Wildness As an Aesthetic

Most of the time I receive wonderful unsolicited feedback about the dune from people who feel their lives are enriched, their days made brighter, that the dune gives them a destination for bird watching, a spot for photography or a place for deep contemplation and spiritual transitions.  Many individuals report they pick up trash regularly, walk by daily, are curious about what is in bloom, and admire the dragonflies.  Others are amazed by the variety of life, the disjunct plants (cactus anyone?) the changes from year to year, if not week to week. Thousands have volunteered (Yes, I have counted!)

There are various reasons that a few people don’t react well to the dune.  Mostly, negative responses result from a different aesthetic, a different notion of what a beach is, wrapped up with memories of how this beach used to be.  At one time, there was lawn grass on level ground that extended to the sidewalk that divides the grass from the beach.  The beach was sandy and flat and appeared sterile (although of course it wasn’t.) The entire beach was maintained then, as the “conventional” areas of Loyola Beach still are today, by a beach “sanitizer”, a machine that is driven along the beach and sifts the sand to get rid of trash, cigarette butts, etc.  It also flattens the sand and removes rocks.  Flat broad beaches are naturally created by tides.  This creates a beach that matches our expectations from TV or the movies or childhood vacations, big broad oceanfront beaches that are swept by tides every day.

/1937 aerial photo

We do not have tides on the Great Lakes (technically we do, but they are only 2-3 inches and not noticeable).  Great Lakes beaches can be broad, but not on our side of Lake Michigan.  The littoral drift brings sand south along the west side of the Lake (Wisconsin and Illinois) and up the east side, depositing sand on the beaches of Indiana and Michigan.  That is why the dunes in Indiana and Michigan are so tall and the ones in Illinois are not.  It also means that there are not many natural beaches on this side of Lake Michigan.  In order to create wider beaches, many municipalities as well as private land owners, put out piers or groins to trap this sand before it can make its way around to the other side of the Lake.  Loyola Park has a pier, steel sheet piling, and several concrete groins.  You can see from the aerial photo of 1937 (seen above) that we have gone from no sand to a good amount of sandy beach.  Now part of that is due to the drop in Lake Michigan levels since then. But part of it is also that the groins have performed as intended. You can also see the development of the tamer aesthetic when flat lawn grass abuts a sidewalk with water on the other side.

Great Lakes shorelines are not naturally like that.  There are no big runs of sand for miles and miles.  There are undulating drifts of plants that grow down to the water and create pockets of hidden beaches.  There are back dunes vegetated like prairies or savannahs.  There are massive food-creating segments that have given us the blueberry and frog legs. To celebrate the natural Great Lakes shore is a much more intimate, subtle, private experience.  Although the classic ocean-shore experience of rows of people laying on blankets in the sun can be artificially recreated, Great Lakes shore-goers instinctively don’t choose that.  They choose the hidden spots behind dune grass or surrounded on three sides by vegetation and the fourth side opens to water.  They run down to the water and retreat under trees to protect themselves from the blazing sun.

It sometimes takes a while for aesthetics to develop or change.  A great part of that change is education.  Education can be in form of familiarity, it can be intellectualized, we can learn what function is being performed and how we all fit together.  It can also be true that we are just happier near a bit of wildness.

 

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Our Native Tumbleweed

Our Native Tumbleweed

A common plant found on Lake Michigan dunes is a tumbleweed.  It has one of the more colorful common names, Winged Pigweed, and the Latin name is Cycloloma atriplicifolium. It is the sole species of its genus and is unrelated to the iconic tumbleweeds out west which are surprisingly not actually native.

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This year and last, Winged Pigweed is most visible growing in the newest erosion control area.  They grow in a round mound, green and lushly distinctive in the summer compared to the sparsely-spaced and spiky grasses.

Tumbleweeds are not one species or even one genus. The word tumbleweed describes a functional, behavioral aspect of any plant that “tumbles”.  Tumbling provides for seed distribution.  This is how it happens.  The plant dries out, breaks off at the root and, because it is dry, light weight, and round-ish the wind can catch it and move it.  The seeds themselves are not light enough to be windblown, but when the entire plant is blown by the wind the seed may be widely disseminated although the seed is neither light enough nor aerodynamic enough to be moved on its own.  As a group, plants that behave like this when they dry out can be aggressive. Just this year there was a building in California that was literally buried in the non-native sort of tumbleweed.

The Winged Pigweed is an annual, meaning that it grows from seed every year.  It is often as wide as it is tall.  It has a single stem, which, when it dies and dries out in the fall will snap, allowing the plant to blow around like a tumbleweed.  Some years you will see them all pushed up against the dune fence.

