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.  

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