Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hiking to the end of the line...

Our group met at the Haymarket Memorial this morning to begin our walk.  I think it was a first for me that a trail head was in a cemetery, but this seemed like a good (and historic) spot to start our ramble upstream along the Des Plaines River.

The Des Plaines, in these parts, is a tired urban river - but it's not the water quality that draws me back again and again. As much as anything it's the history of the waterway that sparks my imagination.  The river itself may be unassuming, but its proximity to the Chicago River was the portage, the geographic quirk, that caused Chicago to rise here. French explorers were the first Europeans to discover what the native Americans already knew: there was a link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi - which by extension linked the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

So as we knocked around alongside the river today it made me wonder about all the others who had been here before. There are numerous cemeteries up and down the river, dating back to an era when this was the western edge of the metro area, the open lands at ends of their earth. Of course the river had once been a minor trade route centuries ago, but it also acted as an escape route for those escaping enslavement via the Underground Railroad.

The colors in the woods alongside the river were dull and muted.  The brilliant cold and snow of last week had melted, and it is too soon for visible signs of spring/  The spring migration will soon bring colorful birds back from southern lands. Today we enjoyed the company of sparrows and winter juncos, not quite yet displaced from their perches.

Humans also come and go. As we took a shortcut through a second cemetery the surnames on the old tombstones turned 19th century and German. Our group was small, but it wasn't lost on me that our hikers hailed from all over the world. We, like millions before us, came to this corner of the planet, hoping to create decent lives in this metropolis borne of a swampy river portage. And today, we left our own footprints in the muddy trails along the Des Plaines.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Landscape history the car wash.

I suspect there are quite a few people who, when they learn of my occupation, imagine that I am spending my days in forests and meadows, surrounded by the glories of nature. Yes, I sometimes do have those moments, but the majority of my time is spent working in locales that are far more familiar to any of us who lives in urbanized places.  During this past week my travels brought me to possibly one of the most unlikely places I’d expect to get a lesson in landscape history: a car wash.

I was asked to do perform a tree inventory for the parcel of land the car wash occupied. The lot was surrounded by very busy, high volume roadways. The purpose of the inventory was to help assess the existing conditions there - a part of the permitting process.  When I arrived on the site I expected a run-of-the-mill survey of species that one encounters all the time in such built up places.  And while it was true the car wash trees were types that were (mostly) common this particular assemblage provided a remarkable miniature study of local urban forestry issues that any tree geek would appreciate.

There are times when one can divine a landscape’s history by looking at what is growing there. The car wash landscape - I’m guessing - was planted in the 1970’s or 80’s.  The older trees were all in the 10-20 inch diameter range, and like species were all pretty much the same size, which likely equates to age in this case.

There was a group of leggy Austrian pines growing too close together, planted too near the neighbor’s building that had all been limbed up out of necessity.  When they went in they were probably cute, but they were thin now, their crowns stunted.  On the other side of the lot were a line of Green ash trees that were all in the 14-17 inch diameter range. They were all decimated by Emerald ah borer, and the only living thing on them now were suckers - slender branches that the tree shoots out in a final desperate attempt to survive. One could see that, in their day, these had made up a really nice row of trees. 

There were other normally reliable species such as crabapples, hackberries, and maples that were in various stages of decline.  One could see the usual signs of a tired landscape: insect infestation, poor management (pruning, etc). It is a car wash, after all, not a public garden.  Of the planted trees, the handful of hackberries seemed the most durable, but even they had witches brooms - signs of distress that I’m guessing may been a symptom of air pollution and/or salt spray damage. 

Of all the trees on the site the ones that seemed the most vigorous were the handful of White poplar trees. This is a species that is normally seen as invasive and even somewhat weedy. Nurseries don’t grow them. The poplars that grew here actually were pretty happy in this otherwise harsh setting - along roadways that, according to IDOT, carry over 60,000 cars per day. Perhaps these are the urban trees of the future?

Possibly the most interesting find for me was the sight of a battered, nearly dead, Russian olive tree hidden in a neglected corner of the lot, on the edge of drainage ditch. Russian olives are a species that was once promoted as one that would attract wildlife. They could still be seen around Chicago pretty regularly in the 1980’s, but even then they were fading fast.  Another introduction that was a bad idea, they either became invasive in places, or unreliable in others (i.e. Chicago).  I see them now rarely, maybe once a year. 

This car wash - of all places - would be a great field visit stop for my plant ID students. It’s all here on display: good and bad planting choices; invasive plant and insect species; all knitted together on a landscape that is likely going to be wiped clean and started anew. It’s good to remember that these trees, when installed decades ago, would have been seen as a pretty solid and durable choices. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this otherwise anonymous landscape.

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Winter's Ramble....

One thing that social media can do is bring together those who can share mutual interests.  And so it was last weekend when five otherwise bright people defied the winter cold  - even by Chicago standards - for a January hike along Lake Michigan.

Our merry band kicked off what will hopefully be monthly excursions to explore the natural world that sometimes seems hidden in our urbanized world. I thought that our leaders made a splendid choice for an inaugural trek, as the dramatic Lake Michigan shoreline is anything but hidden from a visual standpoint. We met at midday at the north end of Lake Shore Drive and headed south.

Totem pole :: Chicago (2016)

Cold cold cold cold cold.  So we shoved off - moving briskly. There seemed to be general agreement that the bright sunshine and the wind at our backs made for an overall lovely day.  One flock of gulls were tucked into snow covered sand - which was an odd sight that I had never seen before. The scene also included about ten pigeons who were foraging over the sand demonstrating that we were at least as clever and hardy as these avian neighbors.

Sun, surf, sand, snow, seagulls :: Chicago (2016)

Sun, surf, sand, snow, seagulls :: Chicago (2016)

The lake itself was choppy, and when we walked further south waves the color of weak cocoa were breaking over the concrete seawalls. Spindly plants that grew out of the fissures in the concrete were covered in new ice. We followed the path south, and soon we were upon Montrose Harbor where there were quite a few dogs (and their humans) cavorting on the dog beach.   We trundled through the dune lands around the Magic Hedge, and as we made our way around the harbor we spotted Buffleheads and Mergansers sharing the waters with the Canada Geese.

Chicago (2016)

The shoreline gradually swept away and the skyline of the city came into full view. There were times when I felt like we were exploring an alien world, but soon we would pass by various sculptures, giving us clues as to makeup of the civilization buzzing across the Outer Drive. 

Amidst frozen ripples :: Chicago (2016)


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

When life gives you sleet.....

Some people build snowmen, but I took a little break from chopping through layers of frozen sleet to build the only inukshuk on the block - to add to our holiday displays:

Cook County, IL :: 2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mark Your Calendars

Monday, December 21, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015