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Finding Winter’s Wonder and Whimsy in Chicago Nature
(And listen to my Jan. 7 interview on WBEZ-91.5 FM)

 

On Monday, January 7 at 9:45 in the morning, I’m appearing on WBEZ radio’s “Morning Shift” program (listen now) to help Chicagoans learn where and how to find magic in the wilds of Chicago. I’ll be talking about my favorite wintertime preserves, plus the wonders found in snow, ice, animal tracks and the stories they tell, and in the hopeful, warming light of a winter sunrise or sunset.

Winter is fantastic, inventive, and bizarre, a whimsical time when my most fanciful dreams come to life. Here are some images that vividly illustrate the whimsy of Mother Nature using many of the captions excerpted from my book My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland’s Startling Natural Wonders:

 

A layer of winter white fell during previous night that turned rocks on this stream into marshmallows.

At Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, a layer of winter white fell during previous night that turned rocks on this stream into marshmallows.*

 

Here at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois, a heavy March snowfall turned a gray winter scene into a river through fairyland.

Here at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois, a heavy March snowfall turned a gray winter scene into a river through fairyland.*

 

Reminiscent of champagne glasses suspended topsy-turvy above a bar, this January ice sculpture, softly curving and all in a row, hangs its existence on a chaotic latticework of streamside grasses. Sawmill Creek at Waterfall Glen Darien, Illinois*

Reminiscent of champagne glasses suspended topsy-turvy above a bar, this January ice sculpture, softly curving and all in a row, hangs its existence on a chaotic latticework of streamside grasses.
Sawmill Creek at Waterfall Glen—Darien, Illinois*

 

At Black Patridge Woods, ice consumes the surface of this stream with no name, imperceptibly enveloping this last gleaming crevasse.*

At Black Partridge Woods, ice consumes the surface of this stream with no name, imperceptibly enveloping this last gleaming crevasse.*

 

On icy wetlands, look in the vegetation and bubbles trapped in the ice. The bubbles you see are composed of methane released by decaying underwater vegetation. Hogwash Slough in Spears Woods Willow Springs, Illinois*

On icy wetlands, look in the vegetation and bubbles trapped in the ice. The bubbles you see are composed of methane released by decaying underwater vegetation.
Hogwash Slough in Spears Woods
Willow Springs, Illinois*

 

At Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, cold air can’t stop the flow of mineral-rich water exiting the seep of the fen. However, when calm air and frigid temperatures combine (in this case, −4°F), vapors are lifted from the surface and magically deposited as hoar frost onto neighboring foliage.*

At Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, cold air can’t stop the flow of mineral-rich water exiting the seep of the fen. However, when calm air and frigid temperatures combine (in this case, −4°F), vapors are lifted from the surface and magically deposited as hoar frost onto neighboring foliage.*

 

Late one afternoon, along the Lake Michigan shore, I discovered a mystical series of semicircles etched into the snowy beach. In light that was less than ideal, I vowed to return. The following morning, I hiked the half mile back to the spot where I’d stood just hours earlier. Behind me was my past, each footprint in the snow marking an increment of time and space. Before me was my future, where a pristine winter scene awaited my first steps. In the predawn light, I analyzed the fragile panorama from the periphery. As prepared as anyone could be, I slowly set foot on hallowed ground. Each step felt like minutes. Anxiety and calculation filled every footprint. Finally, I settled upon a position. Relieved, I waited for the sun to rise. Under a sunless, cerulean sky, the world glows blue. But the sun is on a mission to turn sapphire into gold. To convey the magic of this scene, I needed both. The sun is most vulnerable as it rises and sets. Angled low, its golden light cannot permeate every crack and crevice. Just before daybreak, the snow took on the blueness of the clear sky. Then, the winter star met the horizon. Low warm rays of lemon light filled all but a few remaining shadows, creating a set of unclasped sapphire necklaces upon a gown of white gold. The character of the light was the key to telling this enchanting winter story— a tale of wind-blown grasses doodling smiles in the snow as they dreamed of warmer tomorrows.*

Late one afternoon, along the Lake Michigan shore, I discovered a mystical series of semicircles etched into the snowy beach. In light that was less than ideal, I vowed to return.
The following morning, I hiked the half mile back to the spot where I’d stood just hours earlier. Behind me was my past, each footprint in the snow marking an increment of time and space. Before me was my future, where a pristine winter scene awaited my first steps. In the predawn light, I analyzed the fragile panorama from the periphery. As prepared as anyone could be, I slowly set foot on hallowed ground. Each step felt like minutes. Anxiety and calculation filled every footprint. Finally, I settled upon a position. Relieved, I waited for the sun to rise.
Under a sunless, cerulean sky, the world glows blue. But the sun is on a mission to turn sapphire into gold. To convey the magic of this scene, I needed both. The sun is most vulnerable as it rises and sets. Angled low, its golden light cannot permeate every crack and crevice.
Just before daybreak, the snow took on the blueness of the clear sky. Then, the winter star met the horizon. Low warm rays of lemon light filled all but a few remaining shadows, creating a set of unclasped sapphire necklaces upon a gown of white gold.
The character of the light was the key to telling this enchanting winter story— a tale of wind-blown grasses doodling smiles in the snow as they dreamed of warmer tomorrows.*

