Great Books of the Chicago Wilderness
Curl up with sandhill cranes, charging bison, and daring botanists this winter.
One of the blessings of having rare nature in and around the great metropolis is that there have been many talented people here to write about it. Chicago WILDERNESS has compiled a list of some of the best books about Chicago-region conservation and biodiversity, focusing on the local and more recent. We chose stories we hope will keep you turning the page to devour another chapter in the epic saga of our wild lands, wild city, and wild people. So curl up beside the fire with a classic, and emerge this spring a better, smarter, and — dare we say? — more natural person.
Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field & Street
As one of the recent leaders of this region’s conservation movement and a hands-on explorer of its natural areas, Jerry Sullivan was authentically of that world, and he deftly translated his experience into words. Hunting for Frogs is a collection of first-person essays Sullivan produced over ten years for the Chicago Reader.
Readers may laugh out loud at the rollicking, personable stories — everything from transplanting ants to sniffing skunk cabbage. Sullivan gave serious lessons, too, but without lectures. He could illuminate some of the most important and complex conservation issues — fire, deer culling, brush removal, even the value of biodiversity itself — with a clever turn of phrase. In Sullivan’s essays, people from all parts of Chicagoland heard about others doing original and exciting work. They discovered that they were not alone in their passion, and it inspired many to do even more. The palpable feeling of community Sullivan helped create is one of the major reasons that the ambitious endeavor called Chicago Wilderness has been so successful.
— Laurel Ross
Reading the Landscape
May Theilgaard Watts
Imagine taking a nature hike guided by your cool, wise, favorite grandmother, through the very places where her university mentor, Henry Cowles, developed the field of ecology. Reading the Landscape takes us on field trips with May Watts, a storied Naperville naturalist with an irrepressible zest for discovering nature’s mechanisms up close. (The original work was expanded in 1975 as Reading the Landscape of America, with telling revisits back to the original sites and new trips to sites farther afield.) On trips to Chicago-area locales that include the Indiana Dunes, Mineral Springs Bog, and a northern Illinois farm field, Watts skips deftly from scholarly science to total play, teasing out the evolution of each place. Eloquent and witty, she peers through time, able to see the birth of a canyon in the puddle between two maidenhair ferns. Her creative premises and artful line drawings make the book utterly unique. To Watts’ eyes, every plant is a friend, and every rise of earth is a clue to some deeper mystery.
— Don Parker
Miracle Under the Oaks
William K. Stevens
Published ten years ago, Miracle received critical acclaim, with reviewers calling it “lively reading” and “a tour de force.” This thoughtful nonfiction account of discovery and empowerment explores the origins of the trailblazing restoration endeavor called the Prairie Project (which later became the North Branch Restoration Project). Its volunteers, many of them neither scientists nor land managers, discover an almost lost ecosystem and become expert plant taxonomists, skillful navigators of bureaucracy, and paragons of perseverance. That perseverance plays an especially big role when deer discover the rebounding native wildflowers and browse them all to death. This book recounts the amazing things that happen when people connect with nature and each other.
— Michelle Uting
Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes
J. Ronald Engel
A wonderful but sad book, Sacred Sands highlights the remarkable features of the Indiana Dunes and the struggles, begun in the early 1900s, to preserve them. Early leaders organized massive pageants with hundreds of performers (seen by as many as 40,000 spectators on one occasion) to publicize this unique and irreplaceable landscape. Well-known poets and artists lent their support. In the 1950s and 1960s, determined activists, including Dorothy Buell and Senator Paul Douglas, succeeded in preserving some of the land as a national park and some as a state park. Yet, despite the tremendous energy and community spirit of the diverse supporters, Engel tells us, over the years, thousands of acres were also lost to steel mills, power plants and harbors.
— Nancy Freehafer
Raising Kane: The Fox Chronicles
Ray Fox, aka Jim Phillips
Jim Phillips — known to many only as “The Fox” — was for 30 years the mysterious yet always benign activist voice of the Fox River and other local ecosystems. Under cover of night, he would plug drainpipes of illegal and unyielding polluters, or plant a company’s own sewage in its reception area to persuade its leaders to change. Raising Kane conveys The Fox’s exploits in vivid detail — sometimes more vivid than we might choose, considering that Phillips spent a good deal of time working around noxious waste and getting nervous to the point of nausea as he evaded security and police. Though rough and repetitive in spots and in very limited distribution, Raising Kane speaks with an honest, straightforward, often funny voice, and peers inside a fascinating and passionate double-life that for years those outside Phillips’ inner circle could only guess at.
