Sunday, March 28, 2010

Maple sugaring

J.’s idea for Saturday, March 13, came from the Chicago Botanic Garden—a visit to Naper Settlement in Naperville, an hour plus west of Chicago. According to their site, they were celebrating Maple Sugar Days, when the sugar maple sap runs, the trees are tapped, and the collected sap is boiled and processed until it yields its rich sugary goodness.

Naper Settlement, a “museum village,” is not the remnants of a real place, but an eclectic collection of unrelated, reconstructed vintage buildings, including a log cabin, frame houses and shops, mansion, smithy, churches, and so forth. As a whole, they don’t represent any one place or time except the American past.

After a detour to the gift shop, we were accosted in the tavern by three or four giddy teenage girls who fell over themselves to serve us maple syrup over ice (Grade A for me, B for J.). In the yard of the fort, we found a teenage boy watching over an old-fashioned, round-bottomed pot of maple sap smoking heavily over a fire. He told us it had been on the fire since 9:00 a.m. (it was now about 3:30 p.m.). As we walked around later, we noticed the trees that had been tapped. They don’t do anything with the boiled sap but toss it. I didn’t hear why, but I suspect it’s because it isn’t prepared according to contemporary FDA standards for public consumption. It’s important, especially now in this age of shrink-wrapped groceries, to be reminded of, or perhaps learn, where food comes from—the earth and its life, not manufacturing plants.

At the log cabin, an older volunteer described family life in such cramped quarters and the objects used to maintain it. Today’s individualist can only marvel at the social standards and adherence to them required for several people across several generations to live in two rooms (one up, one down) in peace during the long midwestern winter and the more blustery parts of spring and autumn. I wondered how much indoor work they had to distract them and what it was like to sit in that little house with no television, radio, or music except the kind you made yourself with your voice and what primitive instruments you happened to have or could make—just the sounds of the wind, the rain, the grasses, the leaves, the sleet, the birds, the animals (large and small), night and day, day and night. If the inhabitants wanted music, they had to make it themselves; even in their entertainment, such people would have to have been self-reliant—an idea that would stump many of us today.

We thanked him and escaped to the outdoors, where we listened to a modern-looking carillon across the way and wandered among some of the other buildings, now closed as it was past 4:00 p.m.

Altogether it had been a dreary day, with few visitors around due to the lateness of our arrival and the unrelenting chill, wet weather. But maple sugar season reminds me of a day when I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old—that impressionable age—and our class made a field trip to a sugar maple farm. I don’t recall many details, but some snow may still have lain on the ground, the air was misty, and spring was not in the air.

Everything enthralled me—the comparative quiet of the country, the trees, the taps, the vat of sap, how and when sap runs and how the craft of collecting was learned from the Indians, and especially the farm’s team of draft horses, which I loved best of all as they steamed in the frosty air. Even now, the flavor of maple sugar candy (the real thing—no substitutes) whisks me back to a time when I was young and simple, my feelings were real and unmasked, and a different place could seem like a different world. That is one of my fondest, deepest memories.

But that was 40 years ago, and Naperville would never be mistaken for a different world. After we stopped at Marbles: The Brain Store (where J. was apparently too shy to ask for his wished-for transplant) and Le Chocolat de Bouchard, we dined on earthy fare at Borrowed Earth Café in Downers Grove, where we were heartened to see an enormous line winding around several blocks of people waiting to get into a classic downtown theater. (This was so fascinating that we missed the restaurant several times.)

And so home and to dry out and rest.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Under City Stone" and other murals

I don’t know the history of the murals under the 55th/Lake Park overpass, but I’m under the impression that they predate my 1979 arrival in Hyde Park by a couple of years. They may have been relatively new and fresh, but even then they struck me as depressing and disturbing. I’ve never read the narrative in its entirety, but “butcher's hooks” still sticks with me. The people pictured, many contorted with their heads thrown back, look tortured to me, as though their creator were a contemporary if less fantastic Hieronymus Bosch.

I understand that for some time there had been a search for the artist. With so much information online, you’d think she’d be easy to find, but not so. At long last, however, it seems that she turned up. I saw her, or someone, refreshing the mural at the northeast end of the overpass. Later, as winter approached, a handwritten paper sign appeared with thanks to the neighborhood and a promise to return. Sadly, by season’s end the sign had weathered the winter better than the mural, its bright, touched-up sections already streaked from the melting snow, rain, and dampness. As others have noted, while the idea of viaduct murals seems like an attractive addition to urban life, their practicality is another matter.

Even later, toward the southwest portion, large sheets of steel imprinted with black-and-white and colorful artwork were bolted up around the entrance steps to Metra. I also spotted a young man working on the uncovered southwest end of the mural, which for now looks like new.

