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.
When The Land Conservancy of McHenry County did a survey of members and other community stakeholders last year, one of the frustrating results was that even some people who know me personally still think TLC is something other than what it is! The confusion is understandable, because there are a lot of local groups that would be described generally as "environmental" in nature. But it is still frustrating!
Some folks think that TLC is the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD), which is a unit of local government that obtains the majority of its income from property taxes. MCCD owns more than 25,000 acres, and manages much of it for public uses such as paddling, hiking, bird-watching and x-country skiing. MCCD's board members and budget are approved by the McHenry County Board. TLC works with the good people at MCCD sometimes, but the organizations are unrelated.
Other folks know that TLC is a nonprofit, but assume that we are part of "The Defenders" - the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, a 40+ year old nonprofit organization that has played an important advocacy role on projects ranging from the "Fox Valley Freeway" up by Richmond, to recycling, groundwater conservation and watershed protection.
The Defenders started TLC as a committee to figure out how to help private landowners preserve their land. As the committee defined the purpose of a "conservation land trust," the Defenders' board decided that it made more sense to incorporate this new entity as a separate nonprofit. In 1991, The Land Foundation of McHenry County received its official recognition from the IRS. In 2003, the organization changed its name to The Land Conservancy of McHenry County to avoid confusion with another local Foundation that was formed in 2000.
The other Foundation is the McHenry County Conservation Foundation, which primarily supports MCCD's land acquisition mission. The Foundation was started in 2000 with a $1 million settlement from a pipeline company. Since then, the Foundation ran two successful referenda for MCCD - one in 2001 and the other in 2007. Combined, the referenda raised about $140 million for land acquisition by MCCD. The Foundation has about $600,000 in the bank to help run a future referendum. The Foundation has an office at MCCD's Lost Valley Visitor Center (at Glacial Park).
The other source of confusion is the word "Conservancy" in TLC's name, which prompts some folks to think we are The Nature Conservancy, or somehow affiliated with them. I worked for The Nature Conservancy's Illinois Chapter for 5 years, and I can guarantee that TLC is in no way connected with them (I wish we had their money and their million+ members though!). Once upon a time, TNC had a program in the Fox River Valley, but that was a long time ago.
So, that's a little bit about what TLC is not. Since you are reading this on TLC's blog, I'm going to direct you to the "About Us" tab at the top of the page if you are looking for more information about what we are!
Thanks for reading.
This year, Tom and I decided to get a box of fresh veggies from Angelic Organics every-other week. We've tried other CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), but wanted to try the Grand-daddy of all CSAs.
Angelic Organic's farm is located in Caledonia, northern Boone County, about a 30 minute drive from Harvard. It's a peaceful, beautiful drive past farm fields. The final approach to Angelic is on a gravel road and down a long gravel driveway to the farm.
Tidy fields of vegetables surround the farm buildings, and each time I have been there, young people are at work in the fields weeding and harvesting. The farm has a drip irrigation system, so the drought has not been a problem.
Angelic Organics was started in 1990 by John Peterson on land his family has farmed since the 1930s. Farmer John, as he is called, began using organic farming methods, and in 1993 started operating the CSA. Today, the farm provides vegetables to over 1,200 families throughout the Chicago and Rockford area through a network of 30 pick-up sites.
We have had four boxes so far, and each has had a great variety of vegetables, as well as the occasional melon.
The last two boxes included an abundance of sweet corn, beets and eggplant. The sweet corn is easy - it is delicious cooked on the cob. Tom likes his with a little butter, and I like mine with a little salt. Tom eats his by working his way around the cob, and I always eat mine from one end to the other (it takes three passes to eat it all).
Beets have been more challenging, but we've found a couple of recipes that are quite delicious. Here's my favorite. It's a unique taste - a little bit sweet with a nice texture.
Beets with Pasta
Pasta for four (I prefer angel hair)
About one pound of beets, roasted and chopped into one-inch pieces
Six tablespoons of real butter
One tablespoon of poppy seeds
Cook pasta according to directions
While pasta cooks, brown butter in large skillet
Once butter is browned, stir in poppyseeds
Add beets to blender or food processor with a half cup of pasta water and process into a rough puree
Stir beets and pasta into butter, mix well and heat thoroughly
Serve topped with goat cheese to taste.
