The Chicago Wilderness Workday
By Peter Friederici
Hungry for a connection with the land and with each other, people are discovering the rich shared culture of volunteer habitat restoration.
Photo: Chip Williams
It was only three or four years ago that Pat Hayes began volunteering for the Orland Grassland restoration project. She’d been searching for a way to give something back to her southwest suburban community of Orland Park, so she responded to an ad for volunteers. A 55-year-old civil servant who lives in a manicured subdivision, Hayes suddenly found herself crouched in the middle of a 900-acre rolling grassland, sawing down brush from around native bur oaks.
“It was a very personal experience of connecting to nature,” she recalls. “When I got home, I was a mess. My husband said, ‘you’re glowing.’ I was so happy. I had things hanging out of my hair, soot from the brushpile, and he said, ‘you look beautiful.’”
Hayes continued to come to the “workdays,” and before long she was learning how to identify native plants that she hadn’t even known existed. “I have always filled my life with things that are enriching,” she says, “but I’ve never found anything that grabs me like this.” In part that was due to the project’s audacious scale — there aren’t many places where nearly a thousand acres of contiguous prairie and oak savanna can be restored in a suburban setting — but it was also due to a newfound sense of common purpose.
“I recognized that something I’d thought was unique to me winds its way through other people, too,” she says. “We have a wide range of people involved in this. The common thread is that people love the natural environment, but also have a strong ambition to make it healthy again.”
Power of the Masses
Every weekend of the year, and on many weekdays, Hayes’ experience repeats itself hundreds of times across the Chicago Wilderness region. Volunteers fan out into natural areas to cut brush and burn it, to collect seeds, to monitor birds or frogs or butterflies, even to perform controlled burns, and to do the rest of the activities essential to the survival of native ecosystems in the midst of a great metropolis. Since volunteers began to do this kind of work about 30 years ago, they have restored thousands of acres. Once-dismal places overgrown with invasive brush have become open and sunny, full of native wildflowers and appreciative people.
Like streams and flyways, a vibrant subculture
Photo: The Field Museum, GN90578_104D, John Weinstein
In Lake County, Illinois, alone, some 2,300 volunteers donated more than 16,000 hours to stewardship projects in the 2005 – 2006 season. Many of them were one-timers from high schools or other large groups. A relative handful are the hardcore who donate hundreds of hours a year. And quite a few lie somewhere between those two extremes. No one has a complete tally of how many volunteers work in the region as a whole, but organizers agree that the total number is in the thousands. At least 35 groups actively restore habitat across northeastern Illinois alone, according to The Nature Conservancy’s Volunteer Stewardship Network, which facilitates cooperation between many groups.
This multifaceted community of restoration volunteers has fostered a vibrant subculture that, as much as streams and flyways and weather patterns, binds the area’s diverse mosaic of natural areas amid a welter of human enterprise. In many ways, it is what has put Chicago Wilderness on the map.
Photo: Chip Williams
It’s no mystery why volunteerism has taken root as one of the central means of accomplishing restoration in the Chicago Wilderness area. The recently released Chicago Wilderness Report Card gave C and D grades to the majority of the region’s 300,000 acres of natural areas, spread over 11 counties. Clearly, a great deal of work needs to be done — far more than can currently be handled by professional land managers alone. “There’s no way that we could have gotten the work done over the last 10 or 15 years in natural areas without the volunteers,” says Cynthia Vasquez, Volunteer Department Manager at Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
It’s fortunate, then, that so many people live near those natural areas — and that an ever-growing number of them acknowledge that those places do not exist in isolation from the people who enjoy them. “Because I’m interested in nature, it’s almost like an obligation or a personal responsibility to help these natural areas,” says Tom Vanderpoel, who has worked on restoration projects with Citizens for Conservation around Barrington, Illinois, for more than 20 years.
