Sunday, November 09, 2014

A Fire on the River

Yesterday was another meeting of the Thatcher Woods Savanna Restoration Project. My participation has been intermittent over the years, and it's usually in the autumn and winter months when I can get out with the other volunteers and pitch in. One reason for my seasonal preference is that I really do enjoy working in cooler temperatures. A second reason is that this is generally the time of the year when they burn their accumulated brush piles. This can be a lot of fun, and this was the main task awaiting us.


The weather early in the morning was drizzly and grey. And a little moisture, logic tells us, isn't all bad when you're out in the woods trying to set piles of brush on fire. But the rain held off and the fire was started easily. We all gave the burn bosses an A+ for their effort, and before too long we were off to the races.


My assignment yesterday was helping to tend the fire. This involved stoking the fire with the older brush that had been stacked on the one hand - and trying to keep the fire in it's place on the other. This sounds easy enough, but this particular pile started off burning so well and so hot that keeping it in bounds kept us on our toes as we diligently kept an eye out for wayward sparks on the sea of oak leaves carpeting the forest floor nearby.

I think there is something primal and festive about these brush pile burns. When I was a child, the use of fire was a little more routine than it is today. One of my chores then was to rake up the leaves in our yard, which we then burned out by the curb. And sometimes there would also be holiday bonfires in the local parks - two customs that seemed to be pretty well abandoned in the early 70's. I also believe that there is a lot of gratification in seeing heaps of invasive buckthorn put to the torch. Controlling this species locally is a huge undertaking, and the work is difficult and dirty. Seeing it disappear in a cloud of smoke is a fitting reward.


Along with dispatching this enemy I find great satisfaction in seeing the adjacent natural areas expand and improve as a result of such efforts. Not far from here is a prairie remnant that was originally noted in 19th century land surveys. This tiny gem may have been lost forever were it not for such concentrated efforts to fight invasive species, urbanization, neglect, and abuse. As it stands in 2014, things are looking better - but we're not out of the woods yet (ahem!).

   Site Steward Victor Guarino spreading the ashes of another successful brush pile burn.

Ecological restoration is still an emerging, imperfect science. A great deal of this work is done by volunteers, people who want to do something in response to the loss of nature that seems to have accompanied the rise of modern society. Site stewards Victor and Jean Guarino have devoted decades of service to this cause, and have influenced and inspired many in the region. Yesterday's meeting brought together a mix of people - new and old - and it was a good day for nature along the Des Plaines.    



Thursday, October 09, 2014

On The Prairie


Prairie Dock :: Cook County, IL


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Return of the crane...

...or perhaps I should say return of the rider?

Over the weekend, out on the bike, I again encountered a Sandhill Crane in almost exactly the same spot where we saw one a couple weeks back.  This led me to assume that it's the same bird that we saw feeding along the edge of the trail.

Sandy spied a spider

I guess what cinches that assumption is the bird's rather tolerant behavior around humans. Or at least us humans. Twice now, it has continued on it's feeding, seemingly untroubled by our proximity. Mind you, these pictures were taken with an iPhone. One of E's kids, and a couple of cycling friends have also seen this crane - who we've now (cleverly) named Sandy.

Is this bird nesting in these parts, or just stopping by for snacks?  Are Sandhill Cranes as tolerant of humans as Canada Geese? Are we witnessing the front end of an avian shift in our local environment? Oh, nature is full of questions. The one answer I can offer up is that Sandhill Cranes (this one, anyway) eats spiders:

Notice the blob of spiderweb schmutz on the beak tip..

Perhaps it's true, and crane sightings are becoming more common locally. I think I will always get chills when I see one either near or far.  Cranes have quite a rich and varied mythology, and don't kid yourself: I rode away feeling the meeting was a good omen indeed.

Yeah....also found a turtle!  : )



Sunday, August 03, 2014

Hello, small friend...


Well, it has been some time since I have fooled around with bonsai.  I guess it was back in the late '80's or so that I had a flurry of interest - the only remaining clue of that is a shoebox full of tiny bonsai pots.  There is a subdivision of bonsai called mame - or miniature bonsai - that I found intriguing after I saw a photo of a crabapple (with fruit, no less) growing in a pot the size of a teacup.

