In the mid-90s, I had the privilege of art directing two local publications: Chicago Wilderness Magazine and Chicagoland Gardening Magazine. Being an amateur naturalist, these two projects could not have been a better fit for my interests. The constant editorial and design saturation of the projects spurred me on to become a passionate observer of the natural areas around me.
At the time, we lived up against a forest preserve in the western suburb of Winfield. Every spare moment was spent tromping through the woods and meadows bird watching and taking note of every wildflower and its season. I illustrated countless birds, flowers and natural found objects. Those 30+ acres were the ultimate back yard observatory.
Then we moved to Chicago in 2001. Though excited about our new city life, I desperately missed my little wilderness. Gradually I became too busy with children, freelance work and restoring an old house to make the concerted effort to find forest preserves for hiking. Also, I didn't feel the sense of safety in the urban wilderness near Chicago as I had in Winfield. The few times that I did go hiking, I noticed evidence of unfavorable and destructive activity: beer cans, whiskey bottles and spray painted trees.
I was also saddened to see that many of the nearby forest preserves were full of construction debris, trash and invasive plants and shrubs. There didn't seem to be any sign of stewardship or community concern for the urban wild places.
Fast forward to 2009 when my family moved to River Forest. My curiosity got the best of me and I just had to go check out Thatcher Woods. To my surprise, I discovered that the section south of the Metra line is a little gem brimming with wildflowers and is well cared for and loved by local stewards. Though there's still evidence that some people don't appreciate the beauty of our woods and consider it a dumping ground, I was overjoyed to run into a group of volunteers last weekend pulling up mustard plants and picking up trash.
My daughter Miika and I joined them for a little while pulling up our own pile of mustard. Our goal that day was to go bird watching, so we continued on into the woods. To our pleasure, we spotted dozens of palm warblers, a Baltimore oriole, wood ducks and a red-tailed hawk. Down by the marsh we stumbled upon a pair of common mallards and witnessed the female laying an egg right before our very eyes.
We only had one hour to explore, but it was a rich and wonderful moment that I don't think my daughter will ever forget. May is the most magical time to go to the woods. The poison ivy and mosquitoes are not in full force yet. The leaves are not entirely hiding the migratory birds that only pass through in May. And the wildflower show is simply stunning.
So, if you have a little time to spare, take a friend and go! Grab your binoculars and a few bags for picking up trash. There's a wonderland west of the sidewalks and streets of River Forest. You only have to step about 50 yards into the woods for the sounds of the town to get swallowed up in the trees. The trees also block the wind and rain, making a wet, chilly day tolerable. Listen for the laughing nuthatches and look around at the carpet of May apples, toad shade, jack-in-the-pulpits, yellow violets, periwinkle, ginger, spring beauties, Virginia bluebells and so much more.
We have a priceless treasure right outside our doors just waiting to be discovered.