 

At Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, a crust of snow covered the sandy beach along the Lake Michigan shore. The choppy ice in the background is called an ice floe or drift ice, but I didn’t know it was a drifter. That evening, it appeared as a great white landmass, grafted to the shore. So you can imagine my surprise when I returned at sunrise and it was gone. How could it revert to its liquid state over the bitter cold night? Then, peering over the lake out toward the horizon, there it was, a thin white thread that was the ice floe, a drifter after all. You may think that the swerving tracks on this desolate beach also give the impression of a drifter. But the coy and clever coyote that left these prints is energy-efficient by necessity, a “perfect stepper.” Intentionally placing its hind foot directly where the front foot lands, the songdog’s trek across deep snow is less of a drudge. Domestic dogs are supposed to be perfect steppers, too, but I often see just the opposite when I examine their trails. It makes sense: I mean, how perfect do you need to be when your next meal (and everything else) is guaranteed? But, unlike Fido, who winds and switches along the way, the coyote (and the fox) take a more direct, economical route. To some people, the animal track they discover is only a footnote along the way, a moment in time engraved in snow by an unwitting author. To others, it’s only the beginning, the first sentence of a drama, an invitation to follow, to read on, to be seduced by the mystery. May you be one of the latter.*

At Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, a crust of snow covered the sandy beach along the Lake Michigan shore. The choppy ice in the background is called an ice floe or drift ice, but I didn’t know it was a drifter. That evening, it appeared as a great white landmass, grafted to the shore. So you can imagine my surprise when I returned at sunrise and it was gone. How could it revert to its liquid state over the bitter cold night? Then, peering over the lake out toward the horizon, there it was, a thin white thread that was the ice floe, a drifter after all.
You may think that the swerving tracks on this desolate beach also give the impression of a drifter. But the coy and clever coyote that left these prints is energy-efficient by necessity, a “perfect stepper.” Intentionally placing its hind foot directly where the front foot lands, the songdog’s trek across deep snow is less of a drudge.
Domestic dogs are supposed to be perfect steppers, too, but I often see just the opposite when I examine their trails. It makes sense: I mean, how perfect do you need to be when your next meal (and everything else) is guaranteed? But, unlike Fido, who winds and switches along the way, the coyote (and the fox) take a more direct, economical route.
To some people, the animal track they discover is only a footnote along the way, a moment in time engraved in snow by an unwitting author. To others, it’s only the beginning, the first sentence of a drama, an invitation to follow, to read on, to be seduced by the mystery. May you be one of the latter.*

 

During the winter, sunsets of blue that fade to pink are common in the eastern skies over Lake Michigan. At the end of this blustery day, fluffy plumes of marram grass bounce in the stiff wind. Illinois Beach Nature Preserve—Zion, Illinois*

During the winter, sunsets of blue that fade to pink are common in the eastern skies over Lake Michigan. At the end of this blustery day, fluffy plumes of marram grass bounce in the stiff wind.
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve—Zion, Illinois*

 

Driven by wind and wave, Lake Michigan ice floes crash and jostle against the sandy shoreline, and then mysteriously disappear, leaving behind grand and lustrous gems of “ball ice.” Like large pearls, they are grown through a process of accretion. The whipping and turning of the surge traps deposits of slush against the shoreline, which gradually form into rounded crystal masses that are then cast ashore. Illinois Beach Nature Preserve—Zion, Illinois*

Driven by wind and wave, Lake Michigan ice floes crash and jostle against the sandy shoreline, and then mysteriously disappear, leaving behind grand and lustrous gems of “ball ice.” Like large pearls, they are grown through a process of accretion. The whipping and turning of the surge traps deposits of slush against the shoreline, which gradually form into rounded crystal masses that are then cast ashore.
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve—Zion, Illinois*

 

Driven by wind and wave, Lake Michigan ice floes crash and jostle against the sandy shoreline, and then mysteriously disappear, leaving behind grand and lustrous gems of “ball ice.” Like large pearls, they are grown through a process of accretion. The whipping and turning of the surge traps deposits of slush against the shoreline, which gradually form into rounded crystal masses that are then cast ashore. Illinois Beach Nature Preserve—Zion, Illinois*

When I reached this point along the trail, I was stopped in my tracks—not by the scene itself but by the late afternoon light falling on the snow-covered limb in the foreground.
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve—Zion, Illinois*

 

“Never wear white after Labor Day.” That’s what fashionistas say. But if that’s true, then why did Mother Nature make layering with white the fashion of the winter season? From sheer to fluffy, flat to flowing, sleek to shimmering, the magical coat of snow she creates can reflect any mood. Shooting for sensational, she’ll dress it up with sunlight and, suddenly, it scintillates with sequins. On this afternoon of winter thaw, Mother Nature dressed it down. Searching for that deep, introspective look, she accessorized with fog and cloudy skies to give the savanna an air of mystery.*

