“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.
Change is hard. And, every change is for better or worse, depending upon your perspective. Change is particularly hard when it happens quickly. I’m sorry, but telling me “it’s easier if you just rip the bandage off real quick” doesn’t lessen the pain.
I have no doubt the 400 acres of trees and shrubs bulldozed and left burning in giant brush piles looked “worse” to the hundreds of neighbors on the north side of Woodstock a couple of weeks ago.
McHenry County government has been working for three and a half years to develop something called a Unified Development Ordinance, UDO for short. Essentially, it is a document that combines the zoning, sign and subdivision ordinances into one document. If done right, a UDO resolves any conflicts that may have existed between the various separate regulations and streamline the regulatory framework for development projects.
On my daily commute, I’ve been listening to a series of interviews that Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell in the 1980’s called The Power of Myth. The interviews were first broadcast on PBS in 1988 – a year after Campbell died at the age of 83.
Most readers will have heard of Moyers, a regular on PBS for many years, but may not be as familiar with Campbell. In fact, this is my first foray into Campbell’s works that explore the role of mythology in human culture.
“We are responsible for the third generation of oaks in McHenry County.” Mary Tree McClelland, horticulturist, Glacier Oaks Nursery in Harvard.
To Mary's way of thinking, the first generation of oaks was the one that was here when European-American settlers moved into the county in the mid-1830s. At that time, nearly 40% of McHenry County was covered in oak woodlands or savannas. The remainder of the landscape was prairie, wetland, and open water.
By 1872, settlers had cut half the original oak woods, whittling them down to just 18% of the county, or about 70,000 acres. The second generation of our oaks is the one that sprouted and grew since the 1830s, but they never regained the ground lost in those early years of settlement. In fact, during the second generation, oaks have steadily lost ground to farming and development, so that today, oak woods cover just 4% - 14,000 acres – of the landscape.
Of the remaining oak woodlands, very few, perhaps 25%, are healthy. The vast majority are dying off as oaks are choked by invasive shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle, and rapidly-growing trees like box elder. Acorns fall, young oaks sprout, but they never grow to adulthood because they are shaded out by the invaders.
As the second generation of local oaks nears the end of its natural life (200 years?), the county faces the prospect of the third generation being nothing more than a handful of remnants in public natural areas – just like zoo specimens.
There is a different way. The descendants of the early settlers and the new settlers who arrive by the thousands each year have a choice. The community can choose to plant oaks. Not just specimens in backyards, but actually recreating oak woodlands and savannas on the soils where these woodland communities once thrived.
And, our community can choose to take better care of the oak woodlands that remain by clearing invasive brush and giving the young oaks sprouting in the woods a chance to mature.
If local settlers – new and old – choose to help, the third generation of oaks can thrive!
Look for "Oak Rescues" that TLC holds throughout the winter months. These are days when volunteers gather on a privately-owned property for the purpose of helping the landowner clear invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle from around some ancient oaks. We get a good brush fire going, have something warm to drink and even cook some brats over the fire for lunch once the work is done. Contact Linda for more information.
Illinois conservation land trusts have helped preserve more than 200,000 acres of open land in Illinois over the last 50 years. The conservation land trust movement is gaining momentum and is supported by private landowners who are concerned about disappearing open spaces, farmland and wildlife habitat, deteriorating watersheds and the need for increased local recreational opportunities, according to the Prairie State Conservation Coalition’s recent census.
“As we move into the 21st Century, Illinois residents are supporting conservation land trusts’ efforts to protect private land from inappropriate development,” said Brook McDonald, president of the Prairie State Conservation Coalition, Illinois’ state-wide association of conservation land trusts.
“Residents understand that more open space improves their quality of life, keeps property taxes low and ensures healthier communities for the future,” said McDonald.
There are 40 conservation land trusts in Illinois. Conservation land trusts are local, not-for-profit organizations that provide private property owners with a variety of legal tools to protect their property from inappropriate future development.
The most popular tool is a conservation easement, a legal agreement between a private property owner and a conservation land trust that allows the land to remain in private ownership. These agreements permanently restrict the type and amount of future development and activities that are permitted on a property to protect the land’s scenic and conservation values. In return, the property owner may receive significant income, estate and property tax benefits.
The Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC), the local conservation land trust, has preserved nearly 2,000 acres of land in McHenry County, the vast majority of which are preserved by permanent conservation easements. These lands are still owned by individuals and families who pay property taxes (at a reduced rate), still live on and use the lands as they have, and can pass the property on to heirs or sell it in the future. However, they rest assured that the land will never be developed.
