Sunday, June 20, 2010

Late spring at Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago

Lured by stories of a Grèvy's zebra birth and other happenings, fellow former docent and Ark editor JT and I met at Union Station for a trip to Lincoln Park Zoo. My borrowed camera and rusty skills don't do the animals justice, so I recommend that you pay them a visit if you can—soon, before they're all grown up. After all, the Grèvy's zebra foal is the first edition since 2001.

We strolled the Children's Zoo gardens, where not much was in evidence. At last, a resplendent male wood duck sailed past the beaver viewing window, his colors glowing like jewels in the midday sun. You'll have to take my word for this; unbeknownst to me, the camera had flipped itself to TV mode, so all the photos I thought I was taking were black.

The highlight inside, however, at least to me, was this pair of walking sticks engaged in arthropod love. As a child, I was always thrilled when my brother or I (usually him) would find walking sticks in our yard, often on my dad's tool shed, where they were easier to spot. They fascinated me, even if they did no more than take a few steps and look like a stick clinging to a shed.

At the Lion House, elderly Afghanistan leopard Christian was taking a catnap. If you want to see animals in action, early morning/late afternoon/evening during summer hours are the best times.

At the Primate House, the black howler monkeys demonstrated their prehensile tails, wrapping them around nearby branches as a stabilizing anchor. One hung by its tail over a food dish, leaving his hands free to rummage through the goodies. Don't make the mistake one visitor did—those small monkeys who share the exhibit are not baby howlers; they're Goeldi's monkeys.

As usual, the black-and-white colobus monkeys were lined up on a branch, quietly digesting in dignity, even as the Allen's swamp monkey juveniles wrestled and raced their way around the exhibit.

At Antelope/Zebra, the star is Enzi, the Grèvy's zebra colt, who was lying down when we arrived but then untangled his gangly legs to nurse. When his mother, Adia, went over to the exhibit door to investigate keeper noise, he followed her, but turned around and walked a little distance away from the safety of his mother's side. JT pointed out to him that, if they were in Africa, his mother would not allow him to be so bold.

The white-lipped deer were taking a rest. For one thing, I imagine it takes energy and resources to grow a rack like that, still in velvet.

The Bactrian camels were shedding. The Bactrian camels are always shedding.

One of my favorite animals, the Sichuan takin, couldn't decided whether to take a bath, check out the visitors (or the foliage), or scratch his face, so he did all three in a cycle, playing with something in the water (perhaps an aerator) that probably wasn't intended for takin enrichment. He butted his impressive head against the green wire around the edge, giving us a good look at his face. I gather that the combination of strength and agility makes takins potential escape artists. This guy is among the more charismatic hoofed animals of the collection.

New on exhibit at the Small Mammal-Reptile House is the caiman lizard. I didn't get a photo, but he's beautiful, a bit like a combination iguana and small dinosaur with a huge head. I'm told he's a snail eater.

The bats were more active than usual; perhaps their feeders had just been refilled. Nearby, this sand cat was relaxed. I apologized to him profusely for accidentally letting the flash go off. Within five minutes he was up and about, looking almost like a tiny house cat with an oversized head.

This is a young African dwarf crocodile, one of five produced by the recently deceased R1 late in his long life and his younger mate and occasional sparring partner Maggie. Sure, it looks sweet now, but you wouldn't want to meet it in a few years.

At the Bird House, the tawny frogmouths demonstrate camouflage. I almost missed the one lying down. Like many owls, they blend in with tree bark, but they aren't owls—they're in the nightjar/oilbird order. Think of the superbly camouflaged whippoorwill, which you may hear but rarely see.

This snowy egret gave us a good look at its slender form and elegant plumage. While I might understand the appeal of their feathers as adornment, I can't conceive of how men slaughtered them en masse in cold blood for the sake of greed. J and I have seen them in the wild, so to speak, at Volo Bog, where there was a small flock a few weeks ago.

When the European stork isn't dropping off babies to expectant parents, it's tending its own nest. These three chicks hatched in late May, along with a cinereous vulture chick.

Happy Father's Day to the storks and all the zoo parents.

