The Calumet region on Chicago’s industrial southside is home to some of the most diverse natural park land in the United States.
From the air, they look almost artificial, like the furrows of a giant plow. Nearly obliterated by housing developments, highways, factories, and the Gary-Chicago Airport, they are the physical remnants of the environmental history of Lake Michigan known as “dune and swale” topography.
Created by changes in the shoreline of glacial Lake Chicago, the larger ancestor of today’s Lake Michigan, these long corrugated ridges and intervening troughs were formed as lake levels receded. Like tree rings, each ridge and furrow marks a specific historical period, with the oldest features further away from the lake and new ridges under construction at the water’s edge. Like other lakeshore contexts, the soils here are sandy and well-drained, overlying a deep deposit of clay that effectively holds in water where the sandy ridges are absent. This unique dune and swale topography yields a valuable habitat of swampy lowlands and sandy ridges, home to a large number of plant and animal species, including the endangered Karner Blue butterfly.
Most Chicago residents know the Calumet region primarily as that stretch of land along Lake Michigan south of the loop where Illinois fades almost imperceptibly into Indiana amid an almost post-apocalyptic industrial landscape complete with smoke stacks, factories, and clusters of large white tanks holding…something. Even viewed through the windows of a speeding car on the interstate, however, apparently incongruous expanses of wetlands and open water rush by, some attended by anglers apparently unbothered by the juxtaposition of cattails and steel mills. What this rushed perspective misses, however, are the many important natural areas of the Calumet, a mosaic of habitats including coastal dunes, wetlands, Black Oak savannas, forests, and remnant prairie. Despite being enclaved by urban sprawl and heavy industry, these natural areas support a staggering array of plant and animals species, a largely unknown locus of biodiversity on the edges of the Midwest’s largest city.
As it turns out, those ‘smoke stacks’ are actually spewing out steam (a fact which adds nothing to their aesthetic appeal). Despite the many economic, social, and environmental challenges it faces, the Calumet region is home to an exemplary array of public and private environmental groups actively working with industry, private landholders, and all levels of government to rehabilitate, protect, and manage natural areas.
This past September I took part in a bus tour organized by the City of Chicago Department of Environment to promote awareness of natural areas across the Illinois-Indiana state line. I joined a group of land managers, scholars, educators, officials, and community activists on a visit to three natural areas in northwest Indiana. Our itinerary, from lakefront to prairie, traced in reverse the history of glacial Lake Chicago, beginning on the contemporary lakefront at Marquette park in Gary. In one direction, sand and seagulls; in the other the steel mills of Gary and a stranded speedboat.
Hiking through the Miller Woods, part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, we learned that this modestly-sized 15,000-acre reserve administered by the National Park Service ranks seventh in biodiversity among all the national parks. As we trudged the sandy path away from the lake, drought-tolerant grasses quickly gave way to clumps of black oaks and cottonwoods scattered amid grasses and carpets of goldenrods. Although the landscape may seem pristine, it is actually a product of active management designed to both control invasive species and restore areas damaged by, for example, the dumping of slag, a by-product of iron and steel production.
Next stop, Ivanhoe Dune and Swale preserve, owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy. Here Paul Labus, the Conservancy’s Northwest Indiana region director, introduced us to his team of site managers. They are a die-hard group whose work destroying invasive plants and protecting the reserve from all-terrain vehicles, dumping, and vandalism involves every bit as much work as the most manicured suburban yard.
During a discussion of the role of humans in successional pathways, I think of the comments of Professor Peter Crane at the Program on the Global Environment‘s “Social Life of Forests” conference last spring. Where U.S. scholars and officials tend to refer to land “management,” Peter, former director of England’s Kew Gardens, used the metaphor of gardening to refer to the maintenance of ecosystems in a preferred state. Given the fact that humans have long been part of environmental histories, what does it mean to “restore” an area to its “natural” state? In our local region, changes are at least divisible into those created before and after the last several hundred years under conditions of European colonization and settlement, but even pre-colonial environments were part of cultural landscapes as well as natural ones. Gardening is now, thanks to Peter, my preferred way to think about the kinds of landscape modifications practiced by managers of such natural areas; less technocratic than management, a term which links our control of “weeds,” “invasives,” and other culturally-defined categories of plants to the long human history of agriculture and domestication.
