Blog Banner

An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog
Article Image

Gifts of the Urban Ecosystem


Guest Contribution by Jennifer McDaniel

 

While reading a book on the porch overlooking my small cluster of native plants, I finally witnessed what I'd been waiting for all summer: a lone monarch butterfly flitted liltingly from plant to plant, pressing her curved abdomen to the underside of a perfectly chosen broad green leaf. She was laying eggs.

I am sad to say that this is only the second monarch I've seen in my yard this summer. Granted I've been away from home a lot, but still I fear that the loss of habitat – both here in the Midwest and in its winter home of Mexico - will be the downfall of this seasonal scarlet-orange treat.

So the gift of a single insect and her tiny eggs seem even more precious. I reflect that perhaps I have done some small thing right. I planted native prairie plants at this house upon arrival seven years ago. And while some neighbors complain about my 'weed patch', I now have a well developed jungle of indigenous habitat where many species benefit.

It seems ironic that my prairie plants (I refer to them as mine as if they are my babies) should do so well and draw so much wildlife in an urban environment. And yet I see more wildlife at my Peoria home just blocks from major roads and interstates and a quarter mile from the cement desert of downtown hospital complexes. When I lived in rural Stark County, with my nearest neighbor a full mile away, I saw very little wildlife. Country life is not always what we think it is.

In fact, my prairie plants do better in the city than on the place that was once their natural home, Stark County. Ironically, the shelter and warmth of the city keeps my plants green-housed and sheltered from the blasting winter winds that we experienced in the country. Growing taller and thicker in my inner-city yard, the plants are almost unmanageable as they spill over the fence line. In Stark County, the poor plants, if they survived the bitter cold winter, had trouble tolerating the tiled and drained field that was my back yard. Water no longer sits on rural land, creating the seasonal wetland that many prairie plants rely on. Then add in the occasional rogue crop-duster or the herbicide and pesticide laced run-off that seemed to hit the edges of my yard, and I found myself in a losing battle. Yet here in Peoria, where a creek runs through my back yard, I have an oasis of wildlife. My plants have only enhanced the attraction of butterflies and insects, pesky little ground squirrels and rabbits... and also coyotes, Coopers hawks by the multi-generation, a pair of Red Tail hawks in a neighboring cottonwood, and Great Horned and Barred Owls.

Good habitat draws little critters. And while squirrels and rabbits are certainly pests they also draw predators who enrich the ecosystem.

Nearby homes complain about deer nipping off their garden plants and landscape bushes. For the past several years, a small family of Mallards has nested on the banks of our creek, and a Great Blue Heron hunts regularly in its waters. I've seen wild turkey clans march gaudily through the neighborhood as well as slinking foxes darting from plant cluster to bush as they sink into the depths of the creek ravine.

One summer, a young Red Tail dropped it's furry prey from marvelous heights, as they are known to do in order to stun an especially wriggly rabbit, and the little creature landed plop into the creek before my daughter's feet. She rescued the stunned and wet ball of fur, naming it Meteor before rehabilitating and setting it free. Mama Red Tail perched above this scene, harshly calling her disgust in losing a meal.

I mourned when I left my country home. The solitude and silence of that place is unique. I felt anxiety thinking of the cement that would surround me in the city. But there are ways of making any place a home, and for me that means a home in a verdant and bountiful ecosystem. Protecting our little creek and planting native forbs and grasses has been a large part of building this home. Of course, the milkweed plants volunteered themselves. Those I did not have to coax from seed. But I did my part, allowing them to grow and deftly transplanting a few young milkweed from sidewalk to garden. Now, I reap the benefit of hard work, becoming spiritually moved by the simple act of a butterfly laying a tiny, silvery egg on a leaf that will become her child's nursery. I recall many years ago, when my oldest was a wonder-filled three-year-old. She and I raised two monarch caterpillars, picking fresh milkweed each day, taking notes in a journal, and drawing pictures of the magical chrysalis wherein each caterpillar fulfilled its climactic destiny. My daughter named the two wondrous creatures Danaus and Banaus in a sing-songy rhyme of the butterfly's Latin moniker. And one day Danaus 'hatched' from her chrysalis, alighting upon my young child's soft hand. The two fresh, new beings- one human, one insect- sat with one another for over an hour in the green grass of an August day- the creature's wings flooding with life-pulsing fluid, my daughter's eyes flooded with an awesome love for her world.

I don't know what to call that dynamic- wherein a human understands without words that she is an integral part of the world, of this thing we call nature. But whatever it is, it keeps me yearning, and working for a place where more butterflies can safely lay a solitary egg on a single green leaf.



Please share this article with your friends!
Share on Facebook Tweet on Twitter Pin on Pinterest

COMMENTS



Email will not display publicly, it is used only for validating comment