Monday, May 4, 2015

Celebrating 100 Years of Beauty in the Forest Preserves: Centennial Symposium and Sagawau Canyon Tour 28-29th May

Please consider attending this two day event to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Forest Preserves

Thursday, May 28, 2015
CONFERENCE at DePaul University
9 am – 5 pm

DePaul University Student Center
Lincoln Park Campus
2250 N. Sheffield Ave., Room 314, Chicago, IL 60014

Panelists include historians, philosophers (including Elizabeth Millan) and scientists (inc moi!), planners and educators.
Topics Include:
• Historical Roots and Aesthetic Implications of the Forest • Conservation and Social Perspectives • Wildlife, Ecosystems and the Next 100 Years

Friday, May 29, 2015

Canyon Tour: 10:15 am
Picnic: Noon

Sagawau Environmental Learning Center
12545 W. 111th St., Lemont, IL 60439

Canyon tours will be led by experts from the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Shuttle buses will be available to and from the event site starting at Ogilvie Station.

To register please visit

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Whistler

Liam Heneghan

I learned to whistle in primary school during early afternoon quiet-time. Whistling had become a preoccupation of mine since hearing a whistler perform at the school some weeks before. Traveling shows, such as the one in which he appeared, provided a welcome break from the intense drabness of Irish educational life in the early 1970s. On such occasions we would troop into the gymnasium to be mildly regaled by knife throwers, saucer spinners, card tricksters, jugglers, clowns and sundry entertainers. I developed a special fondness for the magician whose skill was so feeble that I blush for him more than forty years later. But the whistler was special; here was an artist of an altogether greater caliber.

The whistler whistled a sweet accompaniment to songs that had no doubt been popular in previous decades. He wore a suit, I recall, and the cuffs of his white shirt flared out like tiny wings as he raised his hands, the main tools of his trade, to his mouth. Delightful to me were his bird calls. When he hooted through cupped hands, unseen pigeons and owls seemed to manifest themselves in that hall. With a flurry of fingers, some stuffed into his mouth, others flitting above his mouthed hand, he chirped, chipped and he trilled. He was commendably specific about the species he was emulating. “A chaffinch”, he’d say and his fingers and breath would produce that bird’s distinctive call, ending in “Tol a lol a lol ginger beer.” “A robin”, he’d call out; “a blackbird”, “a curlew”, and so on. Perhaps it was the strange equipment in that room, its dangling ropes, its dilapidated athletic horses stacked in the corner, and its high ceilings that lent a special heft to the acoustics. The whistler’s birds warbled, and in full throated song flitted about the room that day.

I was, at that point in my young life, a reasonably diligent birder. I had learned the call of many birds, and though I could recognize them, I could not reproduce those lovely sounds. The whistler both strengthened my resolve, but also magnified my inabilities. In the exasperating weeks that followed I coaxed my lips and tongue and fingers to comply but they failed to reproduce anything but farting noises and wet sputtering. But then that day arrived, when supposedly we were immersed in quiet reading, and the skill came to me all at once. My fingers were in my mouth, and my tongue curled beneath them. I could feel my breath readying itself for a song. But I didn’t blow, fortunately. In those days of school corporal punishment, a warbler calling in the classroom would not have been welcomed. I’d been beaten before for lesser mischief. Soundlessly, without immediate opportunity for implementation, I had learned to whistle like a bird. I simply knew by some marvelous intuition that I was could whistle. A few minutes later, I rushed into the school yard and issued that first long confirmatory whistle.

