- Field Trips
- Great Lakes
- Green design
- Green jobs
- Land use
- Social justice
- Urban ecology
- Urban nature
- Waste & Recycling
This essay was published as an op-ed piece entitle “Mitchell’s Still Has Magic for Me” in the Joliet Herald-News, p14, on 30 December 2010. I offer it here five years later as a commentary on supporting local economies and celebrating the unique small businesses in our home towns. Gladly, business is still good!
Normally I utterly detest shopping. But a few days before Christmas when my wife noted we were running low on some staple food items, I seized the opportunity with gusto: “Great, honey! I’ll run to Mitchell’s.”
A small, nondescript building with a friendly 1960s-vintage lighted sign, Mitchell’s Food Mart on Raynor Avenue in Joliet is the epitome of the small neighborhood grocery store, one run by the same family since opening sixty years ago.
Walking inside is like a journey back in time. Customers carefully guide half-size shopping carts down four or five narrow aisles packed full with meticulously arranged inventory. Each item features a little orange price tag that has been applied by hand (no UPC scanning here). The one register for checkout features a friendly and efficient employee who actually knows how to bag groceries and make proper change, both of which are lost arts.
The utterly delightful candy section, strategically placed alongside the checkout line, reminds me of every corner drugstore’s sweets aisle from my childhood days. It’s got a little bit of everything, much of which (in keeping with the store’s small-is-beautiful theme) is available in minute quantities. My two girls go gaga picking out five-cent Tootsies as rewards for being cooperative sidekicks.
The heart and soul of Mitchell’s, though, is the butcher counter in the back, a supremely wonderful meat-eater’s paradise (vegetarians stop reading now). The first thing I do here is grab a number, because Mitchell’s has the wisdom to use this time-honored system that is sadly neglected at most supermarket delis.
Above the lunchmeat slicers are posted the current won-loss records of Chicago’s sports teams, adjusted seasonally and updated daily. I always check the scores, then pause to regard the squadron of white-aproned butchers expertly plying their trade behind the counter, a sight I find endlessly fascinating.
Here in the queue is where one best experiences the singular magic of Mitchell’s. As folks stand waiting for their portions of hand-cut bacon or tender rump roast to be wrapped up in neat white paper, they inevitably start chatting. Time and again, I’ve had wonderfully entertaining conversations there with total strangers, or mini-reunions with old acquaintances.
From the outside, it’s hard to imagine how a small-scale operation like Mitchell’s survives, even thrives, in this era of cavernous supermarkets with their national supply-chain economics and over-the-top product selection.
But from the inside, it’s easy to see how.
A little while back, I was asked by some of my environmental studies colleagues outside of RU to briefly describe my take on interdisciplinary scholarship in under 200 words. Here’s what I came up with:
An interdisciplinary scholar can speak different disciplinary languages, recognize how they work together, and use that facility to say something unique in the process. Interdisciplinary scholarship is about integration: fitting things together in a complementary, cohesive, creative fashion so that the whole is niftier than the mere sum of its parts. I’ve sung in choirs where men and women blend the different pitches and timbres of their voices in 4, 6, even 8 part harmony. At its best, interdisciplinary work is like that: creating beautiful music from difference, even the occasional dissonance, such as in the give-and-take dialogue of interdisciplinary team-teaching. While most university landscapes remain dominated by disciplinary silos, interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship open up new ground for discovery and connect faculty and students working on problems of mutual interest.
The last few years I’ve taught in and directed the Sustainability Studies program here at Roosevelt, the curriculum for which was designed in a consciously interdisciplinary fashion to integrate methods and insights from the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities. My own academic background in biology and literature, as well as my many years of working within a multidisciplinary faculty teaching general education to returning adult students in RU’s College of Professional Studies, means I have keen interest in integrating knowledge and research methods from the humanities and natural sciences — something that is an excellent fit within the inherently interdisciplinary endeavors of environmental studies and the newly emerging sustainability studies. In a previous post, I reflect on the relevance/importance of the arts and humanities to matters of environmental science and policy.
