One of the things I love about being on assignment and covering conservation in Chicago is that I get to learn more about the prairies, savannas, riverways, and the conservationists working to save and restore them. These are often humble, tenacious people. They can be thorny, usually full of humor, ready to lobby local politicians, and always, always ready to get their hands dirty. My kind of people. They inspire me to do more.
Last week, on Earth Day, I took my son’s class on a nature hike. Where? Somewhere remote and pristine? Nope. Right in their own backyards, literally 1 block from their school. We’re near a freeway. We’ve got cars, we’ve got paved streets. And, yes, we’ve got some pollution. We can see the Sears (no, not ready to call it the Willis) Tower from our neighborhood bridge.
But we’ve also got 2 hawks nesting high in a tree-top near the school. I’ve seen loads of kids – grown-ups, too — walk right past the tree and never once look up while the hawks are lining their nest. Perhaps it’s better for the hawks that no one notices them. Certainly, they’d rather be under our radar. But this was also, I felt, a teachable moment. A great chance to teach some very sharp and naturally inquisitive 8-year-olds that there’s a little bit of wilderness in their own neighborhood.
Most everyone in our neighborhood walks to school. And this is a great chance for them to look up every once in a while. Or, while tree branches are still bare in the spring, they can catch a glimpse of the myriad nests — twiggy, feathered, encrusted with mud, abandoned and taken over by squirrels, papery wasps nests, nests in lamp posts. It’s an awesome opportunity.
So that’s what we did. We walked the neighborhood, sat quietly a safe distance away from the “hawk tree”. They managed to glimpse the male hawk swoop from tree to tree. They saw the female ensconced snugly in the nest. I introduced them to field guides and the idea of becoming stewards of the land and the prairie gardens that are springing up in our neighborhood. Kids nowadays hear so much about global warming and the loss of habitat, endangered species, melting polar ice caps, and drowning bears. They need a future they can connect to, care about, something they can see with their own eyes. Otherwise, saving the Earth is one big abstraction. But hawks nesting in their own hood? Yeah,Â that’s something they can get with. So here’s what they saw, right where they live:
Their faces lit up. They began to look at their neighborhood in a whole new way. On the walk back, they were whistling for cardinals, excited (EXCITED!) about the American robins, looking for squirrel tracks in the concrete. In other words, nature didn’t seem so far away.
I took them to their school’s prairie garden, talked to them about how there are plants taller then their tallest teacher. And that the roots can go down 3X as deep as the plant is tall; how lightning and prairie fires actually rejuvenate the land. The ecosystem that’s in their own city — these glorious prairies and savannas and wetlands — are rare and to be treasured. No, we don’t have rainforests. But every ecosystem on Earth is unique, every home special and worth cherishing. At least that’s what I hope they took away from the walk.
Their teacher checked-in with me after school. What did they remember? What did they get out of it? Turns out the thing they liked best was when we whistled like cardinals. Cool. That’s a start.