Thursday, June 23, 2011


Visiting Illinois this past May and seeing a small piece of the Black Oak Savanna/prairie intact at Black Oaks, and then seeing certain prairie typologies recreated at the Chicago Botanical Garden generated a deep interest in these ecosystems for me. At the Botanic Garden I especially appreciated the care with which they explained ecosystems, recreation of the prairie, component parts of the systems - through thoughtful signs.  After living most of my life on the East Coast, amongst big trees and hills, seeing the sky and expanses of flat grasslands was beyond comprehension. Roaring through the landscape on the interstate did not abate my initial reaction of being overwhelmed by the wide open spaces (which, as a side note is a kind of  agoraphobia - something I only thought of a fear of places with lots of unfamiliar people in it - like an agora or marketplace...).

Only by getting out and walking in these spots was I able to focus and develop a more profound understanding and appreciation of these landscapes. There have been many studies about human affinity for the Savanna Landscape, given our evolutionary origins in Africa. Physically being in a Savanna, convinced me that those studies had some strong merits. While at Black Oaks, and along the edges of the prairie sections of the Botanic Garden, I felt a strong connection with the landscape and during the course at the Botanic Garden, I found myself thinking about walking through those prairies - because they are beautiful places and because I had never experienced the specific kind of tranquility I felt there. Perhaps it is all contextual, but I'd like to think there's something about these landscapes that I remember from my early childhood in Illinois.

Being in both places in May - when the grasslands are only beginning to come out of dormancy was beautiful. Striking golds, browns and earthy tones dominated the plant tones - with the exception of the base growth of the yarrows, shooting stars (dodecatheon meadia) and the golden alexanders (zizia aurea ( my new favorite plant name)). I had never seen shooting stars before, and I've included several photos of them below. They're stunning  fountains of blooms from elegant leaves.  Flocks of tree, cliff, and barn swallows animated the mornings and evenings that I passed through the prairies - and the trill of the red-wing black bird helped me keep time as I made my way back to the hotel each night.

Here at home, I am growing several of the characteristic species I observed at the Botanic Gardens. I started Compass Plant and Butterfly Milk Weed from seed and while they've taken a while to germinate and grow - they're doing well now that they're in the ground - and we're getting some heat. I am curious to see how they turn out. Taking the time to understand the life cycles of these component plants is part of the process I am following to restore part of the prairie at Black Oaks and to ensure that these plants and the ecosystems they support will continue to function and to benefit generations to come. 


Black Bird on Compass Plant Stalk

Shooting Star

Shooting Star

Compass Plant Seedling Here

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Today is the first day I have not consulted on, hauled, planted, moved, seeded, mulched, composted or put together anything on the Terraces. It's truly the end of the first phase - the installation is finished for the season. 

All the plants are in - including the seedlings we started in April inside the house. There are over 30 varieties of vegetables, herbs, vines and trees that we planted in the space. Most of them - from the Hill Country Red okra, to the Schisandra vine are edibles or medicinal plants. It is satisfying to see the seedlings and the plants in the ground after so many years of dreaming, planning and designing. As the terraces mature over time, I look forward to new discoveries.

The day most of the plants were put in and the compost was spread, twenty to thirty yellow swallow-tail butterflies appeared. They moved from spot to spot where ever there was compost. It was amazing to see their progress across the terraces and field - moving to an internal jazz riff and then back together as if pulled by a steady bass line. Those butterflies were visual music to me. Music that makes me think of one of my favorite Georgia O'Keefe quotes: 

I want real things - music that makes holes in the sky. 

Happy Almost Summer everyone! 

Yellow Swallow Tails

Front View

Vegetable Beds

Vine Sculpture

Detail of Steel Bed Patina

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Black Oaks

An hour and a half south of Chicago is the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Living in Pembroke Township, Illinois. I met with Dr. Wright, one of the founders, walked the land with her and learned more about her vision for the site and the Center.

The vision as outlined on the Center’s website succinctly captures the essence of our conversation. We must weave a new way of life that is collective; cooperatively sharing and efficiently utilizing the resources we have; honoring the sacredness of life; working for the greater good of the whole.

Moving through the land with that mission in mind, especially after seeing the surrounding acres and acres of corn and soy and big box warehouses, was a true joy. Here is a soulful place with people dedicated to the restoration of the land and all levels of their community – from the molecular level, through soil health, to the big picture where people, plants and animals comprise a functional, resilient system.

The ecosystem context of Black Oaks is the Black Oak Savanna. That ecosystem is imperiled, according to the website. With intensive agriculture and housing development pressures, much of this biodiversity-rich ecosystem has been destroyed. Typical characteristics of the Black Oak savanna system are oaks and sun-loving plants that include many different types of grasses and herbaceous plants like compass plant that can tolerate temperature extremes and the excessively well drained soils of the Wisconsin Loess deposited by retreating glaciers. Making the site of the Black Oaks Center even more remarkable is that it is one of the remnant parts of this ecosystem, and to their credit, the people of the center are committed to its restoration. As part of the greater ecosystem restoration, medicinal plants and organic food will help support the people living at the center and the greater community they are part of.

I am enthusiastic and hopeful to bring my expertise in ecology, design and art to support the vision of the Black Oaks Center. Thanks to Dr. Wright for meeting with me and sharing her aspirations for such a marvelous place.




Black Oak