Another thought is that service learning provides a powerful vehicle for interdisciplinary teaching and learning — both within the context of a single (potentially interdisciplinary) class as well as in the collaboration of two or more courses from different academic departments. A fascinating model for this is the Sustainable City Year Program, pioneered recently by the University of Oregon and spun off in various ways by other US colleges and universities. This is an action-oriented and sustainability-directed approach to interdisciplinary learning and scholarship that can be tailored to the particular strengths and capacities of a given university.
Here is an announcement for unpaid internships at a new aquaponics urban farm on the West Side of Chicago, available starting in April.
Metropolitan Farms is a commercial scale urban farm that is dedicated to the growth and development of aquaponic farming in Chicago. By condensing the agricultural food chain, reducing the use of water and electricity, and converting unusables to healthy consumables as efficiently as possible, we aim to foster an agricultural revolution. They produce organic and chemical free edible plants and fish in our advanced aquaponics system, which will be distributed all over the Chicago area.
We are looking for two reliable, hardworking, and passionate people to help us with the beginning stages of our aquaponic planting and harvesting process.
- 4-6 hours per week
- Experience with plant production and care preferred
- Access to a car with a valid drivers license
- Familiarity with aquaponics preferred
- Excellent communication skills
- Great work ethic
- High attention to detail
- Ability to work independently as well as part of a team
- This opportunity is an unpaid educational internship.
For more information, visit our website and our Facebook page. To apply, send an email to Ashley Luciani at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Metropolitan Farms Internship” in the subject line. Please let her know a little about yourself, your experience with urban farming or gardening, and why you would be interested in joining this endeavor. Make sure to provide the best way to reach you.
Yesterday I attended a rare event in the history of any university: a reception honoring the formal election of new president. Faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni, and trustees gathered in the glorious space of Roosevelt’s Murray-Green Library on the 10th floor of the landmark Auditorium Building to welcome Dr. Ali Malekzadeh, Roosevelt’s sixth president, who will take over the leadership of our institution on July 1st, 2015.
One notable thing about yesterday’s reception was that four generations of RU presidents were in attendance: Chuck Middleton, our current president; Ted Gross, who led RU from 1988 to 2002, and was president when I was hired in 1996; and Rolf Weil, who presided from 1964 to 1988. Dr. Weil is very elderly now, but still with it — and it was inspiring to see him obviously enjoying the proceedings. Like him, President-elect Ali (as he kindly insisted on being called, rather than by his full name and title) is a business-oriented lifelong academic, rather than the last two presidents who came from literature and history, respectively.
I got to speak with Dr. Malekzadeh twice, albeit briefly, and found him funny, warm, articulate, charming, and friendly. He seemed very comfortable working a room and schmoozing, and perhaps that is among the many important qualities a president must have. When I identified myself simply as “Mike Bryson, Sustainability Studies,” with no other explanation, he looked at me keenly and said emphatically, “That is the future. We will talk.” I can only guess at his true feelings on the subject of sustainability and higher ed — but his response seemed to imply that on an important fundamental level, he gets it. We will see!
I wish President-elect Malekzadeh all the best in what I hope will be a long and fruitful career for him at Roosevelt as he leads us through a tremendous time of transition and, it must be noted, great financial challenges. His reputed fundraising acumen will be most welcome and is urgently needed.
Last Monday, as a warm 60+ degree (F) day enveloped downtown Chicago in a splendid preview of spring, my students and I hiked from Roosevelt’s Gage Building in the Loop to the lakefront, where we strolled southward to that great edifice of natural history and biodiversity, the Field Museum. Once there, we met up with Carter O’Brien, the Museum’s sustainability manager (who basically created the job over a number of years after spearheading the FMNH’s recycling program). Carter gave us a comprehensive walking tour of the museum’s grounds, community garden, and loading dock.