So the viaduct’s walls are currently a mishmash of restored, faded, and, in places, obliterated mural and spanking new sponsored sheet metal print art, all without any explanation.

It keeps us coming back to find out what’s next.

Update: Here’s part of the story of the murals from the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference site. The murals on the north and south sides are different. The south side mural, the more fascinating to me, is pictured.

Caryl Yasko is redoing one panel of Under City Stone on 55th this year—more will follow next, more money is being raised. Note that there was improper grouting allowing continued water seepage. This is the mural that uses James Agee's poem (by permission). Most will be redone in oil as per the original. Pulling together contributions and in-kinds is Mary Guggenheim. Heritage Foundation's Rescue Public Murals initiative is involved. Hundreds are helping. Can send contributions c/o CPAG, 1259 S. Wabash, 60605, 708 655-8919 or Yasko writes:
Yasko first painted"Under City Stone" in 1972. The name of the mural comes from the James Agee poem "Rapid Transit" which runs the length of the north side of the 55th Street underpass. It was one of the Chicago Mural Group's first projects. Funding came from the National Endowment for the Arts, Hyde Park Merchants Association, and citizen donors. With funding from the South East Chicago Commission and Chicago Public Arts Group, we are restoring one of the murals' 13 sections. Contingent on funding and support from you, we will restore the remaining sections in summer and early fall 2009.
Mural on the south side of of 55th has undergone some restoration by Damon Lamar Reed, and work continues along with column restoration on 56th south side.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The flight of the eagles

On February 27, J. and I paid our final call on the bald eagles of the Starved Rock area. First, though, we detoured for a few minutes to the Nodding Onion, a restaurant in a tiny yellow house in Utica that J. wanted to check out while I waited. It sounded like a place to add to the growing list.

Our foray to Buffalo Rock State Park took a little longer. On the way, just before we reached the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, one of us spotted a flock of large birds grazing in a roadside field. After looking at them with and without binoculars, I’d bet that they were thin wild turkeys (not as chunky as this flock). J. turned the car around to get on their side of the road for a photo opportunity, but even though we returned within five or ten minutes, the flock had begun to move away and was spreading out into a narrow stand of trees between the field they had been grazing and the next. J., who has not seen wild turkeys, never got a good look at them or a shot at taking a photo. It’s almost like the turkeys are in cahoots with the eagles, determined to deny J. his National Geographic moment. Earlier I’d seen a hawk in a tree along the road, but it wasn’t going to hang around long enough to pose, either. This area must be birders’ heaven during migration.

To a native Chicagoan, the approach to Buffalo Rock State Park must appear to be alien. The side of the road, flat where the turkeys had been grazing and by the visitor center and the nearby marina beyond it, turns into sheer bluffs that, depending on your personality, could make you feel protected or claustrophobic (well, if they were on both sides). It occurred to me that in all the landscape in this area I had not spotted an example of the sign so familiar to me from my childhood visits to Pennsylvania—”Falling Rock” (yes, I used to think an awful lot of towns in Pennsylvania were named Falling Rock). This doesn’t bother me as I consider these signs to be as useful as the signs that are so popular during the winter in downtown Chicago—”Watch for falling ice.” Watch with what? The second pair of eyes on the top of my head? Such a thing would certainly make bald eagle watching easier.

Roadside bluffs, which call to mind places in New York and Pennsylvania, are lovely enough, but these sported gorgeous icicle-waterfall beards of opaque white. A week of warmer weather later, I wonder what they look like and how they formed.

Buffalo Rock also runs along the Illinois. Where we we parked we could choose from a couple of trails, probably both icy. The one J. chose, with an overlook deck along the way, was too much for me; I slid on every one of the uneven steps down that I tried. He went ahead, probably having given up on me. I had a trick up my sleeve, or rather in my bag—the handy YakTrax from the Starved Rock information center gift shop. After having looked at the box at home, this time I put them on the correct way, noticing for the first time with some chagrin that they are imprinted with “heel” and “toe” in the appropriate places in English and French, and that they’re much easier to put on quickly when they’re facing the right way. Instant flashbacks to my poor spatial relations scores in grammar school and the apologetic way in which the school counselor had told me not to feel too badly because girls don’t perform as well on this test as boys do.

What a difference the YakTrax made on the slick, slightly soft ice. Instead of sliding across the surface, my feet bit down into the ice/snow and stayed stable, although for me it’s always tricky to walk down uneven steps where the back edge is higher than the front. My clumsiness is probably three quarters psychological, but it effectively keeps me tentative and afraid of slipping and falling, especially since I fell on my face and teeth in August 2008 right outside the back door to the Flamingo.