In partnership with the McHenry County Farm Bureau, TLC is hosting a workshop for McHenry County landowners interested in learning more about how preservation of their land with a conservation easement can help them realize personal, estate planning and income tax deduction goals. Legal, tax, property valuation and conservation easement experts will be on hand, as will local individuals who have worked with TLC to preserve their lands with conservation easement.
From an environmental perspective, I like highway rotaries (also called roundabouts). They allow traffic to keep moving, which cuts down on cars having to stop and start at a light or stop sign. That saves gas and results in less air pollution.
An additional environmental benefit is that less pavement is typically installed at a rotary when compared to a four-way-stop intersection. Part of the reason for that is what are called “stacking lanes.” These are areas where the roadway is wider approaching an intersection to allow for right and left turning traffic to “stack” up while waiting for a light to change to green. The extra roadway width reduces the time it takes for traffic to move through an intersection, as the folks going straight, the ones turning right and the left-turners are already separated when the light changes color.
When a rotary is installed, there is less need for “stacking” cars because the traffic moves continuously through the intersection, and whether a car is going straight, turning right or turning left, it will enter the rotary and follow it to the right until exiting onto the desired road. Less need for “stacking” cars translates into less need for pavement, and less pavement is a positive for the environment.
But, sometimes a rotary isn’t the best solution.
One of those cases is the proposed rotary at Harmony Road and Route 20 southeast of Marengo. The state’s plan to install a rotary at that intersection will require tearing down the historic Harmony School along with a grove of oak trees that were growing there before the school was built in 1931. Until its owner, Jack Feldkamp, was murdered in 2011, the school was home to his business, Harmony Real Estate.
The historic building sits empty, and if the rotary project goes forward, the school will be gone – forever. And a bit of our Heritage – a part of what makes McHenry County unique in the region – will be gone too. Roads can be moved or redesigned to avoid structures or trees, but trees and buildings are generally immovable (except perhaps at great cost).
Ancient oaks and historic buildings connect the current generation to a time before we were here. A time when schools were dotted across the landscape so that every child in the county could walk to and from school each day. A time when a grove of oak trees growing near a school was valued because of the shade it provided on a hot day (before air conditioning).
I can’t help but wonder if there is still a lesson left in that old schoolhouse? And if today’s “students” will slow down long enough to listen to it?
(Thanks to Kurt Begalka at the McHenry County Historic Society for sharing the photos of the school and oaks. www.mchsonline.org)
I am fascinated by water.
Humans can only survive a few days without it, and our bodies are 65% water. Less than one percent of the water on planet earth is available for people to use because the vast majority of water is in the oceans (where it is too salty for humans to drink) or it is locked in the polar ice caps.
Water is so essential to life, yet so often taken for granted.
Here in McHenry County, all of the water people use comes from the ground. Municipal and private wells reach down into “groundwater aquifers” and pump water up to the surface.
Aquifers are not underground pools. In this area, aquifers are found where deposits of sand, gravel, or sandstone have water filling the spaces between sand particles (or filling cracks in the rock).
If the water in these aquifers is not replenished, they can run dry just like a river or pond can go dry. And the source of water to refill an aquifer is the same as that which fills our rivers and ponds – precipitation (rain-sleet-snow).
We had a severe drought last year. On average, our area receives about 37 inches of precipitation each year. In 2012 we received about 25 inches.
The drought of 2012 led many local rivers and streams to run dry (like the one on the left side of the accompanying photo). Many ponds are very low, and some have dried up altogether. Farmers are able to cultivate parts of fields that were too wet to farm just a year or two ago.
Groundwater aquifers face a double whammy during a drought. First off, people pull more water out of the ground to water their lawns, gardens and farm fields to compensate for the lack of rain. Additionally, with no precipitation, there is no new water to replenish the water we are pulling out of the ground.
There is one final challenge that aquifers face when there’s a drought. They take time to recover even when rain starts to fall again. After all, the precipitation must be able to soak into the ground is areas where the soil is permeable enough to allow the water to pass through 100 to 400 or more feet of material. It can take several years for water that hits the ground today to make it to the nearest aquifer where it becomes available for a well to pump to the surface.
So, if you are still looking for a resolution for 2013, how about “I won’t take water for granted”?
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.