A few of the animals that once lived in Chicago but no longer do.
  • Aimee Levitt
  • A few of the animals that once lived in Chicago but no longer do.

It’s hard to imagine now what Chicago looked like 200 years ago. Aside from the lake and the river, nothing that’s here now was there then. Instead, there was just an enormous swath of prairie.

“Nature’s Struggle,” a new exhibit that opened Saturday at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, attempts to re-create, through video, sound effects, and a multicultural trio of child characters, what it was like to live on this piece of land in 1820, 1905, and 2014. At the beginning of the exhibit, you can look up at the video skylight and see nothing but birds flying overhead. You can hear them, too. By 2014, the sky is mostly blue and empty and you can’t hear much besides traffic.

“The exhibit shows how perceptions of nature have changed,” says Steve Sullivan, the museum’s curator of urban ecology. “It’s gone from utilitarian to aesthetic.”

Before Chicago was Chicago, the humans who lived here depended on nature for food, shelter, and clothing. They trapped and hunted animals for their fur, mowed down the prairie and turned it into farms, and they cut down trees to build their houses and, eventually, the city. All of this built a thriving human economy, but it destroyed the natural order and displaced hundreds of animal species, driving many to the point of extinction. The exhibit opens with a display of animals that have vanished from the Chicago area, including the gray wolf, the red fox, and the otter.

But what could the humans have done differently?

“It’s not appropriate to condemn the people of the past,” Sullivan says. “From our enlightened perspective, it’s easy to say, ‘We should have built homes differently’ or ‘We should have organized the city differently.’ But Chicago was an entrepreneurial phenomenon. It blossomed because it could. It wasn’t planned. They couldn’t have done it differently. But it’s important to look back and learn. If you understand the past, you can take effective action in the present.”

As you walk through the exhibit, you see the taxidermied remains of animals who didn’t survive the arrival of the humans, most notably the passenger pigeon, which became fully extinct 100 years ago. (The museum has declared 2014 the Year of the Passenger Pigeon.) Maybe the most disturbing story is that of the albatross, a sea bird that only appears on land to lay its eggs and take care of its babies. Albatross parents scavenge the water for food for their young, but recently, there’s so much garbage floating in the oceans, they’ve been mistaking plastic for squid. The babies don’t like eating plastic, so they stop eating. “They’re starving to death,” says Sullivan, “and they don’t know why.”

But humans have not been entirely evil. The exhibit shows some steps we’ve taken to rectify our mistakes: we’ve formed conservation societies, established forest preserves and national parks, and passed laws that limit the number of birds we’re allowed to shoot. We’ve also reintroduced several formerly extirpated species to Illinois, including the white-tailed deer and the beaver, which, Sullivan notes, is “back with a vengeance.”

The main problem with humans, particularly Americans, is not that we consume other animals, but that we’re overconsumers.

“The passenger pigeon didn’t go extinct because we had needs [for food],” Sullivan says. “It went extinct because we were being greedy. [In America,] 43 percent of the calories on our plates get tossed in the garbage.”

Steve Sullivan and a passenger pigeon
  • Liz Steelman
  • Steve Sullivan and a passenger pigeon

The other problem is that we’re mostly unaware of where our food comes from and unaware of the impact our consumption habits have on the environment. In the southwest, for instance, expanded industry farming has messed up the natural balance between the wolves, coyotes, and kit foxes, with the unintended effect of killing off kit foxes, who would normally kill the rodents who eat the grain in the fields, which, in addition to feeding humans and cattle, keeps the soil from eroding or turning into landslides. And so on.

Like many of the exhibits at the museum, “Nature’s Struggle” is geared toward kids, who can sometimes have an effect on their parents’ habits, just by asking questions. But Sullivan wants to make sure the adults learn, too.

“I’m amazed when you hear on the news, ‘Did you know?'” he says. “Those are things you should have learned in school. We have to make learning about ecology interesting and fun so people remember.”