Save the Fen at Joliet Junior College: An Open Letter

This is an open letter I wrote recently to the leadership of Joliet Junior College in my hometown of Joliet, Illinois. The issue at hand is a future road extension, proposed by a mall developer, that would bisect the protected natural areas of the JJC Campus and compromise a rare type of Illinois wetland. The proposed roadway has galvanized support for the JJC Fen and associated natural areas on campus and in the Joliet community, as the College’s Board of Trustees debates how to proceed.

13 June 2017

Dear President Judy Mitchell and Board Chairman Bob Wunderlich –

I write to you today as a citizen of Joliet, a longtime environmental educator, and the son and grandson of JJC graduates. My overall message to you and your colleagues on the JJC Board of Trustees is simple: I strongly support the view of the JJC Natural Areas Committee and numerous faculty, students, alumni, and community members that the JJC Fen and associated open/natural areas must be protected from the proposed road extension by Cullinan Properties.

Since its settlement began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Illinois has lost over 90% of its natural wetlands to agricultural and urban development. In the meantime, it has built what must be millions of miles of roads, many of which are deteriorated and no longer in use. In short: we have enough roads. We cannot afford to lose yet more high quality wetlands.

Map of proposed development and roads. The County Road extension (vertical blue line at left) is the road that would traverse the JJC protected natural areas.

Map of proposed development and roads. The County Road extension (vertical blue line at left) is the road that would traverse the JJC protected natural areas.

As the above map illustrates, the proposed County Road Extension is neither the shortest nor the most convenient traffic route from the adjacent I-55 and I-80 interstates to Cullinan’s proposed “mixed-use lifestyle center” — yet even if it were, it would not be the best route. As the great writer, ecologist, and conservationist Aldo Leopold famously wrote in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (pp. 224-5).

The importance of JJC’s high quality open spaces, biodiversity, water quality, landscape aesthetics, and overall campus sustainability far outweigh the supposed advantages of this road extension, which serves no other purpose than to direct traffic to a shopping center that could otherwise take several other perfectly viable alternative routes that are faster and more direct.

JJC Fen 2

Detailed map of the JJC campus buildings, open spaces, water bodies, and wetlands

As the College mulls over the tempting overtures of Cullinan Properties and decides whether to protect this ecologically and educationally valuable ecosystem, or to allow its fragmentation and ultimate degradation, I urge you and your colleagues to take a long view of the matter. A perspective informed by environmental sustainability inspires us to ask careful questions about the road, the character of the campus, and the institutional mission — questions that relate not just to the issues of the day, but those decades into the future.

We now live in a world of rapid urbanization, climate change, and accelerating species extinction. A century from now, I highly doubt that the leaders, faculty, students, and alumni of JJC will look favorably upon a decision in 2017 to disturb and degrade its coveted and protected natural areas with a road built exclusively to service a single shopping center. In fact, given the economic vagaries that occur over a mere 20-30 years, let alone a century, it’s questionable said development will even be operating that far into the future. (The example of the Jefferson Square Mall, built in 1975 with great fanfare and now vaporized from the landscape a mere 40 years later, comes to mind, though there are many others one could cite.)

However, I do think that the future stewards of America’s first and oldest community college (founded 1901) would be rightly proud in the year 2117 that its leaders in the present day chose to maintain the ecological and aesthetic integrity of the campus ecosystem by conserving its tranquil and species-rich open space, protecting the water quality of its beautiful lake and stream, and ensuring the opportunities of generations of students to study field-based biology and ecology in the extraordinary “living classroom” provided by one of Illinois’ most rare and endangered wetlands, a fen.

JJC biology prof Andy Neill leads students on an exploration of the campus natural areas, spring 2017 (photo: Eric Ginnard, Joliet Herald-News)

JJC biology prof Andy Neill leads students on an exploration of the campus natural areas, spring 2017 (photo: Eric Ginnard, Joliet Herald-News)

As a graduate of the local public schools (JT West class of 1985), a current resident of Joliet, and now a professor of sustainability studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago, I have developed a close relationship over the past 12 years with many students and faculty at JJC. I can attest from my vantage point in the regional higher ed community that JJC’s commitment to environmental sustainability – embodied in its native woodland, prairie, and wetland ecosystems; its 1998 Natural Areas Resolution; its LEED-Platinum greenhouse facility and widely-praised arboretum; its progressive academic programming; and its campus sustainability leadership – is the envy of many colleges and universities in the Chicagoland region.

