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img_1495On a recent November morning, members of the Elmhurst Garden Club gathered in one of the meeting rooms of the Elmhurst Public Library for a viewing of a cautionary tale; From Billions to None.

This is the story of the passenger pigeon, which once blanketed the skies from Canada to Florida, breeding, nesting, and passing through more than half of North America. These pigeons were revered by indigenous Americans for their beauty and an abundant source of food. Early settlers, ornithologists, keen observers, and notables documented the billions of passenger pigeons that swarmed the skies in such large numbers that they would block out the sun for two or three days. The fluttering of so many wings would cause drops in temperature. The tons of excrement left on the fields enriched the soil. Their iridescent feathers adorned hats and they became a seasonal commodity in markets throughout the continent.

Until September 1, 1914 – and then there were none!

From Billions to None is the story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, with the documented death of Martha, the last of her species, who died on that sad September day at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is a fable about the passenger pigeon and what happens when greed, disrespect for nature, what we today might call over harvesting, and how, in the end, there is nothing left. It is the documentation and, hopefully, illumination, of what and how fast extermination of a species can happen. It brings to mind the near demise of the buffalo and the American eagle, and our over harvesting of fish and fowl, and the cause massive outcomes of deforestation.

Joel Greenburg, who is central to this film, went on to write “A Feathered River Across the Sky: the Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction”. The image at the top of this post is from Greenburg’s book, which goes further in the documentation of this event. The book can be found here.

We watched the film, at times with a collective, audible gasp at photos of enormous hills of dead passenger pigeons, and how business manipulated political sentiment to continue the practices of killing thousands upon thousands of these birds. Some of you may have seen this documentary on your public television stations. I would like to encourage you to watch this short trailer, and consider asking your local library to purchase From Billion to None as well as  “A Feathered River Across the Sky: the Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction”.

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On my way out of Wilder Mansion, following a Garden Club meeting, Marilyn handed me a heavy tote bag. Showing concern, she told me to go home and put my foot up. She also encouraged me to spend some time enjoying her book which was weighing down the bag.

I have been missing my long walks with the seasonal shuffling through carpets of fallen leaves, as well as observing the many migratory birds stopping for sustenance and rest at local watering holes. Trips to the local forest preserves have all but abated, though I have been enjoying drive-by leaf peeping.

Marilyn’s book was a welcome diversion for me.

I have heard nature photographer extraordinaire, Mike MacDonald, speak and was aware of his inspirational book, “My Journey Into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland’s Startling Natural Wonders”. I had not yet journeyed into his luminous creation. Since I cannot physically wander the wilds around me, I truly appreciated being able to vicariously roam them by leafing  through this glorious book.

Mike MacDonald wears many hats, including humorist, poet, naturalist, speaker – and photographer. His command of lyrical prose and eye for natural beauty are hallmarks of his talent and are gifts to the reader of “My Journey Into the Wilds of Chicago”.

My own nature wanderings came to mind through Mike MacDonald’s exquisite images of prairies, savannas, and preserves. I instantly became an armchair traveler and felt a wee bit smug knowing that I have actually frequented many of them. I was also humbled, curious, and anxious to journey to so many more that I either have not been to, or was not even aware of. Some are but a few miles from our home, others just over the Wisconsin or Indiana border or an hour or so away.

With his breathtaking photography , MacDonald takes readers to oak savannas and mystical fens, through the changing midwestern seasons amid the changing light of day and the dark of night when the prairies alight with winking and blinking movement. Bull snakes and egrets and dragonflies offer startling scenery and interesting photographic dilemnas. From Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, the McGinnis Slough in Palos Park, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area near the Illinois/Wisconsin border, such natural wonders abound in the greater Chicagoland area.

“My Journey Into the Wilds of Chicago” is more that a coffee table book. It is a photographic celebration of the diverse ecosystems and prairies of Illinois, filled with evocative prose and poetry, humor and facts, tips on photography and insight into wildlife – and more. Much, much more.