Along with many of staff and researchers at the FMNH, Carter has spearheaded the museum’s efforts to green its practices in energy consumption, waste management, food service, recycling, transportation, exhibit design, and gardening. Despite being an institution dedicated to studying and conserving the world’s rich trove of biodiversity, the Field Museum until recently was not at all sustainable in its own operations, an irony not lost on environmental advocates such as Carter and many of his museum colleagues. Now the FMNH is a recognized leader in transforming old buildings into sustainably-managed facilities, as it recently garnered a LEED Gold rating on its operations and maintenance from the US Green Building Council, only the 2nd existing museum building in the US to do so, and it has just received a $2 million grant to redevelop its grounds within Chicago’s famed Museum Campus in ways that enhance biodiversity, water conservation, and public education.
Carter brought us inside through the seemingly ancient (and surprisingly small) loading dock, thorough a phalanx of heavy doors, narrow passageways, and claustrophobic elevators (all part of the FM’s 19th Century charm), and to the Botany research division, one of the four major research/collections areas of the museum. There we met up with the equally ebullient Dr. Matt Von Konrat, who has many titles at the museum but is best known as an early land plant botanist (which means he studies mosses and liverworts both here and abroad) and the Head of Botanical Collections at the museum.
Dr. Von Konrat was kind enough to set up a sampling of preserved plant specimens from the Museum’s vast collection, which when arrayed on a huge wooden table represented a journey of 500 million years of land plant evolution. Many of these examples had special significance as type specimens, which are recognized as being archetypal examples of the species that are used for benchmarking certain key identifying characteristics.
One plant, a particularly tiny moss, held special significance in a recent court case about Burr Oak Cemetery scandal in the far South Side Chicago neighborhood of Dunning. Cemetery caretakers dug up several hundred human remains and dumped them in a mass grave in order to sell additional plots in the cemetery over a several year period. The moss was part of forensic evidence analyzed by Dr. Von Konrat that proved the involvement of cemetery employees in this heinous crime. The story illustrates the profoundly important role that environmental evidence can play in forensics, and the potential value in aligning the study of botany (and sustainability) with that of criminal justice.
After both of these splendid tours, my students and I ventured forth into the public area of the museum — its exhibits, naturally! — where we inspected the notable (and LEED Gold certified) conservation exhibit, Restoring Earth, which documents FMNH efforts to conserve natural and human communities in South America as well as restore local prairie, woodland, and wetland ecosystems here in the Chicago region.
This May 2015 one-week-intensive section of SUST 390 Writing Urban Nature is an environmental literature and writing special topics course distinguished by in-the-field explorations of various natural and urban environments. The class provides a unique immersive experience in “nature close at hand” at sites of ecological and cultural significance in the Chicago region. Strong emphasis on close observing place and people; walking and exploring landscapes and neighborhoods; and reflecting on / discussing compelling ideas, stories, and images of urban nature, broadly defined.
Assigned readings will include selections from May Watts, Reading the Landscape of America; Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac; Joel Greenberg, Of Prairie, Woods, and Water; blogs such as City Creatures and The Nature of Cities; and other texts. The reading list will be distributed well in advance of the class so that students will have time to read ahead prior to the week’s explorations and discussions.
Daily activities will consist of field excursions to sites of interest in Chicago’s urban landscape; discussion of assigned readings; quiet time for personal reflection, journal writing, and photography; and potential service work for local environmental organizations. Students’ daily journal and photo archive will provide material for a personal/critical reflection essay (due one week after the class ends) that incorporates text and image, critically analyzes selections from the course reading list, and reflects on the student’s individual experience in the class. Collectively, the class will produce an online project (“Chicago’s Urban Nature”) as part of the SUST at RU Blog that features creative/reflective writing that reflects upon their experience and incorporates both text and image.