Eggplant is the most challenging since Tom's attitude is "I hate eggplant!" But, with the right recipe, he changes his tune. The easiest way to fix the eggplant is to dice it and add it to a stir-fry with other vegetables. It doesn't have a particularly strong flavor, so blend well with other veggies and spices.
However, my favorite way to prepare eggplant is to fry it and serve with pasta and tomato sauce. (And if I am home alone when I fix it, I am liable to eat the eggplant by itself.)
Crisp fried eggplant
One large eggplant sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
One large egg
One third cup corn starch
One half cup breadcrumbs
1. To prepare eggplant, salt both sides of each slice and place in a single layer between papertowels. Place weighted object on top of eggplant for about 30 minutes to press out moisture.
2. Heat oil in large skillet
3. Place corn starch, egg and breadcrumbs in three separate bowls
4. Coat each slice of eggplant in corn starch, then egg, then breadcrumbs and add to hot oil
5. Brown each slice on both sides, adding additional oil as needed. Remove browned slices to plate with papertowel to help remove excess oil.
Serve over pasta with tomato sauce.
Both recipes reheat well. I suggest reheating beets and pasta by cooking in a skillet with a little bit of butter. Eggplant slices reheat well if placed in a toaster oven until hot (that keeps them crispy).
Both recipes were found on my favorite recipe site: www.epicurious.com
Okay, someone has to say it, and it might as well be me. The average temperature on the planet is rising. It has been for some time. Sea levels are rising. Weather patterns are less predictable. Violent storm events are becoming the norm.
In the United States for the month of June, there were over 2,000 record-setting high temperature events. A drought covers much of the country. Sure, the US has had droughts before, and heat waves, and out-of-control wildfires, but never of this magnitude, never so widespread and never so relentlessly. Statistically, the odds of a year like this happening by chance are on the order of one billion to one.
For most people, this is not news, but one would not know that from listening to the mainstream media and politicians in this country. The refusal to take action – or to even acknowledge that warming is happening in some quarters – will cost millions of people their lives, livelihoods and/or homes.
There is a deep irony afoot in the world today. The people who have the least impact on the planet will be most affected by global warming. These people are also the poorest and most vulnerable. And that makes me sad.
Low-lying, Pacific island nations will disappear as oceans rise. Parts of Bangladesh have already disappeared under rising water levels. Countries like Bolivia that depend on melt water from mountain glaciers will lose their water supplies as the glaciers disappear.
Many of the poorest nations on the planet have populations where a majority is descended from indigenous cultures. In the Indigenous view, Mother Earth is neither an inert object nor the source of resources but a home with which humans are related. How very sad and ironic it is that these countries will be most affected by the changes – and are least able to do anything to mitigate the effects.
Bolivia, where 66% of the population is descended from indigenous people, is feeling the effects of a warming planet as the glaciers in the Andes melt. The glaciers are the primary source of water in the country. The seasonal glacial melt waters feed streams and rivers, providing fresh, clean water for Bolivians. During the winters, snowfall rebuilds the glaciers.
But what happens as the glaciers shrink, as they are? And what will happen when the glaciers disappear altogether?
Glaciers release water slowly, and the water tends to be cool and clean. Rain water tends to be more “flashy” with more forceful, shorter duration flows that have a greater erosive impact on the land. Rain events are also more unpredictable than water from snow melt.
Bolivia and other poor nations have spoken up at United Nations’ Climate Change meetings, in the hopes of persuading wealthy nations to take significant steps to minimize the human contributions to warming. Poor nations have asked the wealthy nations to compensate them financially for the impacts of rising waters, melting glaciers, desertification and increased rainfall. They have begged for assistance with mass relocation efforts as low-lying areas are inundated. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
In 2010, representatives from many of these nations gathered in Bolivia for a Summit which resulted in a resolution asking the United Nations to recognize the rights of Mother Nature as being equivalent to those of humans.
Then, in early 2011, the nation of Bolivia adopted a set of laws that gives nature rights equal to those of man. The law established 11 new rights for nature, including: the right to life and to exist, the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration, the right to pure water and clean air, the right not to be polluted, and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.
The laws are derived from an Andean spiritual worldview, in which all organisms, humans included, are of equal importance to earth’s well-being. Seems to me those early people – people who some consider primitive or unsophisticated – were pretty smart.