— Don Parker
A Prairie Grove
Donald Culross Peattie
A Prairie Grove is an extraordinarily beautiful telling of the story of a rare patch of untouched land in northeastern Illinois — a site readers can visit today as The Grove in Glenview. Peattie packs his almost antique-sounding lyrical narrative with the triumphs and struggles of living beings that have passed through the oak grove since the glaciers. The author’s passion is palpable and contagious. He rejoices at the discovery of the Chicago Portage, which drew traffic away from the grove: “Greatness missed you, my oaks and my prairie; so you are still here…. So the depths are here, the green perspectives, the blue shadows, the hard tang of the goldenrod and the complaint of the wheeling hawks.”
— Rebecca Blazer
A Natural History of the Chicago Region
If you’ve ever wanted to submerge yourself in the full scope of nature in the Chicago region, dive in here. Readers will emerge with a more comprehensive knowledge of the breadth and history of our living organisms and ecosystems, and months or years down the road will still be chewing on intriguing morsels, such as a description of one of the last hunts for black bear within Chicago city limits in 1833 (it took place in prairies and woods “along the east bank of the [Chicago] river as far north as Madison or Randolph streets and a little way up nearly as far east as Clark Street”). Called “an epic work 17 years in the making,” Natural History combines such awe-inspiring historical accounts with the perspective of modern ecologists.
— Don Parker and Kenneth Mierzwa
The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History
Everything that relates to the Chicago River — geology, politics, culture, economics, science, engineering — finds its place in this history. Using pictures, maps, and detailed stories, Libby Hill leads us up from prehistory, stopping just short of Dave Matthews’ tour bus. Tales of the river’s wild inhabitants blend with amazing 19th-century engineering feats such as the straightening and reversing of the river and the lifting of entire buildings to accommodate sewers. The book ends on a hopeful note, detailing modern-day citizen efforts to transform what has been an open sewer into a clear stream hospitable to wildlife and human recreation.
— Nancy Freehafer
Other Great Reads
DUNE BOY: THE EARLY YEARS OF A NATURALIST
Edwin Way Teale
Dune Boy chronicles the outdoor childhood adventures in northwest Indiana dune country of this noted naturalist author of the mid-20th century. (Read our article on Teale.) — Catherine Bendowitz
THE SUBURBAN WILD
Potent observations of living with nature in the ’burbs will ring true, especially on the North Shore. (Read an excerpt.) — Don Parker
BY WILLOWAY BROOK: EXPLORING THE LANDSCAPE OF PRAYER
Beautiful seasonal images of The Morton Arboretum’s Schulenberg Prairie form a basis for meditations on permanence and change in life. (Read our review.) — Nancy Freehafer
Richard Carter and Carolyn Kenney
Personal essays about one man’s effort to bring the wilderness into urban life. Includes kayaking Northfield’s Skokie Lagoons. — Nancy Freehafer
NATURE’S METROPOLIS: CHICAGO AND THE GREAT WEST
Broad-shouldered history of Chicago, traces the ways in which the commodfication of nature created this modern city and its suburbs. — Nancy Freehafer
THE SUNFLOWER FOREST
Formative thinker digs deep into the philosophy of habitat restoration, including human motivations. (Read our interview with the author and a book excerpt.) — Don Parker
IN SERVICE OF THE WILD: RESTORING AND REINHABITING DAMAGED LAND
Connects conservationists’ work in places as far as India and as close as the Cook County forest preserves, suggesting “the proper and necessary vocation for all 21st century people.” — Nancy Freehafer
Just Outside the Region
GRASSLAND: THE HISTORY, BIOLOGY, POLITICS, AND PROMISE OF THE AMERICAN PRAIRIE
From the rise of the Rockies to the “buffalo commons” and a revolutionary agriculture based on perennials, Grassland will alter your thinking about prairies, and quite possibly your entire worldview. — Judy Pollock
A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC
This must-read, seminal book by “the father of modern ecology” contains groundbreaking essays on environmental ethics as well as often-whimsical vignettes and moral tales about Leopold’s land in Wisconsin, just north of Chicago Wilderness. — Nancy Freehafer
THE ORNITHOLOGY OF ILLINOIS
Descriptive text and species distribution lists recreate a lost landscape alive with prairie chickens, swallow-tailed kites, and common ravens. — Judy Pollock
AN ANNOTATED FLORA OF THE CHICAGO AREA
Herman S. Pepoon
Landscape maps anchor a detailed geography of our natural communities at the end of the 19th century, when common buckthorn was notable in only three places. — Judy Pollock
Enter the intellect of one of the shapers of the Midwest, who connected landscape design to the native world. (Read our guest essay.) — Don Parker
GEOLOGY UNDERFOOT IN ILLINOIS
Learn to understand a beach ridge or kame, and you’ll discover that Illinois isn’t really so flat. — Don Parker
Did we leave off your favorite book?
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