BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
I lived for 15 years on the “mean streets” of…well…well…Jefferson Park—a “nice-streets” neighborhood on Chicago’s far Northwest Side. Not a concrete jungle, but certainly a city neighborhood, with pretty houses packed closely together; mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, and bars hanging on for dear life during the pandemic; and plenty of strip malls the further north and west you go.
All that changed on July 9, 2020, when we moved to my mother-in-law Kathy’s house in a Chicago Southland suburb in order to sell our condo more easily in the time of COVID. It was the first time in my 50 years of life that I’d lived outside Chicago. I grew up and lived in Beverly on the South Side for 32 years, spent about four years in raucous Lakeview (a few blocks from Wrigley Field and the Music Box Theater), and the last 15 years in Jefferson Park on the North Side before our 2020 move south. We—or should I say our dozens of boxes, treadmill, and other bric-a-brac—moved in and, let’s be honest, took over Kathy’s home. Kathy….news flash from the Vatican…you’re going to be made a saint in your own lifetime. I think you need two miracles to become saint. Miracle #1: you didn’t go crazy at our clutter and kick us out. Miracle #2: You and St. Joseph must have collaborated to get our house sold relatively quickly and a new one found in record time. Congrats on your sainthood and sorry for the clutter and the chaos that we and your 10-year-old grandson brought.
For a city person who has not had his own yard for 25 years, moving to the Southland was quite a sea-change. Nature is in abundance in the south suburbs, so much more than in the city. As we sought to sell our home and search for a new one, my mother-in-law’s house and yard (as well as the many nature areas in the Southland that I visited) became places of beauty and peace during a challenging time—which was exacerbated by the pandemic. We arrived during peak summer and stayed till the first weeks of winter. It was a wonderful experience in many ways. I was surprised by the diversity of wildlife I saw in my mother-in-law’s yard. Despite being the home of past and current factories, steel mills, and other industrial infrastructure, the Southland has many ecologically diverse areas (including wetlands and marshes) and sits on the Mississippi Flyway, on which, according to Audubon, “more than 325 bird species make the round-trip each year…from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and in Central and South America.” Additionally, some of the best and largest forested and other natural areas are protected and managed by Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Forest Preserve District of Will County, cities and towns, and nonprofits and other organizations.
Of course, a worldwide pandemic also allowed me to appreciate nature in a way that I would not have if I was involved in all the daily activities and responsibilities of life pre-2020. The following sections tell the story of our months in the Southland, some of the discoveries that we made during this time, and the nature destinations that I visited (that you should, too).
It was a high-summer evening in the Midwest the night we arrived. Warm and humid. The crickets chirping loudly as we unpacked the car. The suburban streets were so much darker than our North Side neighborhood. My son and I eventually headed to the back yard and laid in the soft, green grass. This was our grass temporarily—I know we were just borrowing it from my mother-in-law, but it felt so wonderful to lie on the grass and gaze at the stars. I said, “Son, we’re not in Chicago anymore” and thought of clicking my heels together, but he was already running inside to play Fortnite.
It took some time to get used to suburban life. You have to drive everywhere, every food delivery service got at least one item wrong each delivery (and it was always my son’s order that seemed to be affected), and our neighbors (or their “people”) seemed to spend all day caring for their lawns. The soundtrack of city living features cars, horns, and booming-bass radios. The Southland soundtrack was leaf blowers and lawn mowers going all….day.
But then my world was changed by animals in a way that I had not experienced on the North Side of Chicago. On a regular basis, I saw rabbits, opossums, squirrels, praying mantises, huge spiders, colorful beetles that I’ve still yet to identify, and tons of dragonflies (some of whom, I recently learned, migrate to warmer climes in the fall). The sheer plethora of wild creatures visiting my mother-in-law’s backyard, as well as all of the nature spots I visited, was wonderful and overwhelming in a way. They were not rare or endangered species, but they were beautiful and diverse, and welcome surprises as I enjoyed the backyard and forest preserves, Illinois Nature preserves, and other destinations.
I spent the last weeks of July searching for Comet NEOWISE in the sky. I used astronomy apps, peered through binoculars for an hour at a time, and did everything possible to see what was being described as the comet of the century. Instead, I got eyestrain and a stiff neck. And probably some crazy looks from the neighbors. There was just too much light in the night sky—with a major mall and interstate to the east and another interstate to the south. But that was okay. I was able to spend many nights enjoying the stars (10 times as many that I normally saw on the North Side of Chicago) and Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and Mars.
July was humid, and we soon decided that we needed a swimming pool. We talked ourselves out of spending $900 on a larger pool, but instead settled on two $100 large, kids’ pools. At first, my son loved the pools, but then moved onto other things. My wife and I loved the pools—and did NOT move onto other things. We enjoyed many late afternoons and early evenings in the pools, savoring some refreshing drinks with the sun beaming down on us. At first, we tried to get our son to join us so we wouldn’t look so goofy in the pool, but we soon stopped caring. My mother-in-law even joined us one time. And my son occasionally joined us in the pools as the summer progressed. One of the best feelings in the world is being immersed in a pool with the blazing sun shining down on you.