Potential sites we will explore include Chicago’s lakeshore parklands and public spaces, the Chicago River (on foot and/or by canoe), neighborhood parks of cultural and ecological significance, nature centers on the North and South Sides, selected urban farms within the city, and the natural and industrial lands of the Calumet Region on the far South Side. The week’s schedule is still under development, but the varied locations will give students an opportunity to explore many seldom-seen parts of the city within a unique learning context. Most of these activities will be free, though a small fee may be charged to cover certain trips (e.g., canoe trip on the Chicago River). Public transportation will be used to access most sites. Carpooling options will be discussed at the May 6 pre-session (see below).
Who Should Take this Class
SUST 390 Writing Urban Nature is cross-listed with ENG 340 Writing Urban Nature and PLS 371 Humanities Seminar II. SUST majors can take SUST 390 Writing Urban Nature for major credit as a SUST core course, as a Relevant Elective within their major, or as a general elective. Students who have taken a previous version of SUST 390 are eligible to take this version for credit. English majors may use this as an upper-level ENG credit or as an elective course in SUST or ENG. Students in the PLS Flex-Track program may register for PLS 371 for Humanities II credit as an upper-level general education course, or take SUST 390 for elective credit.
- SUST 390-X1 Writing Urban Nature — CRN 30666 / Pre-req: ENG 102 with a grade of C- or better
- ENG 340-X1 Writing Urban Nature — CRN 30689 / Pre-req: ENG 220 with a grade of C- or better
- PLS 371-X1 Humanities Seminar II — CRN 30690 / Pre-req: PLS 370 or concurrent; admission to Flex-Track program for adults or advisor consent
Meets May 18-22 from 10:30am to 5pm at RU’s Chicago Campus. Required pre-session on May 6 from 4:30-6pm, room TBA. Some additional work online required; final assignment due May 29.
For more information, contact Prof. Mike Bryson (email@example.com or 312-281-3148).
Here in my hometown of Joliet IL, we have several architectural gems in the old downtown along the east bank of the Des Plaines River. Prominent among these is the acclaimed Rialto Theatre, which I’ve written about previously in my stint as a citizen journalist for the Joliet Herald-News.
Often referred to as the “Jewel of Joliet,” the Rialto is one of the most ornate and fantastically splendid theaters in the US that dates from the golden age of movie and vaudeville house construction in the 1920s. It is an inseparable part of Joliet’s civic identity — not to mention one of the things that kept the struggling downtown district from withering away in the post-industrial era.
Given this history, it’s shocking but probably not surprising that when the Rialto was only about 50+ years old, it was nearly demolished to put in a one-square-block parking lot in the late 1970s (a dark time indeed in Joliet’s history when unemployment in the city reached 25%). Fortunately, this travesty of architectural desecration did not happen. This excellent story by Bob Okon of the Herald-News explains why.
Dorothy Mavrich, Credited with Saving Rialto, Dies
JOLIET – Dorothy Mavrich, who led a grassroots effort to save the Rialto Square Theatre from demolition, died Tuesday afternoon.
Mavrich, 94, decided at a point in the 1970s when the Rialto, now called the “Jewel of Joliet,” appeared headed for demolition that the theater should be saved.
She stood on street corners with a can to collect money and raise awareness, led fundraisers, and persisted in pursuing the Rialto owners to the point that one labeled her a “crackpot.”
Some over the years have disputed whether she got more credit for saving the Rialto than deserved, pointing to former state Rep. LeRoy Van Duyne’s influence in bringing in state money to ultimately close the deal.
But Mavrich is widely seen as the leader of the cause and the person most responsible for preserving the Rialto.
“There’s no doubt that she started the groundswell, the grassroots effort to save the place,” said James Smith, chairman of the Will County Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority that oversees the Rialto.
“She was a little lady with big ideas,” said Lynne Lichtenauer, a longtime friend who joined the cause early and later became executive director at the Rialto. “If it were not for Dorothy, the Rialto Square Theatre would not be on Chicago Street.”
