The last year or two, I’ve noticed changes to the farm fields I pass on my commute between Harvard and Woodstock each day. The hedgerows are thinning and in some cases, disappearing altogether.
As used here, the term hedgerow means a linear strip of vegetation (trees, shrubs and grasses) that runs along the fence line – or property boundary – between fields.
A hedgerow provides a wind break, which in turn reduces the amount of exposed soil that blows off of a farm field each year. It also reduces the amount of blowing a drifting snow, which can be a severe problem along US Route 14 between Harvard and Woodstock.
A hedgerow provides valuable habitat for a diversity of wildlife including deer, fox and birds. A hedgerow provides shelter that allows mammals to pass safely across the landscape and offers insects and birds a place to rest, nest and/or feed.
On some properties, hedgerows are the only place where old oaks are still found. When land was cleared one hundred of more years ago, farmers left many of the trees that were located on or near the property line. Over the years, these trees provided a comfortable spot to have one’s lunch on a hot summer day in the fields.
So, why are the hedgerows disappearing?
The high price of a bushel of corn.
Just ten years ago, the price of a bushel of corn was less than $3. Now that same bushel of corn sells for more than $6. And that was before the 2012 drought. Farmers are looking for additional land where they can plant corn to maximize production. And at 150-200 bushels an acre yield, even one additional acre of corn will generate $1,000 or more.
Demand for corn is high due in large part to federal Clean Air mandates that require blending ethanol with gasoline to reduce the emission of carbon monoxide. Increased use of ethanol also reduces America’s dependence on imported oil. Both seem worthy causes.
But the world is never that simple, is it? Corn is also needed for livestock feed and has become a staple in American processed food (high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch/baking powder, and corn oil being just a few).
So, basic economics tells us that competition for a product drives up the price, and scarcity (like happened in 2012 because of the drought) will drive up the price even more.
I’ve heard some folks say: “Most of those trees and shrubs are just junk anyway: box elders, buckthorn and honeysuckle.” Sure, but the wind doesn’t pay attention to what tree species is blocking it, and a bird that needs to take a break doesn’t mind if the only resting spot is a honeysuckle bush.
What does matter is whether there is something versus nothing, and the removal of more hedgerows for a few more acres of corn will have an impact on the future productivity of the land and the sustainability of the area for wildlife.
As the soil and birds start to disappear, we all may be wishing those hedgerows were back in place.
I posted this once before, but thought the weather forecast warranted running it again! Hope you don't mind!
When first married, my husband and I moved to Vermont from Chicago, motivated by an image of that state as a beautiful, rural paradise – the antithesis of Chicago where our car got broken into every few weeks. We thought Vermont would be a great adventure. Turns out “adventure” wasn’t quite the right word.
Our moving date was in early November, and after we arrived, it was at least 30 days until we saw the sun. Our trusty VW Rabbit had a stick-shift – which had not been a problem in Chicago where the landscape is fairly level. But, in Vermont, we couldn’t even get in or out of our neighborhood without going up and down a couple of hills. On streets covered in snow and ice.
We expected Chicago winters would prepare us for anything, but we were wrong. The sheer volume of snow that fell in and around Burlington, and the absence of sunshine for weeks at a time, made that first winter pretty tough.
That first winter was when we heard about “Snowflake” Bentley – the man who first observed that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1885, Wilson A. “Snowflake” Bentley, a farmer and resident of Jericho, Vermont, became the first person to photograph a snowflake. In 1925, after photographing thousands of snow crystals, he wrote:
"Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."
That fact never occurred to me – if each snowflake is unique, then once it is gone, there will never be another like it.
According to a story on the Smithsonian’s website, “Snowflakes start as ice crystals that freeze around small pieces of dust in the air. As they fall to the earth, the ice crystals join together to form snowflakes. The shape of each snowflake is determined by temperature, wind, the amount of time it takes to fall to the ground, and the amount of water vapor in the air.”
For example, the classic snowflake shape – some variation on a six pointed star with delicate branches (called stellar dendrites) – is most likely to be formed when the air temperature is below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. At higher temperatures, snow crystals may be more disc-like, cylindrical or stick-like.
After living in Vermont for three years, Tom and I came to understand why it was a Vermont resident who figured out that no two snowflakes are alike: First off, there are a lot of snowflakes to photograph; plus, there are about five months of the year where it is so snowy and cold that one needs to have a hobby to keep from going stir crazy.
Wilson A. Bentley chose a winter hobby that took advantage of a resource available in abundance right outside his front door – and more than 100 years later, every child still learns that no two snowflakes are alike.
I never thought a hobby could make someone immortal.
While driving late one night between Woodstock and Harvard, it struck me how dark it seemed. Most house lights were out, so the landscape visible along Route 14 was dark. It was a new moon, so there was no moonlight from the sky to illuminate the ground. I thought to myself: the world must have looked like this for the early settlers.