Consequently, harming the fundamental character of the campus’ rare and biodiverse ecosystems would not just diminish the quality of the College’s outdoor learning laboratories; it would also directly contradict JJC’s professed commitment to sustainability and potentially erode its hard-won reputation among its institutional peers.

As a local citizen who cares deeply about and greatly appreciates JJC’s remarkable history and unique educational mission, I ask that you heed the recommendations of the Natural Areas Committee and protect said Natural Areas, including the fen, from any present or future road development.

Yours sincerely,

Mike Bryson
Resident of Joliet, IL
Professor & Director of Sustainability Studies, Roosevelt University

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Wildness: Relations of People and Place

Wildness 2017 UofChgoPThis March saw the publication of the new book Wildness: Relations of People and Place, edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2017), an environmental humanities project sponsored by the Center for Humans and Nature. Part 3 of the book, entitled Urban Wild, includes an essay I co-wrote with Mr. Michael Howard, a Chicago community leader, conservationist, and environmental educator: “Cultivating the Wild on Chicago’s South Side: Stories of People and Nature at Eden Place Nature Center.”

I’m fortunate to have been part of this wonderful project, which began with a writer’s retreat in September of 2014 in Crested Butte, CO, featuring writing workshops by the award-winning scientist and nature writer, Robert Michael Pyle (whose own essay follows a poem by none other than the legendary Gary Snyder). My interviews and writing sessions with Mr. Howard at Eden Place in 2015, and the three semesters I’ve worked there with my students each fall since 2014, have made getting a sense of this special place in the world an immensely gratifying experience. Thanks to Gavin and John for shepherding this project through its publication!

From the book’s promo page on the Univ. of Chicago Press website:

Whether referring to a place, a nonhuman animal or plant, or a state of mind, wild indicates autonomy and agency, a will to be, a unique expression of life. Yet two contrasting ideas about wild nature permeate contemporary discussions: either that nature is most wild in the absence of a defiling human presence, or that nature is completely humanized and nothing is truly wild.

Eden Place Nature Center, Sept 2014 (M. Bryson)

Eden Place Nature Center, Sept 2014 (M. Bryson)

This book charts a different path. Exploring how people can become attuned to the wild community of life and also contribute to the well-being of the wild places in which we live, work, and play, Wildness brings together esteemed authors from a variety of landscapes, cultures, and backgrounds to share their stories about the interdependence of everyday human lifeways and wildness. As they show, far from being an all or nothing proposition, wildness exists in variations and degrees that range from cultivated soils to multigenerational forests to sunflowers pushing through cracks in a city alley. Spanning diverse geographies, these essays celebrate the continuum of wildness, revealing the many ways in which human communities can nurture, adapt to, and thrive alongside their wild nonhuman kin.

From the contoured lands of Wisconsin’s Driftless region to remote Alaska, from the amazing adaptations of animals and plants living in the concrete jungle to indigenous lands and harvest ceremonies, from backyards to reclaimed urban industrial sites, from microcosms to bioregions and atmospheres, manifestations of wildness are everywhere. With this book, we gain insight into what wildness is and could be, as well as how it might be recovered in our lives—and with it, how we might unearth a more profound, wilder understanding of what it means to be human.

Visit the Center for Humans and Nature’s Wildness website for upcoming events and a series of related short films, including one of Michael Howard and Michael Bryson talking about Eden Place.

Eden Place video for WildnessClick on the image above to go to the video interview of Michael Howard (pictured) and Michael Bryson at Eden Place Nature Center.

Posted in Books, Chicago, Faculty, Humanities, News, Research, Roosevelt, Sustainability, Urban ecology, Urban nature, Wildlife | Comments Off on Wildness: Relations of People and Place

Finals Week Assignment: Get Registered for Summer & Fall Classes @RooseveltU!

Danette Mike Graham 2015FallAs the spring semester’s regular classes end on Monday and we begin Finals Week at Roosevelt, it’s a great time to take a few minutes’ break from studying and writing papers to get registered for summer and fall classes!

Advising and registration are ongoing this week, so if you’re an @RooseveltU student, (1) look over the Summer and Fall 2017 schedules using this coursefinder, (2) check your remaining course requirements, and (3) email or call your assigned academic advisor with your planned schedule and any questions you have about your upcoming classes.

