Welcome to Nature in Chicagoland!

I think about nature, hiking, wildlife, weather, the stars, and all things outdoors like some people think about their favorite sports team, discovering and trying new restaurants, or revisiting a favorite book or movie. OK, I like these things, too, but I have a special place in my heart for the natural world. Some of my first memories as a child are playing in the leaves and searching for bugs in my Beverly backyard and hiking with my mom and dad in the Palos Forest Preserves. As I got older, I began camping for a week or two a year with my dad and fellow Boy Scouts at Owasippe Scout Reservation in Michigan. Once, a few friends and I were lost in the Owasippe woods, but it seemed more fun than scary. By my 20s, I began hiking, camping, and exploring the United States with friends and sometimes on my own. I’d squeeze in a hike before work several times a week, and often shipped a locker box of camping gear across the country when visiting friends in New Mexico and Arizona.

Some of the most memorable moments of my life occurred during trips I took to the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona; Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico; the badlands and prairie of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota; the dunes, streams, and rock- and driftwood-strewn beaches of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; and other locales. I loved hiking and exploring the deserts, forests, grasslands, badlands, and lakeshores of America—often alone and unencumbered by responsibilities. These were my days before my now 6-year-old son came along. It was exhilarating to leave the crazy, bustling metropolis of Chicago and be alone in the wilderness without a soul around for miles and miles, surrounded by megafauna that could cause you grievous bodily harm if you did something stupid or just weren’t paying attention to the world around you. (If you think it can’t happen to you, check out a fascinating, yet disturbing, book called Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. You’ll never let your guard down again on a hike.)

But when lack of money or time constraints kept me from these amazing places, I embraced the wilds of Chicagoland, and learned there was considerable natural beauty and wonder in or near our big, sprawling city and suburbs. In my definition, “Chicagoland” consists of Chicago, its collar counties, and any natural destination that’s within a day’s drive of our great city. No, you won’t see bears, moose, or wolves in Chicagoland (except at the zoo), but you can glimpse deer, coyotes, river otters, minks, muskrats, frogs, fish, and an amazing array of bird species—from eagles and hawks to migrating waterfowl such as Great Blue Herons, Black-Throated Blue Warblers, and Indigo Buntings that weeks before were wintering in the tropics. Would you believe that you can also see the occasional buffalo, thanks to their re-introduction to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, Illinois? Elk? Just visit Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village. (The elk were brought to our area from Yellowstone National Park in 1925.) Mountain lions? Okay, just the one that ventured from South Dakota to Roscoe Village back in 2008, but every time I hike, I keep an eye out for number 2.

IMGP1353In short, Chicagoland provides a plethora of awe-inspiring nature. There is Lake Michigan, our vast inland sea, which offers an amazing interplay of sky and water as the seasons change; the Chicago River and other area rivers, which are gradually being restored from their criminal lack of stewardship to be healthy enough to host beavers, river otters, a vast range of fish and other aquatic life, and kayakers and boat tours; and the dense, sometimes hilly forest preserves of Cook County, the collar counties, and other counties, where, if you pick the right spot, you can walk all day without seeing another person. Would you be surprised to learn that Cook County is the most forested urban county in the United States? That there is one canyon (at Sagawau Environmental Learning Center near Lemont) in Cook County? That the preserves are home to nearly 50 distinct plant communities, some which are found only in the Chicago region? I was. You can also find nature in our city parks, our backyards, and even our deck gardens. There’s beauty and even a bit of semi-wilderness in many places if you look hard enough.

And let’s not forget the amazing geological and archaeological history of the Chicago area. Chicago was once covered by a warm, shallow sea that teemed with tropical life—great cephalopods, which looked like octopuses; crinoids, which were cousins of starfish; trilobites, which were genetically linked to crabs; and probably primitive fish. When I was a boy in Beverly, I would dig up shells, crinoids, and fossilized coral that told me that my Chicago neighborhood was much different millions of years ago. And during those same digs in my backyard, I would occasionally discover arrowheads left by the Indians who had inhabited this area for thousands of years. Many don’t realize that the remains of Potawatomi, Miami, and Illinois Native American villages lie just below our gardens and streets, our el lines and skyscrapers sit atop what were once Native American burial mounds (before many were removed to use as landfill), and our forest preserves still harbor centuries of French, Spanish, and Native American history just waiting to be discovered.

Chicago’s weather is also noteworthy. Allow me to create an urban legend that just like the Inuit have a thousand words for snow, Chicagoans have 1,000 words for weather—and only half of them are curse words! Snow. Driving rain and sleet. Hail. Sunshine…and that’s just in one day. I’m fascinated by weather phenomena—whether its supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes, sundogs and sun pillars, or just a beautiful rainbow, striking shelf cloud, or sun shower.

I look forward to writing about all these topics, plus astronomy (did you know that the Northern Lights can sometimes appear in the lower Midwest?); local history; environmental restoration, protection, and sustainability; and local colleges and universities that offer environmental-related majors, as well as telling stories about local environmentalists, nature photographers and writers, and other people who are doing cool things in nature.

And, yes, I will also write about the dangers our natural areas and air, water, and soil face from politicians who are willing to trade our health and beautiful local, state, and national parks for a short-term increase in jobs; more oil, coal, or natural gas exploration—when we should be shifting our focus toward more eco-friendly energy sources; and the visionless pursuit of profit and unfettered development—dollar signs should never be attached to nature. It’s a dangerous time for America’s wild places and for the inalienable human rights we’ve taken for granted such as clean air, water, and soil. Our president and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency are currently in the process of dismantling the very laws and regulations that have allowed our air, water, and soil quality to improve drastically from the dark days when air quality was so poor that people died in mass air inversions (Donora, Pennsylvania, 1948), our nation’s rivers were so polluted that they started on fire (Cuyahoga River in Ohio, 1969), and our soil was so contaminated that toxic industrial waste that had been buried underground bubbled up and sickened people and forced them to move from their neighborhoods (Love Canal in upstate New York, 1978), to provide just a few examples. In 1983, the great nature photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams said that “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save our environment.” Unfortunately, I think we’re in this position again today. Politicians are making a big mistake to think that we don’t value our state and national parks and clean air, water, and soil. But enough time on the soapbox….

I look forward to sharing my love of nature in Chicagoland with you and passing along some of my favorite hiking, camping, and outdoor activity destinations. And I hope you’ll share your favorite places—and ideas for blog topics—with me. Please feel free to email me or use the comments feature. Thanks for reading!

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

Coming next time at Nature in Chicagoland: A post about the North Park Village Nature Center

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