Not even close.
When early settlers arrived in this area, they would have found actual darkness. The kind of darkness where the Milky Way was not only clearly visible, but where the Milky Way actually cast a shadow on white surfaces!
There are still a few places in the United States where true darkness can be found, but these dark spots are increasingly rare. According to information found at www.cleardarksky.com, there are no places in the entire state of Illinois that have no light pollution. In fact, east of the Mississippi River, a person would have to travel some distance into the Atlantic Ocean to reach a place with zero light pollution.
Woodstock is right on the fringe of a light bubble that surrounds the City of Chicago and most of the suburbs. This light bubble stretches from University Park in the south to Deer Park in the north, and from Lake Michigan in the east to the Fox River in the west. In this area (a place where it never actually gets dark), the sky is perpetually grey or brighter, and only the brightest stars are visible to the naked eye. In technical terms, this bright zone is considered Class 9, Inner-city sky.
Woodstock is in an area considered Class 6 or 7, Urban/Suburban sky. The Milky Way may be visible if directly overhead, and the horizon glows with a faint light that obscures all but the brightest stars.
Heading northwest from Woodstock, the sky is rated a Class 5, Suburban Sky. In this area, the milkway is visible when overhead, but is washed out. Clouds appear brighter than the sky behind them.
In a truly dark, Class 1 or 2 sky, clouds will appear as “black holes” that appear deeper than the starlit sky around them. This is because there is not ground light pollution to illuminate them from below.
Now, there are those who will ask: “so what?”
The sky is part of humanity's cultural inheritance: a door to the Universe, part of the rural environment, and a social amenity. Light pollution reduces the celestial spectacle to a pale imitation - a few pin-pricks of light from the planets and brightest stars - and robs us of a source of inspiration which until recently could be taken for granted.
Some folks may think that with the onset of winter, we can stop thinking about invasive plants - after all, they aren't growing in winter, right? Well, while we may not have to worry about them growing during the dormant months of winter, natural area managers find that this is the best time to work on removing invasive shrubs, trees and vines. After all, one doesn't have to deal with ticks and mosquitoes, plus, with the leaves off, it is much easier to cut and mulch (or burn) brush.
The picture above shows Oriental Bittersweet - an invasive vine that literally strangles trees like our beloved oaks. Artists seem to value the twisty stems, and florists love the prolific orange-clad berries for fall flower arrangements. However, left unchecked, this vine will pull down mature trees in just a few years.
Fortunately, this is an invasive plant that can be managed easily during the winter months once one knows how to identify it, and provided you have the proper chemical to apply to any cut stumps.
For those who dislike even the idea of using herbicides, I have to tell you that the alternative is to keep cutting the same plant every year. And, cutting these plants just encourages them to come back more aggressively the next year. Seriously. It is like the stories of Medusa - cut off her head, and seven new heads grew in its place. Cut one honeysuckle stem this winter, and you'll be cutting at least seven new stems next year if you don't give it a shot of herbicide.
Fortunately, herbicides will work when applied correctly in very small quantities. Since they are a poison, it is vital to wear proper protective gear and use the proper application technique to avoid harming yourself or native plants that may be growing nearby.
There is a lot of good information out there to help manage invasive plants in winter.
Friend Chris Evans coordinates an "Invasive Species" (eradication) Campaign in Illinois, and he often shares great information about best practices for recognizing and controlling invasive plants in Illinois. He posted a useful article recently that covers the basics of winter management of several of the most irritating invasive plants: Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet. The article can be accessed here: Winter Management of Common Woody Invasive Species.
The article is on the site "Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month," so you will find a lot of additional helpful advice about managing these pesky invaders.
“The fog comes on little cat feet” wrote Illinois poet Carl Sandburg in 1916 as he watched the fog roll in at the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago. The next line, “It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on” describes the fog as it settles in for a while before retreating again.
When I first read those words in grade school, I admit that they didn’t make much of an impression. The cats I knew were like my pet Tuppence who thumped when he walked. Did fog thump? As a kid, I really didn’t know fog.
Reading the poem today, I actually experience a slight chill, for as an adult I have experienced the beauty and mystery of fog in its many forms.
For example, there is the winter fog that coats the tree branches with a thin film of ice, creating what is known as a hoar frost. This fog is a type of evaporation fog which results when cold air passes over water or warm, moist land. Evaporation increases the amount of moisture in the cool air, possibly to the point that the air can no longer hold all of the water it contains. And that is when the fog arrives.
Several years ago on a camping trip, I saw the fog roll in off the Pacific Ocean at Point Reyes California (one of the foggiest places in the world), and then watched it return to sea. This is an example of advection fog where wind blows warm moist air over a cool surface – in this case, the ocean.
