They stand in the morning sun. Twenty fourth-grade students. Binoculars pressing into their eye sockets. Sue Friscia points across the baseball field behind the school to where a group of throaty seabirds squat.
“Uhhh. Ring-billed gull,” one child shouts. Nineteen others chorus the same answer a second later, “Ring-billed gull.”
Friscia is a science resource teacher at Carver Primary School in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood on the city’s far south side. She loves birds and knows them by the merest flash of a tail, or faintest call. For her, taking these kids out is a great and apparent pleasure.
“And what’s that up on the chimney? What do we often see on the chimney? What’s that?”
Binoculars rotate to the pearly western sky.
“What are these things we’re standing on?”
“Rock dove,” says one thin voice.
“Rock dove,” says the chorus.
“I can’t focus. How you work these things?”
Friscia bought enough of these binoculars with Carver’s discretionary funds so each child can learn to be comfortable with them. One child, Cynthia Barrett, totes Friscia’s tripod and telescope, which bring tiny, insignificant species up close so that eye rings and tail stripes and idiosyncrasies of habit can be seen.
“Look. Over there. Black bird, short tail.”
“A crow is a big, big black bird. This one’s smaller. Short tail.” She waits. “Stars on its chest.”
“European starling. Right.”
Shavonna Jackson is the group’s secretary. She writes down everything, adding it to the list on the clipboard. Phillip Allen flips through the field guide, finds “starling,” and walks down the line showing the page.
Single file we enter the woods that stand between Carver and the Little Calumet River. In the marshy understory we hear a peculiar cheeping.
“Stop. Hear that? What is that?”
“What kind of frog? What do you call it when people sing together?”
“Another word for choir?”
“Right. Western chorus frogs are singing to us this morning.”
The woodland habitat around us is unique. Besides the scrub growth of box elder, maple, poplars, and a few big cottonwoods, there are dozens of scattered garbage mounds. And everywhere are TV sets, the picture tubes broken and gutted, the orange and green circuit boards showing garishly through the cracked simulated-wood exteriors. There are nightstands, tar-paper shingles, unreeled cassette tapes, and four million tires. The earth seems to exude tires. To these things Friscia pays no attention. She’s given up to the birds, the kids, the sounds of the day.
“Look. Long tail. Black bird. Look at the head. See how iridescent it is.”
In the distance, across the river, is the Dolton dump. A Caterpillar tractor labors up and down the hill pushing dusty clay over the wasteland.
Friscia tells me, “They aren’t allowed to expand horizontally anymore. But they can keep piling up vertically. So we’ll see how high they go before the whole thing topples over.”
Much of this land south of 134th Street to the river between Ellis and Saint Lawrence was subdivided years ago, but has remained untenanted. Lots were sold, and at least one foundation was built. But for some reason what was supposed to be a strip of lovely riverside lots became undesirable in this abused and neglected corner of the realm. The neighborhood includes two monster landfills, Metron steel, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District sludge-drying site, and the tiny isolated community of Altgeld Gardens. Abandonment gave rise to trash dumping, drug dealing, and thuggery. Two human bodies were disposed of here last year, doused with gasoline and partially burned.
I break from the group when I see an overgrown sidewalk appear and disappear into a patch of blossoming hawthorn. It ends at an abandoned basement filled halfway up with brown water and hundreds of tires. Through the tires silver maple saplings shoot up and leaf out. Beyond are acres of open prairie with hawthorn edges. It’s beautiful.
Some teachers at Carver hesitate to visit the area. Children are warned not to enter except for a classroom activity. But the teachers hope to reclaim the land as a nature preserve and wildlife sanctuary that would connect Carver and Altgeld Gardens to the Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve to the southeast.
Passing through the woodland dump section we arrive at the bank of the Little Calumet, one of Chicago’s neat anomalous morainal drainages. Most rivers catch water from the upland and erode downhill in a dendritic pattern, tiny tributaries linking up to make bigger ones like the veins in a leaf. But the Calumet-area drainage follows long, looping courses parallel to the lake around sand spurs deposited by the receding Lake Chicago.
We pause in the shade of a huge overhanging cottonwood to look at the catkins hanging down like ornaments from a young poplar.
Downstream the muddy waters are being aerated by a series of man-made waterfalls, an attempt by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to resuscitate the waters fouled by effluents from the sewage treatment plant. Toxic ammonium levels caused by heavy industrial loading at the plant are discharged into the river and oxidized to nitrates, depleting the amount of oxygen available to living things. These Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration stations apparently work well, adding another anomaly to this manhandled river system.
The rutted trail that runs along the river may be where 135th Street was supposed to go had the development plan worked out. It traces a path through a wet prairie teeming with life, occasional stereo speakers, lost boots, and tires.
“Flicker!” Friscia points to a small stand of poplars ahead.
Cynthia sets up the scope. The children mutter, “Where? Where?” and search through the dappled branches.
“I see it. It’s a woodpecker.”
Friscia had hopes a few years back that the city or the state or the Department of Conservation or the United Nations might buy this piece of land, throw a fence around it, patrol it, stop trucks from dumping. The landholders were saddled with a loser, a tax liability with no future. Then Mayor Daley started making noises about building an airport near the site and hopes for a nature preserve vanished. But with the airport project abandoned, and the woods leafing out, and the migrating birds making every day an adventure, hope is sprouting up again between the garbage piles.
Carver has signed up with the Mighty Acorns, a joint project of the Nature Conservancy and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, to take school kids into the wild to learn science and ecology through stewardship activities in natural areas. Mighty Acorns supplies buses and adult docents to accompany the students on their explorations. The Chicago pilot program got under way last fall and has put hundreds of Chicago schoolchildren into prairies and woodlands from Somme Prairie to Spears Woods. Carver has several classes scheduled to begin work at the Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve.
Diane Reckless works for the Nature Conservancy and has tended the Mighty Acorns project from its germination. She’s anxious to get into Beaubien Woods, but thinks the abandoned strip has a lot to offer. “Not only as wonderful habitat for birds and animals and prairie plants, but because it’s part of the neighborhood. Part of what we hope to teach is a sense of connection to the land. Part of the Mighty Acorns is about social studies, how and why areas become wastelands, degraded and unavailable to communities. And how they can be reclaimed through stewardship and study.”
“Look. Look.” Friscia points to a bird whose name I thought my brother had made up for me, a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
“I don’t see no yellow.”
I couldn’t see yellow either.
When we cross over a tiny drainage creek, Margaret Jackson, the homeroom teacher, sinks her foot deep in the mud. “Worse things have happened,” she says. “I’ll clean it off later.”
Friscia says she’s seen crayfish in this creek, and this makes me glad because decapods are not pollution tolerant. Hoping to see one, I walk through the tall skeletons of last year’s goldenrod and poke around in a riffle. The water is clear, with leaf litter along the edges. An isopod scurries away, an aquatic cousin of the terrestrial sow bug. Not a decapod, but not a bad sign. Except for the growl from the dump and the background rumble of I-94, it is peaceful here. I realize I’m sitting on the rusting carcass of a spring bed frame, thoroughly commingled with the grasses and weeds.
I find out later that Altgeld Gardens and this strip of land were once the dump for Pullman Standard. This woods sits on garbage. Across the river is garbage. Across the highway is garbage. And to the north is sewage. Friscia and Cynthia, and Diane, Shavonna, Phillip, and Jackson are building their hopes on garbage. They are rethinking this place, renaming this garbage dump. Maybe Carver’s Wood and Nature Preserve. It’s like calling a bird a rock dove when others see only a pigeon.