A gap had opened up between knowing and doing, and in that gap I realized, in retrospect at least, that between a call to song and a whistling response, something intervenes. It may, of course, simply be reflection. But it seems likely that to learn to chirp with the birds, one must locate a mechanism, already old, within oneself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

First Flight Into Chicago: The City's Wilderness

When I first flew into Chicago, almost twenty years ago, I was an adult in my early thirties.  I knew about the city, of course; Chicago’s reputation precedes it. This was the city of broad shoulders, tumultuous politics, mercantile strength, and very brisk winters. Besides, I had read Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle (1906)! As an ecologist I knew also of the honorable role Chicago played in the history of my discipline. Many of the foundational theories in ecology, for example vegetation succession, early models of population growth and competition, and the earliest application of ecological ideas to urban settings, are associated with University of Chicago.  And yet I braced myself as I approached the city.  Surely, Chicago was now just another conglomerate post-industrial city, sprawling and gray and barren.

As I approached O’Hare Airport I glanced down to assess the immense, and unexpected, circle of vegetation the surrounds the city. From the air it looks like a halo of green. A landscape of trees interspersed with grasslands and by the gray-slate of the city itself.  This distribution of trees and grassland was, to use a technical term, a savanna, albeit a highly unusual and contrived one. These were the trees of Chicago’s urban forest, planted in parks and parkways and the grasses of immense lawns and playing fields.  But what I have learned over the years since moving into this landscape is that in addition to the domesticated trees and grasslands, this savanna contains within it savannas of a very difference, and arguably wilder and more authentic kind.

Savannas, and prairies, wetlands, woodlands, scrublands, and the myriad vegetated landscapes that constitute a wilderness within this city.  And these habits, impoverished and stricken as they are, choked with invasive species, subtended by degraded soils, impoverished by the lost of some key historical species, impaired by radically altered hydrology nonetheless rank among some of the rarest, and from a conservation perspective, some of the more critically imperiled habitats on Earth.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Late Night Paragraph on Urban Ecology

Ecology as a scientific discipline was developed in the 19th Century by investigators with urban affiliations who often inclined towards the wilder places of nature. Indeed, despite the pronounced urban institutional setting for the development of ecology in the 20th Century there was a surprising paucity of reference to towns or cities in the literature of the discipline until the final decades of last century.

Since that time, however, the growth of urban ecology as an vibrant sub-discipline has been quite remarkable. Urban ecology developed both by the adaptation of classical ecological ideas to urban locations but also by the cultivation of novel ecological ideas specially proposed to understand urban patterns. Some of this novel theorizing admittedly drew inspiration from social theory elaborated in the early 20th Century.

As recently as the last few years, some of urban ecology’s indigenous theorizing, is being applied to understand phenomena in arenas remote from cities. This perhaps marks a significant maturation of urban ecology.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Talk: Echoes from the Little Stream of Death Wednesday, (in Chicago April 15 7:00-8:30 p.m.)

DePaul Students visit Glaisín Na Marbh in 2013
Glaisín Na Marbh (Little Stream of Death, in translation) is a now deserted town-land in a remote corner of Killarney National Park, Ireland.  Several families died there during the Great Famine of the 1840s. 

The surrounding landscape is beautiful: bog stretches away from the lazy beds where once the potatoes were grown; the oak woodlands encroach from the other sides. I recently proposed establishing a long-term recording station to monitor this wild landscape. However, an email exchange with an old friend halted the project.  In this presentation I reflect on why my friend’s arguments, on the ethics of sound recording, were so convincing.  

The only recording of Glaisín Na Marbh  that we can agree upon is in the form of a song, Cold is the Night, that I wrote with two noted Chicago-based Irish musicians, Kathleen Keane and James Conway. Kathleen and James will perform the piece.

I will present on DePaul Humanities Center: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 at an event called The Sound and the Sample

An evening of three radically different live performances and analysis of what it means to take a sound from its original context and repurpose it, giving it new meaning elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 15
7:00-8:30 p.m.
Cortelyou Commons
2324 N. Fremont St.
Chicago, IL 60614

Kathleen Keane and James Conway perform an original piece of music for which I wrote the lyric Cold The Night. 

