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 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