As we swatted at mosquitoes and surreptitiously accepted blasts of chemical repellent offered by a wildlife biologist from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the perilous balance created by our “gardening” of natural areas became clear, as it generally does, during a discussion of fire. Many, perhaps most of the landscapes in the Chicago region are fire-adapted and can only survive with periodic burning. Fire suppression, often seen as protecting nature, may actually imperil habitats such as prairies and land managers – habitat gardeners – typically conduct controlled burns for this very reason. Aside from the dangers to human settlement and from those large white tanks which in fact hold things like natural gas, not all naturalists are equally enthusiastic about domesticated fire.
At Ivanhoe, we split into small groups, each walking single-file down a sandy dune ridge, careful not to damage the favorite food of the Karner Blue butterfly, the wild lupine that grows in the oak savannas of the Calumet region. Our guide, who modestly insisted “I just kill weeds,” when asked if he was a reserve manager, was clearly concerned that controlled burns could wipe out Karner Blue populations entirely before they had a chance to become established. “We’ll have to do it eventually,” Paul Labus acknowledged, while noting that the butterflies should be able to move across the water-filled swales in response to small fires.
From Ivanhoe, we went to Hoosier Prairie State Nature Preserve, within the borders of the National Lakeshore but managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Here the shade of the oak savanna and the whine of mosquitoes was replaced by a chorus of birds and insects and a blast of humidity. Prairies once covered large parts of the United States and the Midwest’s tallgrass prairies, now present only in protected remnants such as this, are amazingly efficient at sequestering carbon in their extensive root systems.
Clearly, they also prevent excessive runoff. Across the region, we saw evidence of widespread flooding following recent heavy rains, including a golf course on the banks of the Little Calumet River that was completely underwater, with only the tops of the flags showing. Our guide noted proudly that no part of the prairie had experienced flooding. This area, a mix of oak savanna and open prairie, is regularly burned, he explained, no easy task in a patchwork preserve surrounded by houses, power lines, and those ubiquitous white tanks. If they caught fire, “they would sure go boom!” he told us cheerfully.
Joining me on the bus tour was Maddie McLeester, a University of Chicago anthropology graduate student and advisor for the Environmental Studies Program. As part of the Program on the Global Environment’s new “Calumet Quarter”, we were investigating the landscape of research and conservation in the area. Although University of Chicago ecologist Henry Cowles outlined his influential theory of succession based on study of the Indiana dunes in 1898, the University has not otherwise been deeply involved in research, education, or activism in the Calumet region. However, given the university’s location on Chicago’s South Side and its current academic, educational, and public outreach goals, the time seems right to become more involved in our local environment and community, a goal the Calumet Quarter will help us accomplish.
The Quarter is modeled after the College’s popular one-quarter study abroad programs, to help create a highly focused and intensive pedagogical atmosphere in which students concentrate on a series of interrelated problems across the full range of their course work in a single quarter. We launch the first iteration of the program in the spring of 2009, with courses on Prairie Ecosystems, Pollen Analysis and Paleoenvironment, and Environmental Economics: Ecosystems Services, as well as an integrative research seminar taught by McLeester. Students will learn by doing and will participate in the work of research and conservation in this critical region.
In many ways, the Calumet is an exemplary case of the complex entanglements of humans with the natural world. No single approach or set of intellectual tools will be able to comprehend the magnitude of the challenges faced as scholars, activists, residents, and government agencies attempt to handle economic crisis, toxic waste and pollution, transformed habitats, and demands for recreation, among other issues. While the problems facing the Calumet are daunting, it is also a highly significant area for rare and endangered species and provides significant ecological services to the Chicago area and beyond. Whether we prefer the metaphor of gardening or that of management, we are already a part of this environment; it’s now our responsibility to help understand and protect it.