Lichtenauer was with Mavrich when she died at the Joliet Area Community Hospice home. Mavrich had a stroke last week, Lichtenauer said.
She noted that Mavrich not only worked to save the Rialto, but later led the creation of the Cultural Arts Council of the Joliet Area, which provided more than $400,000 in local funding for the arts.
Mavrich was a piano teacher for 50 years. She taught at the old Joliet Conservatory of Music, located across the street from the Rialto. She told The Herald-News that she was at a concert listening to the Rialto pipe organ when she was inspired to save the theater.
“I thought, ‘My God, I can’t believe they’re going to tear this down for a parking garage,'” she told The Herald-News in 2013 as she was about to receive an award from the Joliet Area Historical Museum.
Mavrich’s persistence was evident in a story about her insistence on seeing Robert Rubens of the Rubens family, which owned the Rialto and whose name is on the sign today. Lichtenauer said Mavrich finally walked into Rubens office when there was no secretary to keep her out.
“She said, ‘I’m Dorothy Mavrich.’ He said, ‘You’re the crackpot everybody keeps telling me about,'” Lichtenauer said.
Eventually Rubens gave his blessing to Mavrich’s preservation effort, Lichtenauer said. And she later helped get the Rubens name back on the Rialto sign.
Mavrich loved telling the story, said Smith, who heard it many times himself.
“She was such a diminutive little lady,” Smith said, “but she was a powerful person.”
The Rialto Square Theatre Foundation, the organization that raises money to support the theater today, issued a statement saying, “Our community has lost a guiding light – Dorothy Mavrich, the lady who saved the Rialto.”
This past September, I joined a group of writers convened by Gavin Van Horn (of the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago) and John Hausdoerffer (a professor at Western State Colorado University and the director of WSCU’s Headwaters Project) for a much-anticipated writers’ retreat in the beautiful mountain town of Crested Butte, CO. The idea was to gather invited writers together to shares conversation, ideas, outlines, and initial jottings as a means of kicking off a new book project to be co-edited by Gavin and John called The Relative Wild. As they describe it, this is a collection of stories and essays that
will explore how human and ecological communities co-create the wild. The “myth of the pristine” — that nature is most valuable when liberated from human presence — is quickly being supplanted by “the myth of the humanized,” the assertion that nothing is untouched by human influence, and therefore one may embrace ecosystem change, even extreme changes, as “natural.” We suggest that both of these myths deserve equal scrutiny, and that one way to do so is by celebrating the common ground of the relative wild: the degrees and integration of wildness and human influence in any place.
Having participated in a previous CHN writer’s retreat at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for the forthcoming book City Creatures (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), I know firsthand how extraordinary an opportunity it is to take time out from the busy schedule and harried demands of ordinary life to mingle with talented and creative writers all focused on a common project. The fact that the Relative Wild gathering transpired in a beautiful mountain setting at the autumnal equinox was even better. Over the course of two and a half days, we had many great conversations, took hikes in the stunning mountains and valleys outside of Crested Butte, ate meals together, used quiet time for writing and reflection, and engaged in several productive and inspiring writing workshop sessions led by the esteemed naturalist and prolific nature writer, Robert Michael Pyle.
My planned contribution to the book will be co-written with Mr. Michael Howard, the Executive Director and founder of Eden Place Nature Center in Chicago, and is tentatively entitled “Cultivating the Wild on Chicago’s South Side: Stories of People and Nature at Eden Place.” What follows below is an example of the writing we were assigned to do at writers’ workshop. Here, Bob Pyle challenged us to closely observe and meditate on our immediate surroundings and experiences in Crested Butte that weekend, and to write about them as evocatively as possible. Whether or not we connected these observations to our planned essay/story topics for the book was optional. His writing prompt — to start with the phrase, “Encounter, here . . .” — was both deceptively simple and (for me) highly challenging. This is what I wrote.