I am grateful to Marilyn for lending me this treasure. It has allowed me to travel to some of my favorite preserves, to explore so many I did not know about, and to experience the sunrises and sunsets and seasons in Mike MacDonald’s “My Journey Into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland’s Startling Natural Wonders”.

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“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. … In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportmen the cover for the game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.”

 John Lubbock, The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In

img_1376(This tree reminded me of the Whomping Tree at Hogwarts, taken from the inside of my car. I’ve had enough whomping lately. )

Still hobbled from my recent fall, long walks in nature have abated while my wanderlust has not. I miss my rambles, especially in this season when the trees  paint the sky with the russets and amber and crimsons of Autumn and fallen leaves create tapestries of color at our feet.

Fall colors are peaking late this year, giving us one of the most colorful November I can remember. The trees are putting on a brilliant show, but, this late in the season, the color is likely to be short-lived. I was anxious to take a drive to take in the colorful leaves – so, I did, on a misty, moist midmorning this past week. The silver lining behind the broken footed cloud is that it is my left foot that has the fracture. I can safely drive with my right foot.

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I meandered like a lazy river along the leafy lanes of the Arboretum. For the most part, I was alone, able to stop the car, roll down the windows, and take photos to my heart’s content.

Winding lanes and panoramic vistas

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greeted me at every turn.
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All-in-all, it was a luscious, leafy escape into nature’s grand, golden, glorious goodbye.

Where have you escaped to lately?

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Betwixt and between the midnight hour and dawn, in that never-ending zone when sleep evades the weary soul, the night grows still and the crickets set down their bows, I found myself wide awake.

It is in these soulful hours that I found myself wandering the darkened rooms of this old house, hearing the faint fall of my footsteps as the floorboards creaked and groaned. It is in these wee hours that I often catch sight of the ethereal shadows of our wandering herd of deer and, perchance, a lone car, heading home from the graveyard shift or venturing out to an early morning flight – but this night, I was alone.

I don’t mind these occasional sleepless nights, though I know they can be lonely times for many. I still have my health and always a book to read or a post to write. I’m grateful for that. I know the time may come when occasional becomes always, but, for now, my late night hours are few. While I don’t mind the occasional sleepless night, I know the awakening day will be long and I will feel a heavy weariness by mid-afternoon. It is what it is.

So, I roamed the rooms then placed my book near a comfortable chair and lamp. I set a cup and saucer out and filled the teakettle, put a few errant kitchen items in their place, and walked to the wide door overlooking the deck. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see a crafty spider knitting her web. She worked her magic upon the air betwixt and between the eaves and the glass;  knitting and purling, tatting and knotting her lacey snare. She paid me no mind. I let her go about her solitary task, amazed, once again, at the marvels of nature.

The teakettle whistled, breaking the lure of the web. I steeped my tea and sweetened it with a bit of local honey. Wrapped in a blanket, I watched the steam rise from my cup, then settled in to sip and ponder, read and write, betwixt and between the midnight hour and dawn.

Do you have sleepless nights? What do you do when sleep evades you?

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dairy-farmwalking-to-barnThe way to the barn was a well-worn, rutted path, uphill and scenic, past acres of pasture on a Illinois Centennial Farm, now in its 5th generation of dairy farmers. As we trudged up the path, we noticed most of the herd in the distance, congregating companionably under a brilliant sky. We headed toward one of the farm buildings. This was our third stop on the McHenry County Farm Stroll.

I first heard about this free event from a University of Illinois Master Gardener publication, which caught my attention. This year, 12 private farms would be opened to the public. The properties included orchard, vineyards, dairy farms, hobby farms, and the Loyola University Retreat and Farm campus.

Tom and I marked our calendars and bookmarked the event, intrigued by all the options available, familiar with the rolling hills and farmland in McHenry County, and knowing the wide and well-informed network of the University of Illinois Extension Services and Master Gardeners, as well as the McHenry County Farm Bureau.