19 June 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

Black water thunderstorm

In seven years, I've never seen the lake turn black from the thunder clouds above.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The nightmare that never ends

The BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is sickening, beyond the fact that 11 men died needlessly, leaving bewildered and bereaved families behind. I’ve avoided most of the news and photos about it because it makes me ill. Not simply upset or disturbed, which are natural reactions, but physically ill. Ill for the Gulf people whose hardships seem never to end, for the wildlife whose mute suffering speaks volumes, and for the environment that won’t recover in my lifetime, or those of generations of descendants.

My protective shell is imperfect. There’s so much news, most of it bad, that some gets through. Today I saw a Yahoo News headline about sea creatures congregating near the shore, while birds soaked in oil crawl off into the marshes, never to be seen again. That image alone breaks my heart. But my heart is a small thing in a sea of loss and despair.

In the early hours of the morning, I dreamed as though from a future vantage point that the well was never contained, that in time the oceans turned to oil, then the earth. It wasn’t just me who was helpless to stop it. It was all of us.

Right now I don’t care whose fault it is or who is accusing who of what. I want it plugged so that not one drop of oil ever escapes from it again. I wanted it plugged or diverted now, not in a few months when possibly—possibly!—relief wells may—may!—alleviate the volume. I want all the best engineering minds to focus their theoretical thoughts and practical experience on this singular calamity. I want it fixed, and then I want those entrusted with power to make sure this, and anything like this, can’t and won’t happen again.

I want the suffering to end, for life to go back to normal, for birds to go back to raising their young, not crawling off in anguish to perish miserably.

I want us to break our cycle of addiction to oil and other dirty energy.

I want the clean world we’ve never had.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Memorial Day

J set aside Memorial Day to visit his paternal grandmother’s grave, which he’d learned is in Saint Adalbert Catholic Cemetery in Niles. After a sunny early morning and stormy late morning/early afternoon, he picked me up.

Saint Adalbert Catholic Cemetery is enormous, larger than I would have expected. If you hadn’t known the northwest region of Chicago was heavily Polish, you’d have only to try to read the names on the thousands of tombstones. There are non-Polish names—J’s grandparents’ included—but I didn’t see many during our brief drive toward the section he’d been told to look for, or later on the way out.

And you can’t miss the names because so many graves aren’t marked by basic, flat, in-ground stones like those of my parents in Pennsylvania. The cemetery is dominated by a wealth of impressive monuments, statues, and crypts. Later we noticed a monument seller conveniently located across the street. Also across the street there’s an expansive florist shop. J noted that the Polish seemed to have done very well for themselves.

As it turned out, his grandparents are buried in a section of modest flat markers, his grandfather’s adorned only with his WWI service and a cross. We didn’t notice any other family markers nearby. He doesn’t know why they came to be buried here, other than that they were north siders and Catholic.

Given the size of the cemetery and the occasion, I was surprised not to see more people or more flags. On Memorial Day, the cemeteries where my parents and my aunts are buried are filled with flags, placed by a local organization at the grave of each veteran. There are a lot of veterans in the central Alleghenies.

Our next stop was the Chicago Botanic Garden. By this time, the weather had turned perfect, but the grounds were nearly empty. After a jaunt around the Rose Garden and a brief rest on a bench, where every mosquito in the vicinity zoomed in on me and my legs, we walked to Evening Island and the carillon, both of which I’d see only in the distance. Stupidly, I had never realized that you can walk there. Why I thought it was a forbidden place I cannot explain.

A robin flew in front of us to a small tree, carrying something large in its bill. I was trying to point it out to J when suddenly, from a nest in the crook of the tree, three mouths shot up. The robin made an attempt to stuff them, but perhaps either intimidated by their insistence or our presence, it flew back toward the water, where it seemed to have found a good spot for foraging. The moment it left, the mouths withdrew into the depths of the nest—just as J had gotten his camera and lenses sorted out. He hadn’t seen them. And, while he was fiddling with his backpack, a chipmunk crossed in front of us. I teased him that someday he’ll have his camera out taking photos or videos of some mundane thing, while bears, mountain lions, eagles, and other creatures line up behind him, out of range of his lens, to watch and laugh. He also missed some large birds (herons?) flying overhead, but at least he saw and photographed the red admiral I pointed out on the leaves of a tree.