The venue is awesome - the acoustic should be grand.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lost For a Moment in Popo Agie Wilderness Area

Liam Heneghan

Almost a decade ago I made a small blunder along the trail through the Popo Agie Wilderness that almost cost me my life. That Wyoming wilderness area encompasses over one hundred thousand acres of granite peaks, narrow canyons, glorious alpine valleys, and icy lakes and streams. Twenty of its peaks exceed 12,000 feet, including the Wind River Peak which rises to 13,255, and though it is frequently visited by climbers, for the most part we walked alone through the vast landscape.

I hiked in there for a few days with a veteran of those trails. His son-in-law was the third of our little party.  It was late summer and there was already a slight bite in the air suggesting the oncoming of autumn.

Even now, these several years later, at times I glance at a map of the region reminding myself of where I lost the trail and struck out towards oblivion. It was late on the first evening of our hike and we were hoping to make good progress into the back country before we made camp. Although I was a seasoned camper, having slept under canvas close by Irish National Parks for part of each summer during my college years, I had never been in such formidable wilderness, nor had I ever been on so arduous a hike. But I was poorly prepared for the trip, having, in retrospect, a false confidence in my own charmed life and an assumption, that I now regard as almost fatally flawed, about the fundamentally benign nature of the world.  No map, no compass, no food in my pack, no survival gear, no clue.

We had incautiously spread out along a mile or so of trail.  I was to the rear, having deliberately slowed my progress so as to enjoy solitude. My wilderness reverie had been punctured a little by a small party who were packing out of the area. We nodded our hellos and on I walked, slightly vexed that our group was not, in fact, alone.  They were the only people we saw that day.  It was fortuitous that they were there it turned out.

The day wore on, the sun was low, and the sparkling gray of the granite was replaced by the slate gray of the early evening sky. On and on I trudged.  Enough light remaining to illuminate a descent into the pretty valley where we were to camp, but not enough for me to clearly discern my companions who, for all I knew, were now setting up their tents.  Perhaps dinner would await me!

The sound of evening in Popo Agie Wilderness is a rare delight. Crystal clear alpine streams gurgle, birds fidget in the scrubs, and the wind mutters through the grasses.  As I walked along I became aware of a muttering in quite a different key.  Eventually, I turned and scanning the horizon I saw the hikers I passed on the trail waving down the valley at me.  They were, in fact, yelling at me, though the wind muted them.  I waved back begrudgingly, not at all impressed to have my evening so disturbed.  I turned back to the trail but the yelling continued.  The Popo Agie Wilderness gets an occasional grizzly but it seemed unlikely that this was what they wished to warn me of. Perhaps I had missed some wonderful sight — the geology of the region is quite spectacular — I looked around that spot. Moments went by and though I could not make out what they were saying, nor could I discern the meaning of their gesticulations, all of a sudden, it dawned on me that I was going in the wrong direction, heading away from rather than towards my companions. Thus, thanking them, with a acknowledging wave, I retraced my steps and eventually rejoined my friends.

Now, I realize that this may seem like the smallest of matters.  After all, had I really been in all that much danger? I had been on the wrong trail for no more than thirty minutes, and a little light remained in the sky. Though in winter the temperatures in the Popo Agie, even in the valleys, can plunge to minus forty below, in late summer the nights were merely cool.  Indeed, my misstep seemed so inconsequential that when I caught up with my party I decided not mention it.  Perhaps, though, it was shame.

In quiet moments ever since I have speculated about the journey’s end if those hikers had not intervened and had I simply marched on.  When would I have realized I was not catching up? Was that trail leading to some temperate valley where I could have bedded down for the night, albeit hungrily, or down inhospitable scree and into a freezing lake.  And having discovered myself alone and map-less would I have subsequently hiked back successfully to Landers, the nearest town, or gotten lost in the 1400 square mile Wind River wilderness complex of which Popo Agie is just a tiny part.

What I learned, though not on that day it’s true, but rather in slightly panicked later re-enactments as I looked at those maps, is that what the wilderness means is that to be unprepared is to flirt with perishing.