The sky had cleared some from the morning, so the light was cheerier than it had been earlier. Across from this overlook lies an island, much larger than Plum Island. Once in a while we could see a large bird perched in one of the trees, but it was clearly not an adult bald eagle. We think they were eagles; if so, they were mostly the younger ones. We also observed flocks of birds that seemed to have some kind of bluish coloring, but l don’t know what they were. I kept thinking they were pigeons, which doesn’t seem right, although I suppose this would be good ground for the rock dove.

J. was ready to leave when I spotted an enormous bird flying away across the water. I soon lost it, possibly on shore or around a bend, and J. never saw it. I’d guess it was a great blue heron, although later at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center someone mentioned having seen cranes. I’m inclined to think heron, as I wouldn’t know a crane in flight.

He remained a little undecided about leaving, but just then a few people showed up. And a few more. And more. And yet more. They didn’t seem to stop coming, which made our timing to leave seem even more propitious. Of course by now the steps were like the sidewalks from Union Station at rush hour—a solid flow of one-way traffic in human flesh that allowed little leeway for getting through. Finally, the last of them stepped onto the deck. I noted, with more chagrin, that most or probably all of them—young, middle-aged, older—had made it down the steps without YakTrax or similar aids. Sigh. As we walked up, we eyed the source of the influx—Ranger and Rita, Starved Rock Lodge’s trolley-style buses.

Once up the steps, I may have used the bathroom, and J. had to lovingly tuck away his camera and accessories, but although we didn’t linger, we noticed that Ranger and Rita were only minutes behind us—their occupants must have spent only 15 to 20 minutes in the park, one of the disadvantages of being tied to a group. Because J. drove slowly to try to capture some views of the bluffs with his digital camera, the two trolleys were soon right on our tail. It didn’t help that we overshot the visitor center from that direction and ended up back at the main road. I wonder if a quarter of the mileage on any given vehicle is from bad navigation, wrong turns, overshooting turnoffs, and the like. I wouldn’t be surprised.

After getting past all these distractions, we arrived at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, probably around 2:30 p.m. or so. From our vantage point, we could see only two adult eagles in the trees on Plum Island. Except for the ubiquitous gulls, the bickering Canada geese, and perhaps an occasional immature eagle, that appeared to be it for the immediate area. The rest have moved on to their breeding grounds. That didn’t stop J. and a few other photogs from setting up shop to catch whatever action there would be. Poor J. wanted every distant gull to be an eagle on the wing.

This week two or three small boats plied the river, perhaps also on the lookout for eagles. I spent more time outdoors and saw less, although it’s energizing just to feel like I’ve stepped into a different place, where even boats with outboard motors could be re-imagined as canoes.

Knowing that we weren’t returning this season, we lingered even longer than last week, long enough for two eagles—at least one from the tree—to take flight, in fact, to engage in what to my uninformed eye appeared to be part of their ritual pair-bonding/mating flight. As a wonder, J. still had his tripod and lens set up, so he was able to capture parts of it, some more clearly than others. For the handful of us left, it was the highlight of the afternoon, worth the cold and the wait. It was so exciting that another fellow beckoned me over to check out his digital photos. Great moments are meant to be shared, even with strangers.

Late in the afternoon, after most of the casual tourists had left, a barge appeared down river, moving so slowly that I thought it would take an hour to reach the lock. It may have been stopped, because soon it picked up speed, and I was surprised to see it approaching the lock a few minutes later. I watched the action from ground level, where a man drove a cart back and forth to a little house, presumably to operate the lock. Men in safety vests standing on the rusting barge waved to the eagle watchers above, while those in the pilot house of the tug focused on steering and stopping. When the barge and tug were safely tucked in, the gates at my end of the lock slowly closed. After a few minutes of limbo, water began gushing behind the tug as it poured into the lock. It took a few more minutes for the water level to rise visibly—I noticed that I was seeing more rungs of a ladder hung on the side of the tug. I didn’t time the entire operation, but would guess it took 15 to 20 minutes, perhaps a bit longer. After the barge and tug had moved out of the lock, the water stayed at the higher level. I speculated that it would be left there in case the next transport came from the other direction.

Finally, J. was asked to leave, and so to the Lodge for dinner, where the dining room staff recognized us, as did the gift shop cashier. She told us that her winter cold was hanging on. J. spent the entire trip to Chicago sniffling and blowing his nose, and by Wednesday I was sick, too—the second time since January 25.

I hope our colds move on more rapidly than the eagles and don’t return any sooner.

Here’s a story about the shortage of bald eagles at Starved Rock this year.