He thought there would be a carillon concert, but they start in June. Our timing was perfect, though—the 7 o’clock hour chimed just as we were approaching.

In the berm between parking lots, J noticed a bird that I couldn’t identify at first. It was head on, and the colors weren’t true in the shade. As he was snapping away (and mentally debating getting out the big lens and tripod), an adult robin hopped over and shoved something in the other bird’s maw. Our mystery bird was a fledgling robin. Through the large lens, I could see its pinfeathers. It was at that awkward stage between infancy and adulthood, neither helpless nor mature—the avian equivalent of a gawky teenager. The parent soon wandered off, but Junior continued to stand around expectantly.

Walker Bros. Original Pancake House was closed for the holiday, but I (for one) got my fill of comfort lasagna at Rosebud of Highland Park, which made me sleepy for the long ride home. I felt strange after the long holiday and variable weather.

And so back to the inanity.

31 May 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Work day at Chicago Portage National Historic Site

And now for something completely different . . . a more-or-less quick trip west on the Stevenson to Harlem and 49th, where you’ll find the Chicago Portage National Historic Site, one of only two in Illinois (Lincoln’s home is the other). Here La Salle and Père Marquette walked, they say, as of course did generations of Native Americans before them. Just as Europe had its trade routes, so did native North America. A sign along one of the trails notes that designated burr oaks are believed to be more than 200 years old.

We arrived at around 9:30 a.m., a half hour late, looking for work. One lone walker seemed to be there to admire the scenery, so I made an executive decision and took off down the paved trail, where I hoped that we’d run into the crew of Forest Preserve District of Cook County employees and volunteers there for a work day, during which necessary work is done to maintain the preserves. In many cases, this seems to involve removal of invasive exotics—I pictured pulling garlic mustard, which I’d assumed they’d show me how to recognize.

Just as J wondered if we’d gone the correct way, we came upon the group, a couple of the men armed with chain saws. They weren’t here to pull garlic mustard. No, they were cutting down a stand of buckthorn that ran from the trail to the stream and that was keeping the forest floor in perpetual shade in spring, summer, and fall. Others were lopping off branches or using hand saws to cut the larger limbs down to size. Yet more were dragging off the trunks and leafy limbs to brush piles, where they will be burned in the future.

Buckthorn, introduced from Europe, is an invasive species that offers no benefits to our native wildlife and chokes out the native plants that otherwise would add to the diversity our animals and birds need. It’s too dark under a buckthorn stand for wildflowers to grow or, I suppose, for native seedlings to take root. Buckthorn also hosts the soybean aphid; from its name you can guess how much farmers love this little pest. Its sale/purchase/cultivation has been banned in many areas, including Illinois and Minnesota, but it’s too late. It has a pervasive presence in the forest preserves and some parks and is especially widespread in the northern two-thirds of the state.

We introduced ourselves all around, and an FPDCC employee recognized us from an art fair at Swallow Cliff Woods. J remembered that we’d talked about Volo Bog, so he mentioned our visit there and how far away it is. They asked us if we were passing through; we said, “No, we’ve come to work.” They seemed surprised but pleased, and asked us how we’d found out about the work day. When I said I’d seen it on facebook, they seemed even more surprised and delighted. It sounds as though not everyone thinks the facebook presence is effective. Maybe it’s just me, but we’ve gone to a few events, including this one and the art fair, because I’d seen them on facebook. It’s an easy way for me to get timely, information in one place about my different interests. I don’t have to work as hard or think to look for information.

For the next hour and a half I dragged, lopped, and stacked what seemed like a never-ending supply of buckthorn branches and trunks. A busload of high school students arrived to help for credit; at one point someone told them that if they didn’t behave and get to work, they wouldn’t get any. The arrival of so many hands, including young men who wanted to show off by dragging heavy trunks singlehandedly, seemed to spur the men with chain saws. When I looked toward the stream, I could see the sky, and light was dappling the ground below. We had two large piles, possibly three, and fallen trunks and branches littered the ground. And still the men kept cutting. All this was in one small area. I wondered how much buckthorn was left and where.