Fog is essentially a cloud at or near the ground. Fog occurs when the air temperature reaches its dew point – meaning the point at which the air is nearly 100 percent saturated. Fog generally does not occur under windy conditions – the air will be calm, and any wind will be light.
In this area, the most common type of fog is known as radiation fog. On clear, calm nights, fog will form as the ground surface cools rapidly, dropping the air temperature to its dew point. This type of fog is most common in the fall and winter, and if the air is still, can last all night long, disappearing as the sun rises and the air warms.
For all its beauty, fog can be hazardous. In 1945, a B-52 airplane actually crashed into the Empire State Building in New York because of heavy fog and in 1977 two airplanes crashed on a runway in Tenerife (Canary Islands) because of limited visibility due to fog.
Fog has been blamed for fatal car accidents across the planet, in places as diverse as California, Dubai, and Tennessee. The fog not only reduces visibility, it also reduces contrast, muting everything to shades of grey, which in turn reduces one’s ability to judge distance and speed.
Fall and winter are the peak fog seasons in the Chicago metro area, including McHenry County. So, when driving in the fog, slow down, turn on the low beams, don’t pass other cars, and do not talk on the phone. It may come in on little cat feet, but don’t be fooled, that fog can be a killer!
Did anyone else notice that the President mentioned climate change during his victory speech early Wednesday morning? Specifically, he said: "We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
That sounds like three priorities: reduction of the National debt, equal rights for all Americans, and doing something about climate change.
For months, I have been frustrated by the absence of a National dialogue about climate change. The topic did not come up during the Presidential debates – not even a passing reference. This, despite the fact that our own Defense Department has stated that global climate change will have national security implications for the US, as rising sea waters inundate US military bases as well as low-lying nations and as changing weather patterns cause water shortages in some countries and flooding in others.
“We will pay for [climate change] one way or another,” Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of US Central Command, wrote in a report he prepared as a member of a military advisory board. His report goes on to say that America can pay dollars today to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or it will pay later through loss of life as the US faces more military conflicts through the political instability that climate change will cause.
So what? How does that affect us here in McHenry County? Why should we care?
Well, aside from concern about the impact to habitats and species, consider that McHenry County will have young people whose lives will be at risk in future military conflicts as nations fight over water and possibly land for their citizens. And, there is every reason to believe that the United States will continue its long tradition of welcoming refuges from throughout the world, and those people will need to have places to live. Population pressures in the US in the future will impact McHenry County, especially with our location within the Chicago metropolitan area.
I hope the next four years brings rational discussion in the US aimed at taking meaningful action to address climate change and to reduce the risks of future global instability that will result if nothing is done. Let’s not push this problem off onto a future generation.
I want to share an inspiring story that I heard earlier this week:
Some years back, Michael Howard, Director of the Fuller Park Community Development Organization in Chicago, learned that his neighborhood had the third highest levels of lead of any neighborhood in the US. Its location between the Dan Ryan and the Chicago Railyards had led to deposition of lead from cars and diesel trains for decades before fuels were made unleaded.
Being an economically depressed area, there were many vacant lots, which served as de facto parks that kids would play in, all the while inhaling and ingesting high levels of lead. Michael wondered how those kids were ever going to learn anything in school with high lead levels in their systems. He launched a campaign to get the area cleaned up which resulted in 200 tons of lead being removed from the neighborhood.
Along the way, he realized that the Fuller Park organization he ran needed to get into the environmental education business, and so Eden Place was established 15 years ago on land that had been abandoned and used for dumping for many years. It is a 3 acre oasis with farm animals, a duck pond, vegetable gardens, chickens laying eggs, etc. They have 10,000 visitors a year go through the property including 1,000s of school kids who learn from the animals and plants.
What struck me like a lightning bolt while talking with Michael, was the power of a place like Eden Place to influence future generations of citizens - voters, politicians, workers, parents, on and on.
The majority of school kids in Illinois grow up in places more like Fuller Park than Woodstock or Algonquin. If those kids are not given the opportunity to experience nature in their neighborhoods, how will they learn to value the land and all it provides? If their only experience with nature or farming is a field trip once in their school careers, why would they ever see these things as relevant to their lives and their families?
There is so much that so many of us take for granted (myself included) - not having to worry about your kid being hit by a stray bullet while playing in the street for example - and Michael's story reminded me of that. So, I intend to be more mindful of that in my work. Not that the work we are doing in McHenry County is any less important, but now my eyes are opened to the fact that it is not enough. If I believe that land preservation is important for the benefits it provides to people, then I have to care about every kid growing up in Fuller Park (or any other nature deprived area of the state) just as much as (if not more than) the Whooping cranes that may visit the future Hackmatack NWR.
Thanks for reading.
We worked with a group of 9 volunteers the other day to plant 120 oak trees. While taking a mid-morning donut break, folks were talking about whether or not we should be planting species other than native oaks because of climate change. The concern was that as the climate warms, the more northern species will not fare as well as species that are found further south.