The work isn’t someone else’s job —
Rick Simkin came to the North Branch Restoration Project not long after attending a party where he was decrying the environmental problems wracking the planet. “Well, what are you doing about it?” someone asked him. It was a good question. Simkin realized that all he was doing was worrying, and that it was not enough. He began volunteering to clear brush and immediately began to feel better.
On one of Simkin’s first outings he saw a twelve-year-old boy among the volunteers. “He was a very withdrawn kid,” he says, “but somebody handed him a saw and told him to cut down a tree. It was an adult job, and it was probably the first time he’d ever been given an adult responsibility. He did a good job at it.”
Photo: Chip Williams
Taking responsibility is one of the central transformations at the core of restoration. The work isn’t someone else’s job — not the professionals’, not the neighbors’. It's everyone’s. It’s personal. That opens a door, not only to feeling needed, but also to a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of ownership and personal connection.
“I really like knowing that we’re making a difference,” says Christiane Rey, site steward at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve in suburban Northbrook. She grew up in Belgium, where, she says, there is no such tradition of public lands management. “I had no idea you could work on a piece of land and make it better until I got here. It is so good knowing that you can be a steward of the land, that you can have a gentle, good relationship with it. It’s reciprocal — you’re doing good for the land and the land is doing good for you.”
The Workday Ritual
Photo: Joe Nowak
At the beginning of each workday, volunteers meet at a parking area or trailhead. The tools are laid out: well-oiled loppers and gleaming saws if it’s a brush-cutting workday, plastic or paper bags if the mission is to collect native seeds. The participants circle up and introduce themselves. Most restoration groups rely on a core group of experienced volunteers, but often there’s a mix of veterans and novices, young and old, residents from just down the street and those from farther afield.
The site steward coordinates the day. Many of the region’s natural areas have these site stewards, volunteers themselves who have taken a leadership role at a preserve. In most cases, they began as regular volunteers. Some have done this work for more than 20 years and are considered the go-to experts on the ecology of their site. They’ve walked the land thousands of times, made notes and maps with observations and trends from each season, and they’ve spent time with Forest Preserve District staff or other landowners helping to craft management plans for the site.
The steward makes the fine-scale decisions about what needs to be done and where, and lays out the goals of the day’s work. Maybe it’s to clear invasive buckthorn and gray dogwood from an acre of oak savanna, or to yank garlic mustard from a woodland.
Photo: Carol Freeman
Then it’s time to walk to the work area. Even a short stroll into a woods or prairie creates a sense of occasion. Somebody points something out — a seedling bur oak, or a brown thrasher, or a blooming prairie blazing star — and suddenly a group of strangers and friends who have walked, biked, or driven here separately pulls together.
Basic instruction continues: how best to wield the loppers, how to identify dogwood. Some is more nuanced: how the decision was made to prioritize this site over another. Some is pleasingly physical: how to build a brushpile so it will burn most effectively, or how to run your hand, lightly, up a stalk of Kalm’s brome so that most, but not all, of the ripe seeds come off. Surrounded by experienced volunteers, initiates discover new skills, as well as a capacity to be enriched in unexpected ways by nature.
The teaching bug is contagious. Rebecca Blazer is one of the organizers of a group of 20- and 30-somethings who meet once a month for workdays at Somme Prairie Grove and other sites. She recounts how she heard one volunteer who’d only worked twice give a detailed account of why buckthorn was a problem. “I thought: my work is done,” she jokes.
Satisfaction, Friendship, Love
While volunteers cite the satisfaction of helping to heal the land as a main compensation for their work — as well as major fringe benefits such as fresh air, exercise, a warm brushpile fire on a crisp fall day, hands-on education in natural history, and simply being in nature — for many, the community culture of the volunteer group is at least as important. Pat Hayes has found some of her greatest satisfaction in the “human ecology” of volunteer work. “It’s a great environment,” she says. “We have a lot of camaraderie on our workdays.”