We learned quickly that buckthorn has that name for a reason. When we weren’t in danger of hitting ourselves or others with limbs or trunks or being rammed by the enthusiastic high schoolers who, like most kids their age, were oblivious to those around them, we were stabbing ourselves on the thorns that grow along the shrub’s trunk. Gloves would have helped with handling the limbs and the loppers, but weren’t necessary. Unlike us, however, the kids had come prepared.

I’d been in pain most of Friday—the result of standing most of Wednesday at National Senior Health and Fitness Day—and hadn’t slept well Thursday. My lower back hurt more than usual. Before we’d gone to the work day, I’d known my endurance would be limited. The heat and humidity of the day, even among the trees, didn’t help, nor did the horde of mosquitoes that decided to go after, of all places, my hinder. I did as much as I could and left at 11:00 for the car, while J was determined to soldier on until the noon conclusion.

While returning along the trail, I’d noticed that my brother had called and left a voicemail, which he never does. It proved to be four seconds long and soundless. I called him to confirm that was nothing was wrong; when he didn’t answer, I raised an eyebrow. His daughter at home said he was out shopping. I raised the other eyebrow. It turned out to be one of those phantom calls that happen when some part of your anatomy manages to knock against the right button to make a call. While I was talking to him, still on the trail, I exclaimed, “Oh! I have to go!” I’d spotted the iridescent blue black of a bird in one of the bushes off the trail—but I didn’t disconnect quickly enough to switch the iPhone to camera mode and get a photo before it flew off. Not that it would have been a good photo . . .

I was hoping I could claim that I’d seen an indigo bunting.

J’s car, parked in the sun, felt like a damp oven. How anyone can leave a dog in that kind of heat, which builds in only a few moments under the sun, astounds me.

I ran the air conditioner for five or ten minutes, turning it off when he called and told me it would run the battery down. He promised to leave a little earlier, so I tried to find a place nearby where I could use the bathroom and sit comfortably.

Alas, Harlem Avenue is not foot traffic friendly, and I was at the end of my reserves in the heat. I walked only a about a block, to a Shell station, where the attendant said there was no toilet paper. I mentioned facial tissues as a substitute, but she said, a little too quickly and happily, that they don’t sell any. They carry beer for the road, but not a traveling convenience like tissue. Hmmm. I bought each of us flavored water and returned to the car, sitting in the shade of the driver’s side and enjoying the occasional slight breeze that wafted through.

At 12:15 or so, J appeared, saying he’d seen a brilliant blue bird in the treetops after he’d crossed the bridge over the stream—possibly near where I’d seen it. He swears he saw white and is unconvinced of my indigo bunting identification. I’ll never know.

Next, having bought croissants at Bonjour but not eaten them, we headed to Riverside Restaurant for a taste of Bohemia, then to Riverside the town for a walk along Salt Creek, where we encountered mostly robins, butterflies, and a pair of mallards. Outside the forest preserve, Riverside itself seems to be a charming town, with lots of park space and picnic and seating areas near the water.

There are a few more work days scheduled at Chicago Portage this summer. It’s a good way for a soft office slave to break into a healthy sweat, meet people, enjoy the forest, and even see a colorful bird or two. J would like to do it again. Try it. You might like it.

29 May 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Two women discussing a friend:

"She's living in a place where you take the Obama sticker off your car."

Dream: In which I earn a degree without remembering

I was watching boys I’d known in high school performing at my college, which confused me. That they were playing the part of dogs controlled by a man at center stage confused me more, but as an audience member I responded enthusiastically.

One of them, TL, called me over and handed me a request to pick up his medication. I began wandering the labyrinthine halls of a rundown Gothic building with scratched wooden doors that were missing locks, trying to find what I guessed to be a formulating pharmacy. I understood that this errand wasn’t important to the boy and that he’d wanted me to go away, but I also knew that the request was for asthma medication. I kept hearing, “Asthma: Life or death.”

Finally, after having almost blundered into a secret research lab (one of the doors without a lock), I came away with two bottles of medication. The only bathrooms I could find were filthy. I thought about a couple of people I’d seen and wondered how they could have come to be here. They shouldn’t and couldn’t be here, but here they were.

I looked up to find DK staring at me as he was coming down an incongruous escalator, but in an epiphany I realized I no longer cared and that somehow I had earned a graduate degree in political science. I couldn’t remember a single course. I’ve done it again, I thought, squeaked out a degree without having learned anything.

At some point, now or earlier, I was walking along a highway and up a ramp toward home. The ramp suddenly blended into a grassy, rock-covered hill with no signs of highway or pavement in any direction.

I felt more lost than ever.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kankakee River State Park

As I took Metra to Homewood and walked to Blueberry Hill Pancake House to meet J, I started to get the idea the day might prove to be steamy. It was overcast and looked like rain, but the forecast was for afternoon sun. And a temperature of 89 degrees F.

When he arrived, we ate half a breakfast of champions, boxed the rest, then went to pick up something he thought he’d forgotten but was actually in his trunk. On the way, we stopped at Heritage Health to pick up something for a little picnic. After fueling at Caribou (something iced for me—already steamed), finally we left for Kankakee River State Park.

Past Frankfort on Illinois Rte. 45, the vista opens up onto farmland that in some inexplicable way is more attractive than much of that further downstate. Perhaps it’s the use of tree lines and fences, or the nature of the houses, although the land itself is just as flat and monotonous. We passed a traditional white frame church set close to the road, a small cemetery beside it. It was like seeing something from another era, perhaps that of Laura Ingalls Wilder, tangible yet not quite real.

Further on, a sign led us down a side road, where a building that looked new—dirt was still piled up in front—was divided into a café and an aquarium store. The combination would have seemed odd anywhere, and, in an area where the main retail venues seem to be gas stations (something has to power all those John Deeres), I wouldn’t have thought of a burning need for either a café or an aquarium store. Alas, neither was open yet—perhaps they’re still in the throes of getting started. Too bad; the café looked like a potential gem.

Closer to Kankakee, we made another detour, this time to Office Max to replace the car charger I’d bought for the iPhone. At this plaza, two of the biggest stores, including a Petco, had pulled out, leaving behind only the marks of their old signs. The parking lot was mostly empty, with only a handful of cars in front of Office Max. The three male employees seemed happy to talk to anyone. Noting my Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie shirt, one asked me if I’m a conservationist. We talked a little about the Gulf oil disaster, and I left him with something new to research—dead zones. It was a well-stocked, bright store, but the empty storefronts and parking lot reminded me of South Shore Plaza less than 20 years after it had opened to great fanfare. I wonder if this place has been hit especially hard by the recession, if something bigger and better had come along nearby, or if it had been in trouble already for other reasons. And if it will make a comeback, or if it’s turned the corner on the road to nowhere.

I wonder how the café and aquarium store will fare.

Driving around this area is interesting, especially as you cross the river. Just as Wauconda made me think every small town should have a feature like Bangs Lake, this area made me think how fun it would be to live near a river—a clean, wide river with banks that aren’t shored up by concrete, where the current is fast and free.

The Chicago River does not count.

Kankakee River State Park is long, with many designated hunting and fishing spots. As we crossed a bridge over the river, we spotted stone supports for another bridge in the stream—but no span across them them, only some trees of respectable size atop them, rooted in the rock piles. A world without people indeed. We drove into the fishing area on the other side to get some photos. Walking along the water’s edge, we could see why swimming in the Kankakee is not allowed—the current is swift. Even a great swimmer wouldn’t want to be caught in it, plus there are other hazards, like undertows. Its fast flow fascinated me, so unlike that of most of the small rivers around here, the Chicago, the Des Plaines, the DuPage. I thought I may have overheard someone say that the Kankakee was at or close to flood stage, but I was doubtful. Still, it flowed, carrying a log rapidly, relentlessly in its current. Will that log ever touch land again, or will it spill out into the Gulf, along with millions of gallons of oil?

We drove to the visitor center, where live animals (turtles, fish, snakes) and stuffed (mostly birds) help to educate people. One beautiful heron, a sign explains, met its fate when it became entangled in fishing line. What a horrible way to go. Leave only footprints, take only memories (or photos).