We continued to enjoy the pool. Then the dog days arrived. Sunny, hot, humid days. The kind where it stays above 80 degrees at night and you feel like it will never be cold again (although you know better as a Chicagoan). Cicada song grew in volume every day. I tended our garden (several types of beans, tomatoes, and peppers), and we enjoyed more pool time.
I did not have much time to explore the nature areas in the Southland in July during our first few weeks settling in, but I vowed to get out and enjoy nature as an antidote to our pandemic isolation.
I took my 10-year-old son to Sand Ridge Nature Center, which is just a short distance from my mother-in-law’s house. This 235-acre preserve provides stunning views of oak savannah, wetlands, prairies, and other ecosystems. There’s also a great nature center for kids (with live animals), an 1800s pioneer homestead, a variety of workshops and guided hikes, and annual festivals and events. It was fun to simply walk the trails of Sand Ridge with my son. (The nature center was closed due to the pandemic.) He liked the boardwalk trails and spotting frogs and turtles. The nature center at Sand Ridge has recently been remodeled, so be sure to visit this Southland gem.
Later in the month, I traveled solo to Kankakee Sands, which is located in Newton County in northwest Indiana. I was looking for a great place for bison and bird watching, hiking, and some solitude, and Kankakee Sands fit the bill (although I didn’t see any bison). My favorite hikes: Conrad Station Savannah Trail and especially the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail. Kankakee Sands (which is managed by The Nature Conservancy) and adjoining nature areas feature more than 85 rare threatened and endangered species. My trip occurred soon after the looting and rioting that had occurred in Chicago’s Loop and many of its neighborhoods. But just 65 miles to the south, I was alone on the trails amidst bright blue skies, tall prairie grass, and groups of prickly pear cacti. It was a surreal feeling to be so at peace amidst all the craziness of COVID and the violence and looting in Chicago.
The days grew cooler, and our thoughts turned to how we could maximize our time outside in the time of COVID. We bought a fire table, made s’mores, and had family hangouts around the blazing fire. But most nights, it was just me by the fire with a good book. This was magic time where I could read and watch the birds and stars. I loved my time outdoors—especially watching (and hearing) the flocks of sandhill cranes that started to fly overhead as dusk fell—either to roost in the area or to continue on to Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, which is a major stopping point on the Great Sandhill Migration (more on that later). And an hour or two after dusk, I sat by the fire, and I could still hear the noisy honks of cranes as they passed by hidden overhead. What wonderful moments.
I also kept enjoying the natural areas of the Southland. I made two visits to Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve—my favorite hiking destination in Chicagoland. At 1,520 acres, it is the largest roadless area in Cook County. At Cap Sauer’s, you’ll find hiking, biking, and horseback trails; wetlands, marshes, and streams; savannah, prairie, and forest; and much more. It’s easy—and enjoyable—to get lost in this vast nature area. My first visit was with Dom, a friend who is the leader of my son’s Scout troop. It was fun to get to know him better, and show him a place that I love. My second was with Dom and 15 to 20 scouts and their parents. Our hike was a big nature party, and the kids loved the hilly terrain, looking for fossils and interesting rocks near a creek, and seeing Visitation Prairie. I never hike with a large group, and it was fun to show some friends and their kids a place I love and enjoy.
My wife, son, and I ended the month by returning to Sand Ridge Nature Center. This was one of my wife’s favorite hiking destinations when she was growing up, and it was fun to hear her reminisce about past hikes and how the preserve had changed in 30 years. And it was fun to be together on the trails—something that doesn’t happen as much as we’d like due to busy schedules. During our hike, we saw many vivid cardinal flowers along the boardwalk, frogs in the pond, and an egret high up in the trees above the water.
The pools were a distant memory (sadly), but we used the fire table regularly as the nights cooled. Early October was mild, and nature was still in abundance. I wrote the following in my journal:
“Cricket song very strong as of Sunday, October 11. In the last few days, it’s been almost like a bird party in the trees and sky above as the migrating birds pass through.”
I continued to visit Southland destinations.
On an unseasonably warm 82-degree day in early October, I visited Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve. To get there, I drove through blocks and blocks of homes. I passed kids playing in front yards, people unpacking groceries from their cars, and others cutting their grass. But as I pulled into park at the edge of the preserve, I glimpsed six or seven great blue herons poised over the shimmering waters of a marsh waiting to strike at unsuspecting fish. Egrets and ducks swam in the distance, and I could hear the chirp and croaks of frogs and the strong wind rustling the leaves of the trees. I was in nature nirvana! A long row of backyards faced the marsh, and I remember thinking, “I hope these people never get tired of the parade of birds and other wildlife that visit their ‘backyard’ during the passing seasons.
Then I headed to Powderhorn Prairie, Marsh, and Lake, a nature gem tucked amongst rail yards, industry, and city and suburban neighborhoods on the far South Side of Chicago. I hiked the rare dune and swale landscape (parallel sandy ridges alternating with low wetlands that were formed by the retreat of glaciers and other processes 10,000 to 15,000 years ago; they often contain rare plants and animals), admired beautiful Powderhorn Lake, and looked for prickly pear cacti (which used to be prevalent in the sandy areas near Lake Michigan), but did not find any.