“Never wear white after Labor Day.” That’s what fashionistas say. But if that’s true, then why did Mother Nature make layering with white the fashion of the winter season?
From sheer to fluffy, flat to flowing, sleek to shimmering, the magical coat of snow she creates can reflect any mood. Shooting for sensational, she’ll dress it up with sunlight and, suddenly, it scintillates with sequins.
On this afternoon of winter thaw, Mother Nature dressed it down. Searching for that deep, introspective look, she accessorized with fog and cloudy skies to give the savanna an air of mystery.*

 

At Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, a solitary black oak stands atop a dune with a view. To the east is the beach and Lake Michigan beyond. To the west is a rich sand prairie and, in the distance, an oak savanna where this black oak’s family grows tall in the company of thousands. Having the good fortune of being planted in the sand by a forgetful squirrel, but the misfortune of being relocated so far from home, this little oak is a survivor, left exposed and alone to battle the harsh elements and howling winds.*

At Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, a solitary black oak stands atop a dune with a view. To the east is the beach and Lake Michigan beyond. To the west is a rich sand prairie and, in the distance, an oak savanna where this black oak’s family grows tall in the company of thousands.
Having the good fortune of being planted in the sand by a forgetful squirrel, but the misfortune of being relocated so far from home, this little oak is a survivor, left exposed and alone to battle the harsh elements and howling winds.*

 

The dream of winter can, at least for a moment, take you to another place, away from the worries of the world. Maybe it’s a journey to an enchanted kingdom, or a fairy tale of old oak matriarchs who, throughout the night, donned the falling snow, so that in the glow of the morning sun they would, at least for a time, be restored to their golden youth, transformed into young and shining maidens in lace.*

The dream of winter can, at least for a moment, take you to another place, away from the worries of the world. Maybe it’s a journey to an enchanted kingdom, or a fairy tale of old oak matriarchs who, throughout the night, donned the falling snow, so that in the glow of the morning sun they would, at least for a time, be restored to their golden youth, transformed into young and shining maidens in lace.*

 

This Chicago scene is reminiscent of silver winters in Yosemite, where every inch of exposed landscape is covered in heavy snow and every bough bows in deference to sublime beauty. Here, the rising curtain of morning revealed an abundance of sticky snow that had fallen during the night, draping every available surface with a shining cloak of blue-white magic in a paradise all our own.*

This Chicago scene is reminiscent of silver winters in Yosemite, where every inch of exposed landscape is covered in heavy snow and every bough bows in deference to sublime beauty. Here, the rising curtain of morning revealed an abundance of sticky snow that had fallen during the night, draping every available surface with a shining cloak of blue-white magic in a paradise all our own.*

 

From underneath the reassuring warmth of my comforter, I could have dreamt this winter morning away. But all day I’d have been plagued by glorious visions of what might have been. Instead, I took the night’s snowfall as an invitation from Mother Nature. Rolling out from beneath my blanket, I stepped into the pillowy cold and toward the shore of Hogwash Slough. As I stood along the snow-draped shoreline, the wetland’s radiant beauty warmed my heart and kindled my imagination. Like a magical scene from a storybook—I was dreaming once again. On this morning, I made a choice: to trade a world of forgotten dreams for a dream world that I will always remember.*

From underneath the reassuring warmth of my comforter, I could have dreamt this winter morning away. But all day I’d have been plagued by glorious visions of what might have been. Instead, I took the night’s snowfall as an invitation from Mother Nature. Rolling out from beneath my blanket, I stepped into the pillowy cold and toward the shore of Hogwash Slough. As I stood along the snow-draped shoreline, the wetland’s radiant beauty warmed my heart and kindled my imagination. Like a magical scene from a storybook—I was dreaming once again. On this morning, I made a choice: to trade a world of forgotten dreams for a dream world that I will always remember.*

 

Shallow streams, like Waterfall Glen’s Sawmill Creek, are the perfect winter venue for viewing Mother Nature’s ever-changing handiwork.*

Shallow streams, like Waterfall Glen’s Sawmill Creek, are the perfect winter venue for viewing Mother Nature’s ever-changing handiwork.*

 

Waterfall Glen is a winter wonderland, from the winding and enchanting Sawmill Creek to glorious wetlands like this.*

Waterfall Glen is a winter wonderland, from the winding and enchanting Sawmill Creek to glorious wetlands like this.*

* Photo is representational and was not recorded this year. Bloom times vary from year to year.

—Mike

© 2019, Mike MacDonald. All rights reserved.

    1 Comment

  1. Mike, I am a huge admirer of your gorgeous photos and ecstatic descriptions of nature. Will be listening to WBEZ.
    Living in the heart of Chicago, I visit – almost daily- the North Pond in Lincoln Park. The native plant restoration has created a mini version of the larger preserves, and a way to stay in touch with the migrating birds, bloom cycles and wonders of winter, hoar frost, coyote tracks and all.
    Thank you for what you do to bring awareness to the wonders all around us.

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