Believing that the vast biodiversity in nature has a right to exist without being polluted, genetically altered or destroyed sounds quite sensible to me.
Drought. It's a serious problem this year, but I have been reluctant to write about it. Frankly, the images that come to my mind are not pretty.
I think of famine and pictures of small children with distended bellies and pencil-thin limbs.
I think of the Joad family in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." Families destroyed by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. "Okies" moving to California - leaving home and property behind, hoping to find work somewhere, doing something, for someone. (If you never read the novel, I suggest adding it to your summer reading list).
I think of the shrinking amount of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, and wonder about Global Warming. Looking at the maps showing the extent of the drought in just the United States, and reading the statistics of how many thousand "record" high temperatures have been broken in the US this year, I wonder if this is finally the moment when our country will acknowledge that this weather is far outside any statistical "norm."
I keep trying to think of the "bright side" of drought. No mosquitoes. That's good, right? Lots of sunshine! I have not had to mow the lawn since late May! Woo Hoo!
But then I think of the many birds and bats that count on the skeeters each summer for food. What are they doing? I guess the lack of insects explains why I've been seeing unusual birds at the bird feeders - like the Warbling Vireos. They are insect-eating birdsusually heard at the tops of trees, but with a lack of insects, they have to find food somewhere, so they visit the feeders.
Friends ask if they should be watering their oaks. I ask how large the tree is before answering.
If the oak is small, and was planted in the last few years, definitely water it - at least two gallons a week. And keep it mulched, but DO NOT pile mulch up around the trunk.
If the oak is mature, I remind folks that the tree has been through many droughts. The 2005 drought, the 1988 drought, the 1956 drought, the droughts in the 1930s, etc, etc. One of the reasons oaks are the signature tree of the prairie is because they were the tree species still standing after wildfires roared across the plains during the mid-summer droughts. Mulching at least out to the drip line of the tree is good - helps retain soil moisture, but otherwise, you just have to trust that mother nature will manage.
What about native plants like Purple Coneflowers, Milkweeds and Black-eyed Susans? Well, like the oaks, these flowering plants evolved in the open plains of the Grand Prairie. For thousands of years, they regularly were burned down to the ground, and re-grew from deep roots. It is their nature. They would not be native to this area if the occassional drought or devastating fire meant the species' demise.
Like the early European settlers who moved here looking for land to own and tend, the plants of the Grand Prairie are tough. Any plants that could not adapt to the harsh conditions (bitterly cold winters, summer heat and drought) did not make it.
How quickly will we - people, birds, insects, plants and animals - adapt if 2012 is in fact a preview of a "new normal"?
Do you remember writing haiku poems in Grade School? They are short - a classic haiku is just 17 syllables, in a three line, 5-7-5 format. In Japan, where this form of poetry originated, there is almost always a reference to nature and/or the seasons. You can read up on the history and variations of English language Haiku poetry on Wikipedia.
I've been trying to write haiku's about oaks - sticking to the 17 syllable, three line format, but finding it too hard to adhere to the 5-7-5. (I'll keep working on it though).
Oaks can be so massive, and the diversity of species of oaks across the planet is huge, so I find something appealing about trying to capture some aspect of these amazing trees in a scant 17 syllables. Here are my first two:
(Quercus Haiku 1)
Alba's cap is too small
Rubra's fits just right
Bur hides her face with fringe
(Quercus Haiku 2)
An April birth
Decades to maturity
Centuries of fall leaves
(Quercus Haiku 3)
Once an acorn
A squirrel's lost meal
Fed generations of his kin
What do you think? Do you have one to share?
There is a bur oak at Woodstock’s Hennen Conservation Area that has come to be called “Granny” oak, in recognition of multiple generations of her progeny that are found all around her. At 49 inches in diameter, she is over 300 years old (born circa 1700).
Take a short ride to visit the Hennen Park on Dean Street, nearly three miles south of Route 14, hike back past the pond, through the woods, across the Eagle Scout-constructed bridge, take a left, and follow the trail until you reach Granny.
She sits on the fence line between the park and a tree nursery to the north. This accident of birth location proved to be quite lucky for Granny, as she was spared the ax when most of the trees around her were cleared for farming in the 1800s.