Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Chicago’s Millennium Reserve: a photo essay

In dim morning light the wooded riverbank stretches into a misty distance. Luxuriant early summer foliage hangs over the water. Cheerful birdsong peppers the stillness, spices the tranquility of dawn.

At intermittent intervals the blast of an air horn erupts a short way down river, from some factory. Oddly, it is less a disturbance than a punctuation of the peaceful tenor of the morning.

There is a tangle of deadfall at the river’s edge. From within it I hear the sound of some creature plunge into the water. A muskrat perhaps. The surface swirls with its passage as it swims out into the current, but it remains invisible. Then it submerges further and is gone. The water is still again.

A young deer steps out of the undergrowth onto the path. I do not move. It turns calmly, raises its white tail as if in farewell and saunters off, nibbling here and there as it goes. Stealthily, I try to follow, but I can’t keep pace and I lose track of it as it wanders back into the depth of the forest.

This is Chicago. The occasional blast of the air horn is joined now by a soft rumble and staccato clank of coupling boxcars as a train begins to accelerate. It reminds me of the importance of the railroad in the history of the city. This is the Whistler Woods Forest Preserve in Riverdale. After parking in a riverside neighborhood of West Pullman, I crossed the Calumet River on the Major Taylor Trail. The trail hints at another piece of Chicago history. It is named for an African American bicycle racer who is also revered as a civil rights pioneer and author.

Whistler Woods Forest Preserve, east boundary
After my brief reverie with the wildlife, I head back to my car. Although I would enjoy doing so, I am not here to explore Whistler Woods. I have a larger purpose in mind. I am not alone in this. For this far southeast corner of the city Chicago has a very grand scheme in progress. It is called the Millennium Reserve and if all of its plans come to fruition it will become the largest network of urban parklands and natural areas in the country, potentially encompassing over 140,000 acres.

Urban farming, West Pullman, from Major Taylor Trail
I have come to what’s known as the “Calumet Core” of the Millennium Reserve for what can only amount to a peek at the landscape of this vast project. It is a landscape of stark contrasts that symbolize all of the hopes and challenges inherent in the concept of urban wilderness. As regular readers of this blog know, that was bound to attract my attention. I am eager to explore.

The Calumet Core is billed as “a 220-square mile opportunity to transform a region in transition.” The project is ambitious, to say the least. It is, fortunately, far more than the usual attempt to restore neglected or degraded land. The visionary planners have wisely incorporated cultural, social, and economic objectives into the project. To be sustainable, environmental restoration and conservation must not only be linked to human concerns; members of the local community must recognize and believe in its relevance to them personally.

We will not survive if we do not understand how inextricably bound are human society and the natural world. This tie has too long been denied but the tremendous and undeniable changes that we have brought upon our planet over the past two hundred years make it particularly urgent now to redress the imbalance.

It is in places like this that we must begin to reverse the tide.

Here is what I found in my brief tour of parts of the Millennium Reserve.

Rainwater has turned a park lawn into wetland. William W. Powers Conservation Area.

Beyond the dead end of a worn asphalt road a guardrail is engulfed by nature. Calumet Woods Forest Preserve.

Prairie. This is Illinois after all. Flat. Few native grasses and wildflowers remain, however, in presettlement times this would have been a typical Illinois prairie and open savanna. Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve.

“River Bend Prairie.” I am not making this up. The landfill across the Calumet River from the Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve bears this ironic name. The carved wooden sign at its entrance, reminiscent of those that grace natural parkland, frames the name with cattails and wildlife. It is on a bend in the river.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these juxtapositions are inherent to the challenges of urban wilderness in general and the Millennium Reserve project in particular. Here at Beaubien the prairie and the landfill (in the distant background of this shot) straddle the Calumet River. There are several other landfills nearby and many industrial sites along with abandoned, neglected land throughout the region. This is where a project with the objectives of the Millennium Reserve is truly needed.

River Bend Prairie landfill from Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve.

Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve is a large, well-established park with a variety of habitats. The Calumet River and Long Foot Lake both provide local residents places to fish. I saw at least half a dozen people taking advantage of the opportunity on this quiet Sunday morning.

The mulberries are at that ripe stage when they fall and blacken the ground underneath the trees.

Neither the landscape nor the opportunities for rehabilitation of it end at the Illinois border. Unaware of it until I later checked the map, I crossed over into Indiana. The last two images are from just inside the Indiana state line.

Bank stabilization. Forsythe Park, Hammond, IN.

The sign on the side of this building reads Environmental Education Center. The parking lot was vacant. It’s either defunct or closed on Sundays. Across Highway 41, a dramatic new pavilion and recreation center on Wolf Lake was buzzing with activity.

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