We crossed to the other side, where a bridal party was having photos taken. We walked out onto an observation deck, then over a wooden bridge and partway down a trail. In our wanderings we found Smith Cemetery, full of eroded limestone markers from the mid-1800s, many of them for children. One marked the grave of 10-month-old twins, Gay and Jay, who died 10 days apart. The heartbreak . . . someone had filled around the flat stones in the ground with cement, I suppose to protect them, although they are still at the mercy of the elements. I couldn’t help but cringe when a little girl walked on the stones with their worn and increasingly illegible writing. Soon Gay and Jay will be unnoticed by visitors, although the stone marked only with LOVEABLE remains sharp for now.

As we came close to the picnic area, J. suggested we eat before seeking the trail to the waterfall. By now, it was about 4 o’clock, so this seemed like a good idea. I retrieved the bag from the back of the car only to discover that it was coated with oil. Not long before when I had checked, everything had been find, but while we were walking and the car had been parked in full sun, the plastic container with the salad, humus, and pita had warped open, spilling olive oil into the bag. Nothing was beyond salvaging, but what a mess—not quite the relaxed picnic I had imagined.

We realized Rock Creek was across the street, so we parked and found the self-guided trail—except I didn’t realize the significance of the numbers until we had already passed most of the markers; then it occurred to me they corresponded to the comments in the printed guide. I plead tiredness.

This isn’t a particularly difficult trail, although near the beginning the incline was muddy and slick. It passes through trees, then becomes more open where it parallels the creek. At one point, the guide notes, it was a former landing strip, so here it’s paved.

Not too long after we had come into a more open area, I exclaimed in a whisper without thinking, “BEAVER!” A beaver was waddling in front of us, a little off trail. At the same time a group of perhaps 8 to 12 people was headed toward us, trapping the beaver between our groups. The other group respectfully gave him a wide berth, but he didn’t seem to appreciate their sheer numbers. He stopped, turned toward them, and indicated his displeasure through body language and perhaps sound. They sidled around the side of the trail closer to the creek while we hung back, although he seemed less impressed by the two of us. As the other group passed, I said to a man, “They said to look for animal tracks, but not the real thing!” He said they too had never expected to see such a sight.

He was missing a chunk from the right side of his tail, and for some reason—perhaps I am anthropomorphizing—I had an impression of age and perhaps stress and disorientation. Although I have no idea of how he would have returned to the water, which from what we could see runs between cliffs, presumably he’s more familiar with the area geography. It’s sad to think that the beaver was hunted and trapped to near extinction; this one seemed vulnerable behind its bravado.

Soon after, J spotted a baby snake little bigger than a pencil. Unlike the beaver, it quickly disappeared into the grass.

We could see the creek through the trees and could hear what I thought were the falls. Further on, we saw that the rushing sound came from mini-rapids. There’s no swimming in Rock Creek, either; while it’s no Niagara River, it isn’t the shallow, peaceful creek I’d envisioned, either.

We came upon a couple of paths that branched off toward the creek. J took the first cautiously. They led downward to rocky platforms overlooking the creek. He said the first came to the edge of a cliff, which made me decide not to press my luck, especially as the falls weren’t visible from there. I steeled myself for the other one or two, and ultimately was rewarded with a great view of the waterfall. Don’t expect even the modest height of Starved Rock’s canyon waterfalls; this is a modest creek drop-off. It’s lovely and worth the little climb down, especially if your ability to balance when nervous and tired is better than mine. After taking photos, we relaxed a bit on a bench above and dug out our little bottles of Off! as the mosquitoes made their presence and hunger felt.

On the trail back, we were passed by a boy and two girls, teenagers, on horses; they were from a nearby camp. I’d like to see the world from horseback.

In the parking lot, J set up his monopod and took photos of the waxing moon. Used to my own blurry attempts, I was surprised to see that he’d managed to some of its features.

Our next stop was Blue’s Café, a diner that’s probably less throwback and more relic. We managed to get in our meal before the 8 o’clock closing time and to get pie to go. Then we detoured to Dairy Queen, where it was warm enough to sit at the picnic tables outdoors. I can almost picture the Dairy Queen on the road I used to take to Armor, in New York, 35 years ago.

Ice cream at sunset in a river town.

How much better can it get than that?

22 May 2010