May 12, 2011
Is spring really, finally here?
The answer is at your local actively managed forest preserve. Are there little wildflowers popping out beneath the trees? If so, bring out the hammock.
One visit to the Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve in Long Grove, and the entire set of patio furniture will be on the deck.
The preserve is Barbara Turner's backyard. Turner spent weekends and summers in the log cottage her father, banker Guy Reed, built on the land as a family getaway. When he built a year-round home in 1937, the family moved in there. And when she married, she and her late husband — Harold Turner, an organist and pianist for WGN Radio and "Bozo's Circus" on WGN-TV — raised their own two children in the cottage before moving to the big house after her mother died in 1975.
This backyard was no lawn-and-play-set affair. Turner's father dammed a marsh, creating a pond where Turner used to ice skate, but other than that left the place wild, an untamed refuge bisected by a deep ravine and a meandering creek.
"It was a beautiful, wonderful piece of woods," said Turner, 91, who still lives in the big house.
And between its natural state and the ministrations of devoted volunteers who have spent years removing invasive species and planting native ones, it is a fine place to take in spring wildflowers.
"We have more wildflowers than anybody," said Jane Wittig, president of the Long Grove Park District and one of the site's co-stewards. "I defy you to find anyone who has more wildflowers."
The display is partly due to the preserve's diversity. Turner learned about that when she took a class at the Morton Arboretum in 1959 with renowned botanist and ecologist May Watts.
When Watts told the class about the different native plants found in specific ecosystems, Turner would listen with special interest. "She would say, 'I have one of those,'" Wittig said. "The next week, she would say, 'I have one of those too.'"
Curious, Watts had the class meet in Turner's backyard, and discovered what else she had: namely, an untouched natural area with numerous distinct ecosystems — woodlands, a savanna, a prairie, a sedge meadow and a creek, all on 36 easily walked acres.
Watts urged Turner to make sure the woodland was never sold to developers.
Turner has made very sure.
She donated 32 acres to the Nature Conservancy, which in turn gave it to the Long Grove Park District. The Park District bought the adjoining land and the cabin on it. The village of Long Grove bought the big house along with two more adjoining lots.
The woodland is now an Illinois state nature preserve. Turner has been a site steward since the 1970s, yanking out invasive garlic mustard, helping conduct prescribed burns and welcoming countless students, researchers, nature artists and woods-walkers.
"I'm very fond of trees and natural areas," Turner said. "When I realized the uniqueness and high quality of what was here … I thought that it would be wonderful to have it protected in perpetuity, so that people in the future could enjoy the land like I do."
The wildflowers are a prime attraction. A recent day found starlike spring beauties growing in such profusion that they seemed to have been spray-painted on. Trout lilies with their mottled leaves were nodding beneath widely spaced oak trees. Bright yellow swamp buttercups and swamp marigolds poked out of the muddy marshland.
"There's something in bloom, really, from mid-April way into the fall," said Turner.
Tobin Fraley, a photographer and Long Grove gallery owner who lives next door to the woodland, was so captivated by the preserve that he decided to photograph the way it changes with the seasons.
The wildflowers were both a delight and a challenge. "Some of them come and go in a matter of days," said Fraley, who teaches nature photography at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum.
"If I miss one of the wildflowers, then I've got to wait another year to get it again."
He spent eight years shooting, and gathered the images into a book, "36 Acres: A Portrait of the Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve," which he self-published last year.
It is now prime time to see the wildflowers in Turner's backyard. As for the front, Turner, who is recovering rapidly from knee replacement surgery, opened her door to show what became of her one-time lawn.
"My front yard is a prairie," she said. "And believe it or not, I burn it."
If you go
Where: The Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve is at 3849 Old McHenry Road, Long Grove. The log cottage is now the visitors center.
When: The preserve is open from dawn to dusk 365 days a year, and volunteers sometimes give wildflower tours.
To learn more: Call 847-438-4743. Tobin Fraley's book, "36 Acres," is available through amazon.com and at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Clean the river: This Saturday will be the 19th annual Chicago River Day — a volunteer clean-the-river event and, this year, a competition between Chicago and Los Angeles. The two cities, which have hosted volunteer river cleanups for decades, are vying to see which one can get more volunteers and more Facebook fans. In Chicago, some 4,000 people are expected to collect garbage and plant native seedlings at 60 cleanup sites along the Chicago River or in outlying spots between Lake County and Blue Island. The event runs from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information or to volunteer, visit chicagoriver.org.
Paddle the river: May 22 will be the 54th annual Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon, starting at Oak Springs Road in Libertyville. You don't have to race it. You don't have to paddle all 18.5 miles. And you don't have to arrange transportation back to your car; the Forest Preserve District of Cook County will provide continuous shuttle bus service. You don't even have to own a boat; outfitters will bring rental canoes or kayaks to the start line and pick them up at the finish. For more information, call 847-604-2445 or visit canoemarathon.com.
Bird talk: Renowned birders Don and Lillian Stokes will speak about their new field guide, "The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Cantigny Park, 1S151 Winfield Road, near Wheaton. Hosted by the DuPage Birding Club, the talk is free and open to the public.
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