I explained that the species of oak most commonly found in McHenry County – white, bur, red, black and scarlet (or Hill’s) – occur throughout the State of Illinois. That’s right, one can find these same species of trees in the southernmost part of the state with a climate more similar to southern Missouri than northern Illinois.
A couple of folks also mentioned the summer drought, wondering how we could possibly water the 2-4 year-old seedlings enough if there is a drought next year.
Frankly, we couldn’t, and we won’t. The oaks are on their own, as trees have been for millennia. I pointed to ten young oaks that were planted just two years ago, noting that they were all doing fine despite no additional water during the recent drought.
Just imagine, oaks were thriving on every continent except Antarctica long before humans were much more than food for larger animals. I’m guessing they have a few tricks up their genetic sleeves.
As we resumed digging and planting, I looked over at a nearby bur oak that was close to 300 years old. It grows on the fence line between the planting site and the adjoining farm field. That tree was growing in that same location before the Declaration of Independence was signed. That oak survived a series of droughts in the 1930s (known as the Dust Bowl years) and a severe drought from 1954-56.
We’ll keep planting oaks.
The latest news is that I now have a blog about nature on the NW Herald's website:
It is called "Speaking of Nature," and the purpose is to raise awareness of how global and national environmental issues relate back to McHenry County. Folks who know me know that I am not short on opinions. And people who have known me the longest are well aware of my need to have some cause that I can fight for or rale against!
Now this blog feels like one of those paintings where the artist paints a picture of himself painting a picture of himself painting a picture of himself painting a picture of himself...
I promise, I'll try not to be so self-indulgent in the future!!
As the crops are harvested in the fall, the land’s forms become more clear. Gentle swells and swales that were obscured by corn are suddenly prominent. If one takes the time to learn the language of the land forms, the land has a lot to teach.
Most of McHenry County lay under a half mile of ice just 16,000 years ago. That may sound like a long time ago, but to a geologist, 16,000 years might as well be yesterday.
Imagine a wall of ice over 500 meters thick moving slowly across the landscape. Everything in the path of the glacier was crushed, and anything that could be moved was pushed along by the ice. Trees were pulverized. Jagged boulders were rubbed smooth.
Looking at the land today, the remnants of the immense force exerted by the glacier can be seen all around. Here’s a description of some of the more common elements of the county’s glacial heritage that you are likely to see.
Erratics. This term describes any rocks that were transported by a glacier from one place to another. In our area, any rock is likely an erratic, as there isn’t exposed bedrock nearby.
Esker. This refers to a long, thin, snake-like hill of sand and gravel that was likely formed by a stream that carried rocks and sediment within a glacier. I know of one esker in McHenry County, although I am sure there are others. Sadly, it is likely that local eskers were removed as part of gravel mining operations. Eskers are treeless and very well-drained, providing ideal habitat for a unique assortment of grasses and wildflowers that are adapted well to perpetual drought conditions. The photo was taken on an esker northeast of Hebron. The reddish grass is little blue stem, and you can see how it covers the top of the hill. Where the grass ends, the land slopes sharply away.
Kettle. This is a depression in the landscape that was caused when a chunk of ice broke off from a retreating glacier. Glacial “outwash” (debris) then covered the ice chunk, and once the ice melted, a depression was left behind. Some kettles are lakes, as they hold water throughout the year. Others lie atop deep sand and gravel deposits, providing rapid infiltration of any rain or snowmelt. The latter are found throughout McHenry County. There are several kettles visible from Fleming Road and also in the Sanctuary of Bull Valley. The photo on the right is of a kettle off of Fleming Road in Bull Valley.
Kame. A kame is a small hill of sand and gravel left behind by a retreating glacier. Glacial Park in Ringwood has outstanding examples of kames. Like their cousin the esker, kames are very well drained, typically tree-less and provide habitat to a unique community of plants and insects. Kames come in all sizes, and are typically conical in shape. Many of the local kames were removed years ago for their sand and gravel.
Moraine. In its simplest sense, a moraine is a big pile of trash left behind by a glacier. As the glacier receded, all of the debris it pushed ahead of it was left behind in a heap that geologists call a moraine. Marengo Ridge just east of Route 23 in western McHenry County is a moraine that marks the western extent of the Wisconsin glacier.
Outwash Plain. Glaciers contain large amounts of silt and sediment, picked up as they scour the underlying land when they move slowly downhill. As the glacier melts, these materials are carried away and deposited in a broad area called the “outwash” plain. The Big Foot prairie area west of Harvard is an outwash plain that was formed as silt-laden melt waters flowed off the Wisconsin glacier.
So, next time you’re out for a drive, try reading the landscape. It’s a very well written old story. I think you’ll enjoy it.