The weather finally became more October-like in its last week. I traveled to Big Marsh Park—a great destination for bike tracks, birdwatching, hiking, and fishing—and then to Indian Ridge Marsh Park, a place that is surrounded by industry, but where you can wander amongst ponds and wetlands and have the chance to see nearly 200 bird species.
Eight of the first 10 days in November reached at least 70 degrees, and I basked in the fleeting warmth. I headed to Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery on November 2 (one of the cooler days in this early stretch). Bachelor’s Grove is one of the most famous haunted cemeteries in the United States. It is an eerie place, but it also contains a lot of south suburban history.
During these 70+-degree days, I continued to sit outside during the day and by the fire table at night and listen to the crickets, which were slowing down as the temperature cooled, and gazed at Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. One day, more than 10 plump migrating robins descended en-mass on the back lawn, chirped and poked at the grass, and then were off to fly south.
By November 13, the crickets—which had seemed like a full orchestra for months—were gone. The yard was nearly silent, although the skies above were still full of migrating birds.
We closed on our new house in late November. Change was in the air, but I was still exploring the Southland and beyond. On a 66-degree day, I traveled to central Indiana to visit Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area to see thousands of sandhill cranes at this beautiful 8,000-acre nature area filled with wetlands and woodlands.
I squeezed in a few more nights at the fire table. I realized that if you just bundled up enough, temperatures in the 30s and 40s were just fine if you have a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate and a warm fire.
The sandhill cranes still occasionally passed by as they headed toward Jasper-Pulaski or some other southern locale.
Chicagoland had a mild December—nothing like the snowy, frigid Decembers of my youth in the 1970s and early 80s. Global climate change is real and it’s drastically changed Chicagoland’s climate.
The temperatures gradually declined, and one morning, frost coated the patio windows. Window frost is like the opening scene of some Hallmark Christmas movie, but when I saw it, my heart leapt in joy. It was beautiful, but impermanent, like a Native American sand painting.
We kept working on our new house to get it ready for our eventual move in. It seemed like I was going back and forth between the far North Side of Chicago and the Southland every day. After so many trips, I came to love the Chicago skyline in a new way (especially when seeing it at night) despite living in Chicago for my entire life. Our pretty glittering city with so many problems to solve (but that’s another blog). And I grew to view the industrial Port of Chicago buildings along the Bishop Ford Expressway as some sort of good luck charm as I traveled back and forth. I thought of all the fantastic nature spots I’d visited on Chicago’s Far South Side and its neighboring suburbs and had a new appreciation for the nature that had managed to survive amidst the steel mills and other heavy industry, the strip malls, and miles of concrete.
Despite our upcoming move, I kept going on little adventures—including to the Tinley Park Historical Society (outdoors only…a historic gravestone from Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery is located on the grounds, and I wanted to see it) and the historic African-American Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, where three famous African American/Native American aviatrixes (including Bessie Coleman), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and other African American luminaries are buried.
As we neared Christmas, we completed the last work on our new house. Christmas Day was one of the few truly cold days of winter thus far. We had a wonderful mushroom, egg, cheese, and sausage breakfast casserole at my mother-in-law’s house, opened presents, and enjoyed each other’s company. My wife, son, and I then made a teeth-chattering porch visit to my mom’s house in Beverly (we were being extra careful during the pandemic). And then we packed up the car and headed past the Port of Chicago, the big garbage hill nearby, White Sox park, the glittering downtown skyline that seems to hide everything wrong with the city, and eventually reached our home on Chicago’s far North Side.
We were home owners again, and it felt good.
It’s a few weeks more than a year since we moved to the Southland to stay with my mother-in-law. It was a busy six months filled with family time, nature, house-selling, house-hunting, and new-house-fixing amidst a terrible pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans and brought death and suffering to countless others abroad. We persevered during a challenging time, thanks to the soft landing and support provided by my mother-in-law.
The big snows of February and March finally melted, and I eagerly awaited the first green sprouts of spring in our backyard. The people we purchased our home from must have been nature lovers because all types of green shoots began sprouting. Peonies, daffodils, and hostas. They all sprouted and flowered at different times, which kept us company as we continued to work on our house and garden.
I love these aforementioned staples of city life, but I’ve always dreamt of planting a native garden. I began planting prairie star, Virginia bluebells, butterfly weed, purple coneflower, blue wild indigo, jack-in-the-pulpit, and other plants—some from seeds and some from bare roots. I also purchased two bare root, dwarf apple trees because I always dreamt of growing my own apples.
A few plants came north with us from the Southland. I transported our Charlie Brown-esque evergreen tree and some Dipladenia (not a Chicagoland native, of course) from my mother in-law’s house. Both have seen better days. The evergreen is missing one side of branches and the Dipladenia has not blossomed since last year. But it’s nice to sit in the yard, look over at them, and be reminded of our six months in the Southland.
Copyright (text, except quoted material) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes
I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlightnewsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.