I'd forgotten that one of my tiny pots had held a tiny cactus pad that we'd found on a hike, and were hoping to get rooted.  That project failed, and the pot had sat empty - until today - when I salvaged a tiny sedge out of a concrete driveway crack that I was weeding. Potted anew, this sedge is now the new celebrity of the porch railing:


Truth be told, I had forgotten about the fun, and the beauty of miniature bonsai. Thinking back, I also recall seeing an image of a dandelion plant that had been kept in the miniature style. One wouldn't think this was interesting - but it was.

And it also reminded me of the advice that when one is first learning to care for bonsai plants that it's a good idea to start by practicing with the weedy plants that are nearby.  For one thing, weeds are often aggressive growers by their very nature, and for another, they're often free for the taking.  There's no reason to break the bank while you are learning your chops in a gardening form that can have high mortality. And even though they're "only" weeds, who can't see some beauty and texture when looking closely at the seed head of a sedge plant? 


I'm hardly the first person, and certainly not the last, who finds some beauty in the most common of plants.  I'm sure many of you have seen this:


Part of the challenge of growing bonsai is the level of care they require. I don't know how long this sedge will live in this new life of isolated attention. I do know that it's nearby kin are now dead, and awaiting recycling in the yard waste bag.  In any case, none of those sedges would survive the upcoming winter in the middle of a concrete driveway.  Miniature bonsai allows one to examine plants in greater intimacy.  For me, it is also a small reminder of some larger themes such as the transient nature of life, and humans exerting their will upon nature.

All that from a weed that sits on the palm of your hand.

A tomato-y start to Lughnasadh...


I guess it was last Friday that I saw a passing reference on Twitter wishing everyone a happy Lughnasa. The same tweet helpfully reminded me (with my very thin knowledge of all things Gaelic)  that this was the holiday that kicks off the fall harvest.


We did our part, rather I should say that E salvaged the holiday on her own. The harvest, to date, had only yielded a couple cups of red raspberries from the back corner.  However, the tomatoes and peppers have just started to come into their own.  And the tomatoes would have been further along, no thanks to me.

Last week we were staking and thinning the tomatoes when I erroneously cut down about 3/4 of a healthy tomato plant - thinking the stem was a sucker leading elsewhere.  I sadly harvested about a half dozen good sized green tomatoes, and staked up the remaining 1/4 of the plant.

Today, E pulled the trigger, and made up the first batch of summer salsa using tomatoes, hot peppers, cilantro and basil from the garden. On top of that she made - for the first time - fried green tomatoes.  These turned out to be so good that it made me wonder if I'd ever let a tomato ripen again.  By the time we each got to about our third portion, we tried them with some of the homemade salsa on top.

I don't consider myself a foodie, but I came this close to taking a picture of  E's tomato-upon-tomato masterpiece.  All I can say is to try it on your own. Tomatoes were never safe around me anyway, and now I intend to make their brief, delicious lives even more brief and delicious.

Happy Lunasa - however you spell it!

Friday, August 01, 2014

A One Percent Solution - Creating New Victory Gardens for Wildlife

We have had such an unusually temperate summer. Really, it's only been in the past week or so that July felt like July - and even then, it was July in a good mood.  Anyway, with all of these pleasant days and nights the grass is (still) green and the summer flowers are looking vibrant. This is the time of the year when the bees and butterflies are in their glory, and I'm sure having all of these happy flowers to visit is making their lives easier. 

At the moment many of the popular butterfly flowers are doing their thing - plants like Joe Pye Weed, coneflowers, and Black-eyed Susans are lighting up gardens.  The current concerns facing our pollinators are genuine. The populations of bees and Monarch butterflies are declining, and many are advocating for ideas to create habitat for these creatures.   

This summer I have been working diligently on my latest round of hedgerow based ideas - of which I will spare you, and save for another time.  Earlier this year I came across some new research where newly planted hedgerows using native materials has been found to provide habitat for beneficial insects. Whenever I read about work like this I get amped up - and then I wonder how it could be implemented in a pragmatic way?  Earlier this week I got out the paper and pencil and sketched an imaginary 100 acre square - that was surrounded by an equally imaginary 8' wide border:

Imaginary field, imaginary hedgerow

8' feet is the length of a sheet of plywood, and I felt it was a space that was pretty easy to visualize. If my math was correct, an 8' foot border around a 100 acre square works out to be around a 1.5 acres:

The Math

So there it is!  A template for a One Percent Solution for habitat restoration. What I like about this is that it is adaptable to any site. Most of us occupy landscapes that are far more modest. So be it. Do the math - what is 1% of your back yard or your patio?  Let's say that maybe it comes to 10 square feet....okay, find and plant one native shrub or a bunch of perennials that will help your local fauna.  I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but if everyone did it I wonder what difference it might make.  (FYI, if it helps to visualize such spaces, a sheet of plywood is 8x4', or 32 sq. ft.)   

