Tag Archives: nature

Where the Wild Things Are

CBR_Logo2City Creatures
Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness
by Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian (Eds.)

Parakeets in Hyde Park, skunks on the Northwest side, alewives in Lake Michigan, bison in Batavia, frogs in Wheaton … city slickers and suburbanites might not often think about the various flora and fauna that call the country’s third-largest metropolitan area home. But home the area is, to myriad species large and small, common and uncommon.

city creatures 9780226192895In more than a hundred essays, poems, photographs, illustrations, and stories, editors Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian have amassed a thoughtful collection of musings on the wilderness that is Chicagoland. From Evanston to Oak Park to Wheaton, from the Calumet River to Lake Michigan to Bubbly Creek, the vastness of the natural beauty in and around Chicago is described lovingly and at times reverentially. From the quotidian—squirrels, sparrows, wasps—to the unusual—coyote, wolves, rattlesnakes—the many contributors to this collection share stories and experiences that mark the Chicago area as one rich in wildlife for those who take the time to notice it.

In these pages, readers will learn about strange experiences with opossum, odd coincidences with dogs, and almost-mystical encounters with hawks. They’ll learn about taxidermy and frog monitoring and urban insect collecting. Throughout these pages, readers are afforded an opportunity to look at Chicago in a different way, to look beyond the concrete, glass, and steel, to look up from their smartphones, cast their gaze beyond mobile devices, and see the wild world that exists around them, from the tiniest mite to migrating birds to stealthy mammals who sneak around city streets in the middle of the night.

The pieces in this collection ask us to pause for a moment and consider our relationship in, among, and to the natural world that surrounds us. As Nora Moore Lloyd writes in her essay “Visits From a Messenger,” we, every day, have the chance to consider our connection with the creatures around us as a gift:
“… especially those brought by animals and other beings in the natural world—[such gifts] often also offer a lesson, and can arrive unexpectedly. Moreover, the recipient of a gift also has a responsibility to try to understand the message or lesson that it brings.”

We can, for instance, treat the sighting of a coyote walking down the driveway as a potential menace, a nuisance that threatens our domesticated pets. Or we can consider such a sighting as a gift of wonder, of a fortunate connection to the mystery that is nature, as many onlookers recently did with the sighting of a coyote who had taken up residence in an empty lot in Streeterville.

Each piece in this collection is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Some essays are more lyrical than others, some more academic than others, but all of them are honest, and it’s clear that the contributors have crafted their entries with care and love. Poems, photographs, and illustrations break up the essays, some of which are rather long. As with any collection, the pieces come together in a mixed bag—some pieces will be loved by readers, some not. Not every entry will be of interest to every reader (reading about bison—cool! about mites—not so much. But maybe that’s just me.). Either way, as a whole City Creatures is a feast for the senses. It is an unusual, unexpected tour through Chicagoland, proffered by docents clearly in love with the natural world that surrounds us. It provides a view of the city and suburbs that is all too often easily overlooked, and, as such, it is a gift in and of itself.

Three-Star Review

October 2015, University of Chicago Press
Local Interest/Science & Nature
$30, hardcover, 377 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-19289-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Weeds Are Flowers, Too

CBR_Logo2Weeds of North America
by Richard Dickinson and France Royer

Weeds are often ignored or despised for ruining manicured lawns, well-tended flower beds, and carefully planned vegetable patches, but many gardeners recognize weeds as plants just growing in the wrong place. Some “weeds” are beneficial, for instance, to bees or butterflies. Yet many weeds nevertheless create problems in specific situations. Richard Dickinson and France Royer have brought together more than 1,200 stunning color photographs in their encyclopedic reference Weeds of North America in order to help identify the species of most concern right now while also capturing their surprising beauty.

weeds north america ucp 9780226076447This hefty reference volume by the University of Chicago Press features “600 species from 69 plant families” chosen on the basis of current “state weed legislation.” The selection method underscores the aim of the book, which is to assist those working in agriculture, livestock farming, or horticultural industries. Nevertheless, amateur gardeners may well enjoy this book too, packed as it is with photographs, illustrations, and useful information. Plenty of the plants mentioned appear in suburban gardens. Nontechnical terms have been used “whenever possible,” and written entries are concise and accessible.

