Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spring Beauty

In 1833, Charles Butler rode along the only road that once ran through Hyde Park--the road that ran from Detroit, around the bottom of the lake to Fort Dearborn at the river mouth. Somewhere around Hyde Park, he reacted: "On my left lay the prairie, bounded only by the distant horizon like a vast expanse of ocean; on my right, in the summer stillness, lay Lake Michigan. I had never seen anything more beautiful or captivating in nature. There was an entire absence of animal life, nothing visible in the way of human habitation." (As Others See Chicago, p. 41). A day or so before, he had crossed the Little Calumet River in Indiana, a land "low and marshy" with some  groves where the "naked" Pottawatomies were camped.

On April 10, I too walked through a grove along the Little Calumet,thanks to the National Park Service, which has conserved a two mile stretch. It's a patch among the fields called the Heron Rookery. When I first went there, it was indeed, full of herons, who fished the fast moving stream to feed their young. But as time has gone on, the herons have disappeared, but still every spring, the Heron Rookery bursts forth with spring wild flowers. It cycles through stages across the month of April--blood root, hepatica, rue anemone, trout lilies, Dutchman's breeches, four kinds of trillium, and wild geraniums. Every visit is different.

If you hit the cycles at just the right time, it seems to be a elven forest--spindly trees in a mist of green--the first possible showing of leaves. The path rolls across the sand shore--every year, following a different route because the swift flowing water gouges through the sand ridges with every flood. And on the ground, a carpet of white. This year on April 10, I hit the spring beauty, hepatica, rue anemone, trout lily, dutchman's breeches phase--with just a hint of mayapples. The carpet of white is more delicate for them. The trillium phase is bolder--Grandiflora, Nodding trillium with their large white faces and the narrow flames of Wake Robin and the unusual yellow trillium.

Still, I got to see hundreds of my favorites.

Dutchman's Breeches


Trout Lily (the unusual white and the more common yellow)

Once upon on a time, I could have seen them all in Hyde Park. It too was an area of sand ridges, marshy swales, and streams etching their meandering way through the sand to the lake. In 1868, Paul Cornell had set about creating his parks--Washington, Jackson, and the Midway Plaisance--and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to create a landscape that would please the Easterners flooding into the new city. Olmsted looked at the future Hyde Park and despaired. Chicago was "low, flat, miry, and forlorn, with a bleak surface, arid soil, and exposure to harsh and frigid gusts of wind." (Chicago Gardens: The Early History, p. 2)

The traditional plant life of the East had no luck here. Farmers tried and failed because the sandy soil of the ridges drained so fast, the demanding crops died for lack of moisture and lack of nutrients. Gardeners still despair when starting to grow a traditional garden in Hyde Park dirt. The layer of oak leaves in what groves there were left only a narrow band of topsoil that was acidic and the sandy silt holds neither water nor nutrients. Lots of topsoil and compost get poured into the dooryards to produce the tulips and daffodils that blaze forth now in April.

But as late as 1890, Spring Beauty itself still came to Hyde Park. The Midway Plaisance was still a marshy, sandy, place. In Sweet Clover: A Romance of the White City, Clover rides with her future beau in a carriage down the Plaisance: "Birds glided noiselessly among the trees that lined each side of the driveway. Grassy fields stretched away in level tranquil monotony in all directions." Clover in laments several times that her girlhood of picking wildflowers throughout Hyde Park is gone with the wildflowers, which have disappeared under buildings and pavement.

I'm glad that the National Park Service has preserved a sliver of this out in Indiana.

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