Photo: Carol Freeman
Even those who profess to love being out in nature alone tend to enjoy the social interactions. “When I’m stewarding, I’m there to help others do the job,” says Dave Carson, a site steward at Orland Grassland. “We’re developing close relationships, and really enjoy one another’s company.”
At least two couples have gotten engaged following a courtship over workdays. One penned a song about their romance called “The Brush Pile of Love.”
“We have conversations on everything from current events to metaphysics to books we’ve read,” says Rebecca Grill, natural areas coordinator for the Park District of Highland Park. “When people get together, they feel they’re part of something larger than themselves.”
Good site stewards make sure their volunteers know how their efforts fit into the larger picture, as a matter of both education and inspiration. “It was always kind of neat when the site steward would take us for a walk through the various parts of the preserve,” says Irene Miles, a former North Branch volunteer who wrote a master’s thesis on restoration volunteer culture. “We’d spend three hours pulling garlic mustard and then see how much more there was to do [in other parts of the preserve], and feel excited about getting back [to work].” In her thesis, Miles noted that the sense of working as a group was something that many volunteers pointed to as the greatest appeal of restoration work. It inspires people to get work done, especially when the work gets tough.
Restoration workdays offer endless occasions
Of course, hard work is itself a bond. Those who like it stick around. “Do you always work so hard?” a new recruit once asked volunteer Suzanne Koglin at the Orland Grassland. “Yes,” she replied, “we do.” He didn’t come back — but many others have. “It’s just not everyone’s cup of tea to work that hard,” says Roger Keller, a steward in the Palos Hills area who regularly bears scars on his arms from grappling with buckthorn and multiflora rose. (It’s worth noting that the intensity of the work is left up to the individual — with the proper pacing, 70-year-olds can do it.) “Many people would just rather write a check. But those who do want to work hard, they become like family.”
Rituals Become Traditions
A million bits of glue hold restoration groups together. At Orland Grassland, volunteers host two large community festivals each year: the “Welcome Back Bobolinks” celebration in spring, and “Autumn on the Grasslands.” There’s also a bonfire and potluck around Thanksgiving. Many restoration groups have such special events, which have played an important role in bringing the value of restoration work into the public eye.
But more important, probably, are the small rituals that take place every day. One volunteer always wears a particular hat, or a particular fire-resistant work shirt. The group always circles up for a bagel break and conversation. There’s always someone who brings a treat, such as heirloom apples grown in a backyard. These details matter — so much so that a member of a nascent restoration group in Indiana once made a point of checking what sort of bagels the North Branch volunteers ate on their workdays. Yet each group is different, too. The young-people’s group led by Rebecca Blazer, for example, meets on Saturday afternoons, rather than in the morning as most groups do. “We wanted to get people outside, but realized they’d want to sleep in on a weekend,” she says. Those workdays always close socially, with bratwurst, homemade desserts, and soy dogs and marshmallows roasted over a buckthorn fire.
Restoration workdays offer endless occasions for the sorts of small actions that bind people together without much forethought or artifice: working together, sharing tools and tips, comparing memories of the past and visions of the future. They are physical and intellectual, visceral and emotional. And volunteers such as Pat Hayes see it as more than just another opportunity to get involved. They believe the new culture can awaken the larger community to “a natural heritage people aren’t even aware they’re missing.” It’s not a bad way to spend the weekend, either.
Going to a Workday?
How to Find a Group
Decide when and where you want to work. Prefer a Saturday or Sunday morning? Want to see woods or prairie? Schedules and directions to workdays are posted on many Web sites, some of which are compiled here:
Still don't find listings near you? Search for your local conservation district or natural area online.
What to Wear and Bring
Old clothes! Long pants, long-sleeved shirt (suggested even in summer). Wear layers to remove as you warm up, and avoid polyester or nylon outer garb — sparks from a burning brushpile can easily burn a hole in your fleece.
What to Expect
Prepare for a spirited physical outdoor event, with experienced volunteers eager to share their knowledge. Activities are tailored to your level of experience: