Crossing the Calumet River on an Amtrak train passing through the former South Works steel region. Chicago Skyway in the background.
25 March 2018
J. and I headed to the Calumet area, specifically Deadstick Pond near Lake Calumet. There’s no public access I can see, and a fence separates the area around Lake Calumet from the frontage road parallel to I-94, Doty Avenue. Collected against the fence is trash—tons of trash. I envision hordes of high school students and adult volunteers spending a few hours a few weekends cleaning up the accumulated trash along the fences at Lake Calumet and Deadstick Pond. The area seems so little traveled that no one may notice, but it’d be a small step toward restoring a semblance of beauty to the area—as long as it isn’t trashed again.
The Calumet area, for many years the center of Chicago’s steel industry, carries an eerie air of a transition zone. Stony Island, a broad, heavily traveled avenue through Hyde Park, South Shore, and other communities, turns into a two-lane, potholed, unmaintained road flanked by tall grasses, nascent parks like Big Marsh, landfills, and the occasional industrial-style building and parking lot. There’s not a house to be seen, nor any sign of a neighborhood.
Eventually, the avenue that further north boasts restaurants, stores, churches, hospitals, and other urban fixtures dwindles down to a cracked, littered pavement that ends abruptly short of a curve of the Calumet River. Traveling down Stony Island can feel like a ride on a time machine toward a future apocalypse, when industry’s mark is visible but faded, and nature is slowly creeping back through the piles of plastic bags and bottles. It’s like the end and beginning of the world.
As J. carefully navigated the potholes, a few cars and trucks sped past at speed—in a hurry to get to who knows where. We stopped on the roadside at Deadstick Pond and peered through the vegetation and fence for a peek at some ducks bobbing along among gray snags. There may have been swans, or plastic bags masquerading as swans.
Next we found Hegewisch Marsh, where he parked by the rail bridge and we wandered down a rough road parallel to the tracks. Many ducks floated on the open water while their passerine counterparts flitted about the bare trees. Along the way I found a lot of scat, most loaded with fur. The open areas connected by the river, rail lines, streets and bridges, along with wildlife-rich marshes, must be coyote havens. I hoped one was following us with its amber eyes as we tread on its territory.
Rail bridge near Hegewisch Marsh
We stopped at Flatfoot Lake in Beaubien Woods, also off I-94, which roars over the otherwise serene setting.
Flatfoot Lake with I-94 beyond the tree line
Flatfoot Lake pier
On a satellite map, Lake Calumet, the largest lake within Chicago, looks artificial. I couldn’t guess its original contours. It’s surrounded by nearly empty, decaying streets, the occasional vast building, the ceaseless noise of a busy interstate, and other trappings of modern dreams. There are other dreams, though. The Lake Calumet Vision Committee has a dream for the Calumet region that includes biking, jogging, paddling, and sailing, along with a trail connecting the Pullman National Monument to the young Big Marsh Park—potentially 500 acres of new habitat. It’s going to take time, and it can’t happen fast enough for me.
Now if we could only do something about the roar of I-94.
A National Historic Landmark and a Chicago Landmark, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is an oasis of calm and peace if not quiet in bustling Lincoln Park. It’s a little like the Secret Garden without the stone walls or English-style landscaping.
On Saturday, I witnessed a murder.
The Hemaris moths are gone (presumed dead), and all that seemed to be left are the skippers and an occasional monarch. On Saturday, though, a hungry painted lady appeared. I spent an hour or more trying to take photos of this favorite of mine, but I’ve noticed they tend to turn their wide rumps toward me. I try not to take this personally, nor the apparent glare of the skipper that landed on my finger as I raised the phone.
At some point after the painted lady landed on an upper branch, I noticed that it began to beat its wings furiously. I looked and could see only a bit of yellow-green against the purple flowers, but the painted lady seemed stuck. I broke the sprig off with the butterfly still attached. The poor thing went still, its poor legs curled up. I discovered the yellow-green thing had legs. I later decided it was a kind of well-named “ambush bug”—a formidable garden predator that doesn’t discriminate between pests and pollinators.