We knew we would not be able to see all 12 farms, so, selected 4 that we were most interested in,  mapped out a route and off we went for a Sunday stroll.

This dairy farm was our 4th stop and different from the others. We soon found ourselves observing the cows and their bairn eating in the barn, followed by a very informative mini-lecture on hay and straw, how hay is harvested and stored, the often “iffy” reliance on erratic weather in the midwest. Our docent in the hay stall was from the Farm Bureau and she was a gifted and knowledgeable speaker who had all ages of visitors engaged in her subject matter.

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One of the farmers also walked us through a typical day of milking the cows with insight into small dairy farms versus large conglomerates, how he knows the names of all of his cows, and reminding us to check out his Guernsey cows and a calf just born who were just outside the barn.

I did take a few photos of the newborn Guernsey, which did not show well. It was not yet 24 hours old, curled into a brown ball of body and big eyes. If it had some spots I would have thought it was a fawn. Mom, however, was close by, keeping her eyes on the intruders passing by.

 

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So it was on this enlightening leg of our Farm Stroll, that we wandered back down the path, rutted with decades of use. Onward we went, headed toward our car. We stopped as we departed to thank the volunteers stationed there who asked how our visit was – and we were given a choice of carton of milk.

White or chocolate?

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We chose wisely.

 

 

 

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It is, officially, Autumn; and so begins the long, slow goodbye . . .

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 . . . as the days shorten and the shadows grow longer, the leaves begin their free fall and many of us in a northerly climate begin to turn our thoughts inward as we relish the harvest of the cold crops, the gourds and pumpkins, especially the pumpkins.

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img_0650Illinois is the top producer of pumpkins. Last year was a sad year for pumpkins here in the Prairie State, but, this year – ah, this year looks to be a a good one for those glorious orbs that are traditionally orange, but, appearing in other colors and shapes as well.

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We stopped at a local farm stand, The Farm, where I often visit for fresh, local vegetables as well as the flowers they grow and sell. The zinnias have been particularly spectacular this year, and this bouquet caught my eye, but, it was organic tomatoes and pickles that I was after this day. I’ll be back soon for a bouquet – and I think I will try one of these pumpkins. Goosebumps. Their unique bumps are rather wart-like and the color and name are intriguing. I’m sure one will lighten up our little corner of earth here along the Cutoff.

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img_9997Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? 

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

I no longer remember whose post it was that first introduced me to Mary Oliver, but, I am forever grateful for it and the moment when I first experienced her words; words so well woven that they continue to ring the clarion call to nature and life for me.

It was the quote above that captured my attention, probably six or so years ago. I am still trying to form an answer. Perhaps, for me, what I plan to do is what I have always done; searching for meaning and purpose in my wanderings through the pathways of life.

On a recent pleasant, clear and less humid evening, I had an itch to be out and about in nature. Not quite dusk, I knew it would soon be, so needed to move with some purpose and plan, which led me to Lake Katherine and the mile or so walk around the lake.

Isn’t it funny how a place can sometimes beckon us?

I am glad I answered the call.

My reward was a time to reflect after a busy day and time to clear my head of details and worry. As I walked, I could feel the beat of my heart and the echo of my steps. A gaggle of local geese held a conference and two small children crept close to a pair of black ducks. Runners slipped past me and young lovers toward me as the sun slowly swallowed the shore and a lone Great Blue Heron waited patiently in the reeds for his next bite.

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Mary Oliver’s birthday is today.

While I am still not clear as to what is my plan, I am clear that I will continue my brief but meaningful wanderings in nature as my steps creep all the closer to my own setting sun.

So it was on another day’s walk-about that I came upon a field of gold. I thought I could hear the “goldenrod whispering goodbye” as I marveled at its bright, yellow color; a mass of madness in nature’s closing performances as one season sets into another. Here’s to Mary Oliver and to each of our own wild and precious lives.

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Song for Autumn by Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

From “New and Selected Poems Volume Two”

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