The thing is, we all really need to start thinking in these terms.  For as long as I can remember, people planted plants to attract butterflies as a novelty, as a way to add extra beauty to the garden.  What is different today is that these creatures now need us - and we need them too.

There's a war on, people - and we need to be planting a new generation of Victory Gardens to help the pollinators. What do you say? Can you spare 1%?

Monday, July 28, 2014

A living diorama, seen along the trail...


Out on a bike ride yesterday we spotted (how could we miss?) a lone Sandhill Crane foraging along the edge of the path that winds through Paul Douglas FP :  

Sandhill Crane :: Cook County, IL, 2014

On a day where we weren't really planning on seeing many birds the sight of this crane made a wonderful outing on the bikes truly memorable. The bird did not seem at all skittish by our presence. We moved slowly to get a little closer, but other cyclists whizzed on by, and the bird seemed oblivious to the traffic. He seemed rather more interested in whatever food source was lurking in the edge between the mowed grass and the adjacent meadow.
 
We came up with various theories to explain his tranquility. 1) we wondered if he was sick. 2) maybe he was a little bit dim-witted. 3) perhaps he was juvenile and not conditioned to be afraid of humans  4) he was really hungry. He moved slowly and deliberately in that way that herons and egrets do when they're fishing.  He kept up this slow pace, poking at the weeds every now and again.  At one point he took a quick, comical lurch, stabbing at a Queen Anne's Lace, and I presume some unlucky insect. 

Anecdotally speaking it seems like we're seeing more Sandhill Cranes in Cook County over the past few years. A good sign!  We sure got a good look at this one. They're such magnificent creatures. I do love the way this cell-phone picture turned out.  It's not the best quality image by any means, but the crane has that regal, somewhat over-exposed staged appearance that reminds me a little of the old (and beloved) dioramas seen at the Field Museum.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Spiders, ridin' shotgun...

For many years I have driven Chevy pickups, for the most part the little four cylinder models. They've given me reliable transportation, and I don't ever have to pay extra for the spiders that roost in my side view mirrors every summer.

Caution: Objects In The Mirror May Appear Larger Than Life

This summer, as the above photo attests, is no exception.  The way these mirrors are designed seems to be an ideal habitat for certain types of small (thank goodness) spiders.  Obviously, there is the mirror itself, but more appealing is the plastic housing that surrounds it.  For the busy arachnid on the go, nothing beats an aerodynamic, virtually unbreakable shelter for when the weather forecast or highway speeds become threatening. 

There must be millions of these trucks (and their mirrors) on the road, so I figured that I can't possibly be the only one who has observed this phenomena. True enough, a quick search on Google finds truck owners who have also found spiders in their mirrors - and some seem none too pleased about it. 

As for myself, I don't mind having a little (literally) company as I make my rounds. I have noticed that sometimes, first thing in the morning, the resident spider will have spun a little web the night before. Here's a shot from July of 2008, six years ago, almost to the day.  Another year, another truck, another spider:

"Some Human!"

The spider will smartly construct it's web within the bounds of the plastic housing and wait for its prey to come along. I'm assuming that this species of spider is comfortable in such a highly engineered setting, and is successful in getting regular meals. This is exciting, because for all I know I could be witnessing a tiny evolutionary step forward in the spider kingdom. Will such incremental behavioral adaptations favor the savvy spider that has learned to hitch it's wagon (so to speak) to one of the millions of cars that are now rolling around the Earth?   

Or maybe not. There have been times where the spider will inexplicably not run for cover after the opening and/or the closing of the door. At times like this I have observed the spider, hanging on tight, as the web flaps in the wind as I drive down the road.  Eventually, I assume, at the first opportunity he or she dizzily retreats for cover, or falls off along the way.  I'm ashamed to admit that I don't keep track of their comings and goings nearly as closely as I could. 

Ashamed, because I'm reminded again that there are extraordinarily famous tales about spiders out there, and maybe I (and my truck) need to slow down, and get to know our tiny summertime traveler a little better. For the time being, E.B. White's legacy is safe.