This was one of the few times I’ve interfered with nature—something I’d normally not do and would not recommend. I can only plead that I was distraught over being deprived of my colorful little friend. I was reminded that the butterfly bush, so full of life in August, when dozens of moths, butterflies, and bees flitted about, can also be full of death. I have complicated feelings about the murder (anthropomorphism) of my new painted lady friend, but I won’t go into them here.
Now, on this last full day of summer, the one creature I saw, a painted lady, flew off when I approached and didn’t return. Another plant down the path that was crawling with a variety of bees only a couple of weeks ago is nearly motionless, with only a few stragglers lethargically tapping into its flowers. There wasn’t even the chatter of birds to relieve the loneliness of the garden past its seasonal prime.
And so summer ends and autumn begins.
During the first half of August last year, I was thrilled to discover not only butterflies at Perennial Garden, but also the little fairy moths known as snowberry clearwings (Hemaris diffinis). I’d seen one of their cousins, the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) in Ann Arbor a few years ago, but never expected to see anything like them here.
I found that great, Eastern tiger, and black swallowtails; red-spotted purples; painted ladies; silver-spotted and fiery skippers; bees; clearwings; and even a hummingbird or two love a particular butterfly bush at the garden. This bush, which had been cut down to the ground after last summer, didn’t bloom fully until early to mid-August—I started checking as early as May! On my brief visits, I never saw clearwings, so I braced myself for disappointment.
I started seeing a few a couple of weeks ago Thursday. When I pedaled over the Saturday before last at 3 p.m., the bush was swarming with life. I noticed that among the snowberry clearwings a few hummingbird clearwings, with their fuzzy green upper backs, were making an appearance. I was in heaven. I love these guys—even after I noticed they were buzzing one another and throwing each other off choice branches of blossoms.
By Saturday there were fewer of the hummingbird moths under the increasingly cloudy skies. I was happy to have seen so many the day before.
I’d made one of the photos I’d taken the background image on my iPhone screen. I’ve changed phones since then, but I haven’t changed the image. I took a closer look at it—and realized that particular photo from last year is of a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe). How did I never notice that? It had the species’ distinctive fuzzy green upper back and lacks the light band near the skirt. While bemoaning that I hadn’t seen any Hemaris thysbe at this butterfly bush, I’d been staring at a photo of one I’d taken a year ago. Brilliant.
Last Tuesday I left work early for a doctor’s appointment and managed to get to the garden by 5 p.m. I was happy to have this unexpected opportunity to visit my little fairy moths—especially since they live only a few weeks.
The bush wasn’t buzzing like it’d been on Saturday, and there weren’t any large butterflies around—but there were enough moths for me to get a few photos and videos, including one in slow motion. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that sooner, except I am still trying to get a sharp closeup photo.
While I was standing watching a handful of moths flitting around, I heard a “bzzzzzzzzt” behind my head. I turned to find myself face to face with a hummingbird, separated by only a foot and a half or two feet of space.
As I was trying to get myself together (“Where’s the phone? Where’s the camera app?”), she buzzed around me to take a couple of quick sips at the bush. I have only these mid-distance shots and a memory now.
Now there’s only about an hour between the time I get home, change, get my bike out, and ride over, and sunset. By that hour, the Hemaris moths are few if any. The other day I was watching a hummingbird clearwing when a snowberry clearwing attacked it and carried it away.
I wish I could tell them there are plenty of blossoms to go around for the little time they have left.
According to the plans for the new presidential library, Perennial Garden in Jackson Park (Hyde Park, Chicago) would be demolished to make way for a reflecting pool. I’m sad about this because Perennial Garden is home to butterflies, hawk moths, and even a hummingbird or two, which is what parks should be. Photos from a quick stop yesterday — click the photo for a few more on Flickr.
Autumn Sunday morning promenade around Promontory Point.
While this snowberry clearwing was intent on seeking nectar, I was intent on photographing it. I couldn’t get crisp photos with an iPhone, but this is one of my favorites. It looks like it’s playing hide-and-seek with me, but I have no idea of how this little hovering moth perceives the world. Maybe I was just an annoying anomaly of movement, shadow, or strange colors. To me, they are like garden fairies. I haven’t seen one in a couple of weeks, and I miss them. So long to summer, and hope to see your progeny next year.