Over the years, I’ve never written specifically about any overarching purpose for Environmental Almanac, trusting that I’ll either accomplish my aims or not whether I talk about them or not.
But ultimately, I’ve wanted to encourage readers to see themselves as fellow members of the land community, to use Aldo Leopold’s terms, rather than as conquerors of it. In my view, that crucial change in attitude is a necessary step toward healing the rifts among humans, and between humans collectively and the home we seem so hell-bent on destroying.
Along those lines, one of the assignments for students in my environmental writing class at the UI requires them to research an organism native to Illinois and write a profile that will enable readers to connect with it in straightforward, memorable ways. For this column, then, I asked each of them to contribute just one highlight they thought would engage readers, and here’s what we came up with:
Vica Otrubina learned that Illinois mud turtles, which are listed as endangered in the state, are active for only 100 days out of the year, and spend time buried as much as 10 inches deep in the mud.
Along similar lines, Grace Finnell-Gudwein discovered that woodchucks, aka groundhogs, are one of the few true hibernators in Illinois, which means they fall into a deep sleep in winter and slow their breathing to one breath every six minutes. Beyond that, woodchucks are actually the largest type of squirrel in the state.
Students also called attention to the way appearance sets some organisms apart. Jalanni Matthews, whose regular summer job in Chicago involves controlling invasive plants in natural areas, explained that the exotic multiflora rose can be distinguished from native roses by its “hairy armpits,” the hair on the stalk at the base of the leaves. He also called attention to the pain multiflora rose inflicts on people—himself included—thanks to its wickedly curved thorns.
Through her choice of the marbled orb weaver as a topic, Maggie Bono ensured that everyone in our class would be able to identify at least one spider on sight as we go about our lives. That’s because the female marbled orb weaver’s bulbous, orange abdomen resembles a pumpkin, and it’s commonly just called “pumpkin spider. (True to her civil engineering major, Maggie followed up with an article about the tensile strength of spider silk, which is not, despite popular lore, really stronger than steel.)
Some students found interest in the names and phrases associated with the organisms about which they wrote. Brogan McKay, a creative writing major, explained that it’s incorrect to say a “fake-dead” opossum is “playing.” Their comatose state comes on involuntarily in response to danger, and people still don’t know how they awaken at the right moment, when danger has passed.
Katie Huffman noted that the scientific name for the endangered Indiana bat is apt on two counts; “Myotis sodalis” translates roughly as “mouse-eared companion.” What could be more companionable than creatures who roost in clusters as dense as 300 individuals per square foot? Huffman also reiterated what you may remember from other sources, that such bats help control insect populations by eating up to half their body weight in insects per night.
Yellow warblers, Brooke Witkins learned, also eat a lot of insects. But in a disturbing turnaround, they’re so small they’ve been known to get caught in the webs of orb weaver spiders.
Few students chose to profile native plants for this assignment, but the ones who did developed great enthusiasm for the project. Maria Maring found that paw paws, a Midwestern tree with many tropical characteristics, have their own community of enthusiasts throughout their range. What’s interesting about a paw paw patch is that what appear to be individual trees are, in fact, genetically identical trunks growing up from the same complex root system.
As with “tropical” fruits, cacti are seldom associated with the Prairie State. But Gwenna Heidkamp, who has worked on a variety of habitat restoration projects locally and in Chicago, wrote about the three species of prickly pear cacti that can be found in Illinois. One of these, the eastern prickly pear, tolerates a surprisingly wide range of conditions, including drought, water and freezing temperatures, and so is often cultivated by gardeners. What’s memorable about the prickly pear’s gorgeous, fragrant flowers, Heidkamp wrote, is that they bloom for only one day.
Whether you keep with you any of these individual bits of knowledge, what I hope you’ll appreciate and cultivate in your own life, is the attitude represented here. Such affection for life in all its forms is at once a source joy in the present and a powerful motivator for the future.