is letting it win (Kamin).

Trees and concrete at Northerly Island.  (Source: A. Fecker)

We explored the hardscrabble northern end and were treated to interesting vegetation, some surprise bee hives, and unobstructed lake views. For all the beauty and relative quiet and wildness of these places and despite their important missions of conservation and restoration, all three are relatively hard to get to for the average city resident. Even Northerly Island is a bit out of the way for someone without a car or a bus pass. This is why I found the other places we saw to be the most democratic and vital.

In a city that touts a garden pedigree, each 4.7 acres of park space must serve 1000 people (Harnik, McCabe, & Hiple, 2017). This is tied with New York but is only half the acreage afforded to those in sprawling Los Angeles. Still, 92% of Chicago residents have unobstructed access to public park space within a half mile of their home, making it 9th out the 75 largest American cities for park access (p. 15).

Northerly Island: erosion is a problem for this man made land. (A. Fecker)

This is an important benchmark that would likely be impossible if not only for Chicago’s history of prioritizing a public lakefront, but it also means pubic open space can be found in almost every corner of the sprawling city. Nature is everywhere even in a highly altered landscape. This was made increasingly crystal clear to me with each subsequent stop on our urban nature expedition as was the realization that my fellow Chicagoans have been very resourceful in their quest to make room on the map for green within confines the concrete and asphalt.

Ping Tom Memorial Park is located in Chicago’s Chinatown. Though surrounded by infrastructure, the park offers many amenities and relative quiet from city noises. (Source: Google Maps)

Ping Tom Park in Chinatown is shoehorned against the river, underneath roadway overpasses and hemmed in by two levels of railroad tracks. The Chicago Park district notes that this site was part of a rail yard before it was reimagined as a lovely park with its distinctive pagoda and willow trees with tendrils that dangle languid in the breeze. Converted warehouses and a rusting iron bridge hint at an industrial past. But after a hour there, I could tell it was a valuable and prized asset for the community. People gathered to chat and stroll curvaceous paths, or to nap under a willow. The gentle slope provides a somewhat rare feature for Chicago: direct access to the river.

And, in what is perhaps the most striking example of making room for public space and nature, an elevated train track from Chicago’s industrial past has been repurposed for the present day with a public park superimposed on top. The 606 Trail runs through a string of neighborhoods on the north side of the city.

Some sections of The 606 Trail touch buildings on either side but trees add a natural touch to the old industrial corridor. (Source: A. Fecker)

The primary feature is a path for cyclists and pedestrians but the project designers added as many places for nature on this stretch of old iron as they could. The edges are built out, sometimes right up to adjacent buildings to allow room for trees, bushes and flowers, art, and benches. There are a lot of hard edges and materials here but the line between infrastructure and nature will continue to blur as the plant life grows.

In his essay for the City Creatures blog, “Orbits and Orientations,” author Gavin Van Horn describes an almost transcendent experience on the 606 that left him feeling more in tune with the world around him. A slight increase in altitude above the surrounding city gave him a new vantage point from which to view nature and his place in the universe. I felt all this and more while I sat on that little hill in North Park. Just fourteen steps up had given me enough distance to see where I’d come from and allowed me to reconnect with a part of myself that had long been neglected.

* * *

In what seems like a lifetime ago, I moved to Chicago to study interior architecture and intended to become a designer. I came here for school and the lake and famous “front yard” of parks that stretch along the water. I also came for the skyscrapers. I love the buildings so much that I miss them when I’m away for more than a few days. In my brief travels around the U.S. and abroad, I’ve not found a skyline to love more. Facts of some of the more famous buildings are committed to memory: architect, style, year, etc.

A few hours per month, I volunteer as a greeter for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, an organization which extols the virtues of design. I know more about Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion than I do about the birds that fly above it. When I think of these open spaces, I look at them from a perspective of design and how they work or do not work with the city. Millennium Park with its Lurie Garden is home to a famous fountain and sculpture. In her essay “The Song of Northerly Island,” author and urban naturalist Wendy Paulson says that Millennium Park is worthy of praise but that it “accentuated built structures, not natural ones” (p.190). True, our patches of urban nature include miles and miles of concrete, formal gardens, wide expanses of green lawns and thus do not tend to be bastions of biodiversity. Like most of human development, our manipulations of the world around us have been always for our own benefit, often to the detriment of our fellow animal species. Fortunately, even if these spaces are more building than park, they can and do support both.

I grew up on a non-descript street surrounded by a surprising array of nature. I used to revel in it, in all seasons. Many years later, I did not realize that I was so hungry for it until I took a class trip to a tiny nature preserve. A bit shamed that I had let inconvenient weather patterns and/or even just boring responsibilities keep me inside even on nice days, I decided to take advantage of an exceptionally lovely evening. After work, I left my office and made my way to Millennium Park a few blocks away. I wound my way passed the silver trellis of Gehry’s pavilion and found the nearly hidden entrance of my destination. My class had visited the Lurie Garden just the week before. Either not much had been blooming then, or I had not paid enough attention. But now it was painted in every shade of purple flower and lush green vegetation.

The colors of The Lurie Garden at Millennium Park change with the seasons. (Source: A. Fecker)

I found a place to sit and took out my computer to do some work. Birds were flitting about as the sun started to set. As I tapped away, I heard again the sound so evocative of my memories of the yard on Lake Vermilion. I looked up and saw that it was coming from the tree just in front of me, looking for a girl who knows about worms. So as I typed these words in waning daylight with the skyline of my adopted hometown behind me, the sharp, elongated trill of a red-winged blackbird carried me back to my old home, once again.

References

Chicago Park District. Ping Tom Memorial Park. Retrieved from https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/ping-tom-memorial-park

Harnik, P., McCabe, C., & Hiple, A. (2017).  2017 City park facts. San Francisco. The Trust for Public Land. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/ya6h2oj5

Illinois Council on Best Management Practices. Lake Vermilion. Retrieved from http://www.illinoiscbmp.org/Watersheds/Lake-Vermilion

Kamin, B. (29 April, 2018). Fix is overdue for Northerly Island’s path. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y7rmucb6

Paulson, Wendy J. ( 2015).  The song of Northerly Island. Gavin Van Horn & Dave Aftandilian (Eds.), City Creatures (pp.188-194). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Van Horn, G. (17 March, 2017). Orbits and orientations. Center for Humans and Nature. Retrieved from https://www.humansandnature.org/orbits-and-orientation

 

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