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Winged pigweed grows well on disturbed sand.  The plant is generally from west of the Mississippi, but due to its preference for disturbed ground it has spread widely on the Continent.  Because sand dunes would have always provided ideal habitat, it is believed to have been native to Lake Michigan dunes.  Conjecture is that it was always found along our beach but that is not known for sure.  We have never intentionally planted it nor seeded it; it arrived on its own with a little help from the wind. We’re happy to have it here!

2017 in Review – Growth

2017 in Review – Growth

In summing up 2017 on the dune, it didn’t seem an inspiring year.  I was ill at the beginning and my work took me travelling all fall.  But it wasn’t about me.  Plants grew.  Birds nested.  The shoreline was protected.  Dune life went on just like anywhere.  So let’s see what I mean.

We didn’t have extensive plantings but there was growth.  The cottonwoods have gotten tall enough that there is now vertical interest in the landscape.  Cottonwoods are dune builders and belong there.  We do try to limit them, and did dig out several.  Little bluestem that we had seeded several years ago is now visible and the fall/winter colors have red mixed with the yellow and brown.  I think it is the best year ever for fall color.

Three species of birds nested last year.  It is still a difficult place to nest due to dogs and fireworks.  Two of the nesting species are ground nesters and loose dogs like to go look.  One tiny nest was in a small cottonwood.  The fireworks on July 4th are very difficult for nesting birds.  Many revelers see the dune as “empty” and thus the perfect place to launch fireworks.  We know how full of life this “empty” area truly is!

The grasses planted to control erosion are controlling erosion.  They have gathered about a foot of sand a year in height and widened out a bit.  This has kept the sand on the beach and out of the playground, ballfields and lawn grass areas. Not only does the grass keep sand from blowing in from the beach, it has kept the sand from being washed back into the lake.  During storms, particularly at the north end of the strip (by the ballfields) and the north end of the dune restoration, waves came up into the grasses and would have washed the beach away were the deep roots of the grass not holding the sand.

The plant life is becoming more robust.  We monitor seven species that are of interest to the State of Illinois and Federally.  Monitoring consists of a yearly count and description of any management efforts undertaken.  There are 48 native species that live on the dune.  On a scale of one to ten they average a rarity of 6.  This is a good number indicating that it is a spot that is viable as a natural area.

We had a few small problems with vandalism and littering which is not new. But, as every year, our neighbors are very generous and pick up trash and report and/or try to repair the things vandalized.  Even more gratifying was the outpouring (literally) of those who helped water the jack pines and the 350 new plants in the bird and butterfly garden.

 

Pokémon, Programs and Plants: 2016 in Review

Pokémon, Programs and Plants: 2016 in Review

Water is Life

marram erosion control

Marram Grass

2016 was a busy and challenging year at the dune restoration. Plants were planted, seeds were seeded. Weeds were weeded.  We survived being popular in Pokémon Go and gained many new friends.  We also gained a roped path.  A new fence was installed.  Two other strips of marram grass were planted and the fence was removed on all of the older strips. Over a hundred trees were planted in the park and we started to have Nature Center activities such as bird watching, nature walks and Oak-tober.

In the dune area alone, volunteers planted 500 little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) plugs and 500 butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) plugs.  Little bluestem will, hopefully, over time out-compete some invasive species such as black medick and the cool-season grasses.  Butterfly weed is in the milkweed family and will provide food for many butterflies and hosting for the larvae of monarch (Danaus plexippus) and queen (Danaus gilippus) butterflies.  Butterfly weed will bloom in June or early July with long-lasting orange flowers. This will give a big splash of color at a time when not much else is blooming.  Other seeds were planted including nearly 100 prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa).

pokemon-players

Photo Nikki Danielle

During the Pokémon Go craze, Pratt Beach (Tobey Prinz Beach Park) was, surprisingly, the most popular venue in Chicago.  The genesis of the popularity started before Pokémon Go. Niantic, the company that created Pokémon Go, had a previous geo-caching game called Ingress which was much less popular. Individuals could propose spots for the game.  Some Rogers Parkians proposed seven spots, all in the Pratt area.  One of them was called “Buddha Head” and was the location of the temporary art installation by Ten Thousand Ripples.  That art installation was removed a few years ago, but that location and six others were incorporated into the new game Pokémon Go. Two to three hundred people per night were visiting the pier and dune restoration area with different people coming all of the time. This small area started to suffer from too much love.  Many neighbors (maybe you!) kindly asked the players to stay on the paths, explaining that it was too much traffic for such a small space.  Some neighbors and players created a crew to clean up at the end of each evening.  In the end only political pressure by our State Representative, Kelly Cassidy, proved enough to get the one spot actually in the Dunes shut down.