Three Encounters (in response to Bob Pyle’s writing prompt)
by Mike Bryson
Encounter: Crest Butte, CO
September 21 — We leave our lodge on foot here in town, walk for what only seems to be a few blocks (hardly far enough to go anywhere at home), and suddenly, we’re on a mountain trail. We hike high above the winding Slate River, through intermittent stands of turning-gold aspen. I gawp at the massive bulk of Mount Crested Butte, Gothic Mountain, the interplay of rock and tree line, the contrasting beauty of the valley, the rich topography that is overwhelming in its newness and scale.
The damp, rich, loamy smell of the forest, though, makes just as strong an impression. Aspen leaves are scattered on the trail, gold, green-dappled, as beautiful as mountains. My companions, old friends and new, chuckle at my boyish “golly gee” reaction to this place. I am a rube in this wilderness, as stupefied as a farm boy in New York City.
September 22 — After dark, I gather six aspen leaves of varying size and hue, each jeweled with perfect drops of rainwater. I blot them dry in my room, press them between the pages of Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers without End. It’s comforting to know that my wife and children will consider this a worthy gift upon my return.
Encounter: Metamora, IL
Reeser family reunion at the Mennonite Heritage Center, east of Metamora in central Illinois’ Woodford County. The heart of Illinois farm country, just northeast of Peoria, soils built by centuries of deep-rooted prairie growth, decay, regeneration. Corn and soybeans now dominate this quiet land, the rolling soft green hills of the Mackinaw River valley belying the fact that this is in part a built environment, made and maintained with tractors and chemicals. The ditches and streams here are as vulnerable to nitrogen runoff from the seasonal applications of anhydrous as Oh-Be-Joyful Creek is to heavy metal contamination from the Daisy Mine upstream of Crested Butte, Colorado.
After our family’s potluck dinner and visiting with elderly relatives over rhubarb pie and weak coffee, we walk over to a half-acre prairie restoration dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Christian Reeser, a Swiss-German immigrant who lived and farmed to age 104. Once much of Illinois looked like this. Tallgrass prairie: 1/100th of one percent remains.
Encounter: Chicago IL
September 17 — Eden Place Nature Center, in the Fuller Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Michael Howard and I sit and talk in the trailer that serves as office, classroom, conference area, and tool shed at Eden Place, a 3.4-acre farm and nature center wrought from the desecration of an illegal waste dump in the middle of a residential area in one of Chicago’s poorest, smallest, most isolated, and most polluted neighborhoods. Outside, goats bleat, chickens fuss and cluck, two ponies graze quietly.
The early stages of an oak savannah and prairie restoration take up the north half of this refuge, the only bona fide nature center on the entire south side of the city. Modestly sized and brightly painted barns stand against the tall concrete embankment of the railroad that runs along Eden Place’s western border. Exhaust-streaked trains, passenger and freight, clatter by at short intervals. Too often, freight lines stop and idle here, engines rumbling, diesel fumes thick in the air. Raised-bed gardens sport squash, beans, peppers, tomatoes, herbs.
“What is this book supposed to be about again?” Michael asks. “Remind me. I’m sorry — this has been a long week.” He is exhausted by his new job at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but relieved to have stolen a few rare moments of down time at Eden Place. An oasis in the city.
“The Relative Wild,” I reply. He nods, looks thoughtful.
“When we created Eden Place,” he said, “the thought was this: if we build it, the wild will come.” And so it has over the last fifteen or so years. Red-tailed hawks. Migrating songbirds. Raccoon, opossum, skunk. White-tailed deer, seen in the damp mist at two in the morning. Urban wild amidst an imposing hardscape of pavement and gravel, humble houses and gritty vacant lots, cut off and bounded by physical barriers of twelve-lane expressway, railroads, abandoned industrial yards. Build it, the man says. The wild will come.
Crested Butte, CO
September 23, 2014