The initial section includes a basic guide to trees and shrubs, vines and climbing plants, herbaceous land plants (by far the largest segment), aquatic plants, and grasses and grasslike plants. The bulk of the book is given to striking, full-page photographs with family and species descriptions. Readers may learn, for example, that plains delphinium (larkspur) is poisonous to cattle, that the roots of lantana release toxins to kill off other plants, or that garlic mustard can give an unpleasant odor to the milk of cattle that eat it. Drawings are scattered throughout with attention given to various stages of growth. The glossary includes simple line drawings to help show the key parts of each plant, whether a bract, an auricle, a panicle, or an umbel, etc. An index to common and scientific names also is helpful.

Although the book will prove invaluable to many, some readers may find themselves wishing for more commentary. Weed management strategies are not discussed here. No remarks are made on conflicts between human industries and wildlife. For instance, milkweed is described as a host for viruses detrimental to cucumbers, strawberries, and tobacco; its “silky hairs” are “reported to plug intakes on farm machinery.” But no mention is made of milkweed’s importance to Monarch butterflies, whose population has declined dangerously low levels. Likewise, Johnny Jump Ups are listed as a cause for concern, but their presence at nurseries is not at issue. This is not a flaw in the book, but merely a sign of its focus. Readers are taught to identify particular species of current interest and to understand the basic elements of their biology. This is an ambitious identification guide laid out in the clearest possible terms.

One last group of potential readers who might enjoy Weeds of North America should perhaps be mentioned—namely, artists and designers. The book’s gorgeous color photographs of often overlooked plants make it a valuable resource for anyone wishing to incorporate unusual floral motifs into their work.

Four-Star Review

September 2014, University of Chicago Press
Science & Nature/Gardening
$35, paperback, 656 pages
ISBN: 978-0226076447

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

Learn more about the book.

Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
—A. A. Milne

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Birds, Bees, Flowers, Trees …

CBR_Logo2Exploring Nature in Illinois:
A Field Guide to the Prairie State
by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post

When thinking of states with natural splendor, Illinois doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Illinois—first in the nation in soybean production, second in corn production, and fourth in hogs—lacks the soaring mountains of Colorado, the serenity of the Southwestern desert, the drama of the Pacific Northwest coast, or even the quiet simplicity of the North Woods. Illinois acreage is almost all dedicated to agriculture.

But there are places scattered here and there around Illinois that provide glimpses of Illinois before row crops and asphalt took over. Authors Michael Jeffords and Susan Post do an excellent job of ferreting out the best natural spots in the state. Intended as an overview, Exploring Nature in Illinois 9780252079900doesn’t cover every natural area in the Land of Lincoln. Instead, Jeffords and Post focus on the highlights, the places that feature the best of what Illinois has to offer.

Of course, Illinois has plenty of prairie remnants (many being restored), but the state also offers a wide range of other natural habitats: fens and bogs, patches of hill or ridge that escaped the plow due to geography or geology and, of course, the Cache River ecosystem, which feels more like a trip to Louisiana than Illinois.

Exploring Nature in Illinois is simply and logically organized into three parts (North, Central, South) with chapters for specific natural areas. The authors start each chapter with the most salient point of interest about the nature area. It might be the human history, its environmental significance, or the dominant feature defining the preserve. Each entry tells the reader what to look for in the area, where to find the best viewing, what’s unusual or special, and which are the not-to-miss parts. The authors’ passion and love of Illinois nature comes through in their descriptive and lyrical prose. Maps help the reader locate the nature spots. Appendix A adds to the maps by giving detailed written instructions to the sites. Appendix B, “Natural Divisions of Illinois,” is a nice closing touch and puts all the preserves into a larger perspective.

The book has a generous helping of four-color photographs that enhance each entry. The reader will find high-quality close-up photos of flowers, birds, and insects as well as plenty of landscapes. However, the captions represent a missed opportunity. Captions provide a chance to add detail, nuance, and insight that can complement the text or elicit a smile or nod of recognition from the reader. Here, the captions are flat, seemingly added as a final chore to an otherwise fine work. The part openers, which feature lovely photos, have no captions at all (and no introductory text). If nothing else, readers want to know what they are looking at.

That said, the authors hit their target audience exactly: hikers, students, and scouts, weekend drivers, cyclists, and the like. This is not intended as a text for a serious naturalist, and it is not a traditional reference work. So the subtitle is slightly misleading: The book isn’t a “field guide” in the sense of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds or Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region.

Exploring Nature in Illinois is not meant to be read from cover to cover. Instead, it should be dipped into it when going to a specific area of Illinois or looking for a weekend getaway. At $24.95, it’s a bargain for any book shelf.

Four-Star Review

April 2014, University of Illinois Press
$24.95, paperback, 280 pages (illustrated)
ISBN: 978-0252-07990-0

Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs

Watch a video about the book.
Read more about the book and exploring Illinois.

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