There is now a new perimeter fence and a new roped path.  The roped path was triggered by the Pokémon Go players.  They had created so many informal “paths” that when asked to stay on the path, they responded that they were on one!  The Park District was very responsive and had the ropes added to narrow the “official” path (the path had increased to three times what it is now) immediately after they saw the need.  I find the roped path gives a different perspective.  When I am on it, the area seems bigger than before; it is an optical illusion I didn’t expect.  I expected it to seem smaller.

The perimeter fence was also in need of replacement. We had replaced the plastic ties several times. The fence was being buried in sand in some areas and was bent in ways that were hard to undo in others.  The Pokémon Go players were walking over it in spots because they could, it was that buried. The fence was completely replaced. It had been in service for over ten years.  Hopefully, after the next ten, there will be no need for a fence at all.

Two more areas of marram grass (Ammophila breviligulata) were planted.  One, in Loyola Park proper, makes the connection between the patch planted around the comfort station and the strip closest to the dune. It is on the west side of the sidewalk and covers the area where sand had blown into the park.  The other patch is at Helen Doria Beach at the Columbia Street street-end.  Invasive species were removed and the marram grass planted to make a nice entrance to the beach.  As has happened with previous plantings, the grass will naturalize, fill in and make a softer edge. The real point of these plantings though, is to keep the sand from moving into the park and/or up the street.

Over a hundred new trees have been planted in the park! It seems as if many of them are maples.  We will know more come spring. The trees were planted to replace the ones that came down in the storm in 2015 and the trees that have been killed due to the emerald ash borer.  The Park will be a very different looking place in a few years. There is some interest by volunteers to map all of the trees in the Park this spring.

We started nature programming.  It is all with volunteer help.  We had several beginning bird watching mornings, three nature walks and we culminated by hosting an event called Oak-tober to celebrate the black oaks that are at Leone Park.  This is all in addition to the dune tours held at each workday. We are working on establishing a nature center in Leone Park as the building is currently underused.

All in all, it was a very busy year.  The upcoming year should bring us more learning opportunities and the enjoyment of our natural world.

Oh Dear, Deer!

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Photo by Christopher Jobson

 

As you can see from the photo, deer have visited the dune.  There isn’t a lot of research about deer in dunes, but there is some.  White tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, are common in dune areas on the oceans as well as all along the Great Lakes.  Some State Parks have even had hunts to cull the deer, although it is controversial.  Deer create both beneficial and damaging impacts to dunes.  The deer walking through cause no direct impact from trampling.  They may make small, narrow paths but these paths are much less damaging than human-made paths or human/deer shared paths.

The beneficial impacts come in a couple of ways.  Deer scat (droppings) provide appropriate fungi for pine trees.  It is a complicated world in which, according to research, pine seedlings don’t necessarily sprout in areas with the appropriate fungi that help them grow.  Many plants need fungi to help them gather or assimilate nutrients and pine trees are one of them.  Deer, by passing through and leaving their scat, distribute the fungi that aid pine trees.

Another way they are beneficial is by browsing.  Some plants–a common example would be lawn grass– do better if there is some cutting, whether by lawn mower or deer browse.  A small amount of pruning in this way can trigger a plant to more robust growth.  Deer have not been let in on the need for delicacy and browse on whatever they think tastes good.  This makes deer browse also the downside of deer visiting the dune area.  There just isn’t enough space for a resident deer without them eating everything in sight.

It is just as well that the deer was merely passing through.  But, where did it come from and where was it going?  Deer have been spotted in Loyola Park before (even by me).  They also have been found grazing in the courtyard of a condo building.  At the time the theory was that the deer travelled down the Metra tracks to Calvary Cemetery between Chicago and Evanston.  From there they may have walked down Sheridan Road in the middle of the night when there wasn’t any traffic.  This same theory could be true this time.  Those deer were removed, but where did this deer go?

An alternative thought is one I heard concerning moose.  In the course of my job I was informed that pregnant moose sometimes take a notion to go for a swim.  I kid you not.  This is a known phenomenon at Isle Royale National Park.  Since deer and moose are in the same family, perhaps our deer was pregnant and took a notion to swim, either from Evanston or on the return trip.  Because this deer was not seen, as far as I know, only the tracks as recorded in the photo.

My feelings are mixed.  My initial response was joy.  I was glad that life of whatever kind was returning to the dune, just as I was happy about nesting birds and rabbits.  Upon reflection, these feelings were tempered by relief that the deer had moved along as the space just isn’t large enough to host even one deer, since they would just do too much damage to the plant life, as they do in other natural areas with no natural predators.

Bibliography:

Dune Environment Influences on a Rare Great Lakes Thistle: An Investigation in Ottawa County Parks’ Rosy Mound Natural Area FYRES: Dunes Research Report #9 May 2014  Department of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies Calvin College Grand Rapids, Michigan by Natasha Strydhorst, Carolina Angulo, Anna Camilleri, Ethan DeVries, and Anna Selles

Ectomycorrhizal ecology under primary succession on coastal sand dunes: interactions involving Pinus contorta, suilloid fungi and deer. Ashkannejhad S, Horton TR. USDA Forest Service, Plumas National Forest, 875 Mitchell Ave, Oroville, CA 95966, USA.

 

Winter Outcome 2015-2016

Dunes are functioning as they should.  Last year, our little area actually gained sand.  It is surprising because the Lake levels are higher than they had been and many other City beaches have been battered and badly eroded.  Look no further than the street-end beaches farther north in Rogers Park or the short stretch between Albion and Columbia for examples.  The dune restoration area was protected more as a function of the direction of the wind and the existence of the pier than anything else.

This year the wind has shifted and we have seen more storms come straight from the east than the northeast.  The northeast winds actually bring us sand and the pier and the plants help stop its movement and hold it in place.  The wind coming from the east does not bring in extra sand from the rest of the beach as nor’easters do, nor is sand caught by the pier.

What you see is that the shoreline is battered by waves and the sand is washed out, at least temporarily, into the Lake.  Where the dune grasses grow, the shoreline is protected.  As you can see in the photos, the grasses have held sand while sand has washed away all around them.  These grasses have roots that may go as far as 15 feet down.  They also spread laterally, or sideways, so that the sand is held by a network of interconnecting roots.  Where the roots don’t exist, the sand washes away.

The grasses can’t withstand everything; they are after all only plants.  Huge, prolonged wave action would eventually damage or destroy them.  They are, however, remarkably tough and can withstand strong storms such as those we have had this past winter, the strongest since Hurricane Sandy.

There are two grasses at play here.  One, the shorter of the two, is called Marram grass or American Sea Grass.  It is so often used to protect shorelines that on Cape Cod there are boardwalks built to go over the grass and huge fines for walking through it.  This grass and the dunes it builds are extremely important for protection against hurricanes there.  It is the same grass used in the erosion control project in Loyola Park, where it also does double-duty as protection from water erosion and not just wind erosion. Here is Marram grass thriving in Loyola Park.

marram erosion control

The second grass, called Sand Reed, has flower stalks as tall as eight feet. It is the grass you see in the following two photos.  It was seeded here about a dozen years ago.  The  photo below is the sand reed approximately ten years ago when the clump was just small.

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The next photo is from this winter. The same clump is in the foreground a little to the left this time. Those dozen years have been crucial for developing the root network. Although the grass is dormant for the winter and pretty beat up by wind and waves, the roots continue to do their work.  Next year the grass will be no worse for wear and will grow new leaves and flower stalks with no memory of the storms. You can see that this grass is working to hold the beach in place just as we had envisioned several years ago and will continue to protect the beach, the park and the community for as long as it is there.

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At Long Last Signs

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Five years ago we requested signs.  The Chicago Park District set aside some money.  Alderman Joe Moore increased the money so we could have another sign.  Bureaucracy happened.  Staff came and went. Contractors changed.  But at long last, WE HAVE SIGNS!  It makes the dunes seem legitimate and not just a pile of weeds.  They explain about the migration.  They give a brief description of the history.  They identify some of the iconic plants for a dune habitat.  They highlight the work of volunteers that attend monthly workdays in order to remove invasive species.  The point out that 300+ species of birds migrate through Chicago and along the coast of Lake Michigan (It is the second longest flyway between the Appalachians and the Rockies- the Mississippi River is the longest).  Areas such as this offer resting, feeding and occasionally nesting for migrating birds. Snow buntings are due in next month and feast on the small seeds from the grasses.  The signs may keep flower pickers from denuding the area by making it seem official and not just waste land with some weeds.

There will still be a need for smaller signs to post the dates and times of work days and contacts for the work days.