Your advisor will provide you with an RU Access registration code so you can register. Click on selected titles below for detailed course previews!

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Summer 2017:

SUST 210 Sustainable Future (online, May 30 – Aug 8, Prof. Pickren)
SUST 390 Writing Urban Nature (Chicago, one-week intensive, May 22-26, Prof. Bryson) — pre-session on May 10 from 4-6pm, WB 1215 and video-conference

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Fall 2017:

ACP 101 Our Sustainable Future (MW, 11am-12:15pm, Prof. Bryson)*
SUST 210 Sustainable Future (T, 2-4:30pm, Prof. Pickren)
SUST 210 Sustainable Future (online, Prof. Pickren)
SUST 220 Water (M, 2-4:30pm, Prof. Bryson)
SUST 230 Food (online, 9/12-12/10)
SUST 240 Waste (W, 2-4:30pm, Prof. Pickren)
SUST 310 Energy & Climate Change (online)
SUST 330 Biodiversity (Field Museum, Th 9am-1pm, Prof. Kerbis)
SUST 350 Service & Sustainability (Eden Place Farm, T 10am-1pm, Prof. Bryson)
SUST 350 Service & Sustainability (online, Prof. Bryson)
SUST 390 Environmental Crime (MW, 12:30-1:45pm, Prof. Green)

* First Year Seminars are open to new full-time undergrads with 12 or fewer hours in transfer credit.

Yes, finals week is a super busy time of the academic year — but don’t neglect getting in touch with your advisor! It’s the best time to get signed up for classes. And for additional useful info, see this Advising Resources page on Prof. Mike Bryson’s faculty website.

Hauling straw in the Eden Place Nature Center’s pickup truck during a SUST 350 Service workday on Chicago’s South Side, Fall 2014 (photo: C. Dennis)

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Today is Honors Research Day @RooseveltU’s Chicago Campus

Honors_Research_Day 2017-04-28Also see the pdf version of this image.

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Earth Day 2017: Mapping the March for Science in Chicago! #MFSChi @sciencemarchchi

Chgo MarchforSci Map#MFSChi @sciencemarchchi

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Science & Math Symposium Today @RooseveltU

Science and Math Symposium 2017 watermark

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March for Science in Chicago on Earth Day 4/22

March for Science Chicago 2017 with routeJoin faculty and students from Roosevelt’s SUST program and the Department of Biology, Chemistry, and Physical Science as we in the RU community march for science! We’ll meet in the WB Lobby at 9:00am, after which we’ll walk over to Grant Park in time for the 10am rally that kicks off the day’s events. After a round of speakers, participants will march at 11am from Grant Park to the Museum Campus for a cool science expo planned for 12-3pm outside the Field Museum. Official visitor and registration details here.

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SUST 390 Writing Urban Nature (May 2017)

SUST 390 WUN Poster Summer 2017For more details, check out the course preview page here!
Please share this poster/link far and wide (pdf).

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Friends of Volo Bog Offer $1K College Scholarship; Apply by March 31st

The Friends of Volo Bog organization is offering an Entering College scholarship and a Continuing College scholarship for $1,000 each to outstanding students interested in pursuing an environmental career.

To be eligible for the Entering College scholarship the applicant must reside in Lake, McHenry, Kane, Cook, DuPage, Kendall, or Will County, attend a high school in one of these counties, have a minimum B average for the first three years, and plan to attend an accredited college or university.  The applicant should be planning to enter a career directly related to preserving the natural environment.

To be eligible for the Continuing College scholarship the applicant must be currently enrolled in an accredited college or university pursing a degree directly related to preserving the natural environment, have a permanent residence in Lake, McHenry, Kane, Cook, DuPage, Kendall, or Will County, have graduated from a high school from one of these counties with a minimum B average, and currently hold a minimum B average in their college studies.

Applications are due by March 31st each year for the following school year starting in the fall. Application packets are available here.

The Friends of Volo Bog is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to promoting citizen awareness of the local natural heritage of Volo Bog State Natural Area, portions of which are dedicated state nature preserves, and to preserving the same through special events, educational and training programs, acquisitions of properties for such purposes and taking whatever steps deemed necessary to insure the continued care and preservation of Volo Bog State Natural Area as a natural site.

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Introducing “Rooftop: Second Nature” — Remarks at the Opening Reception, 9 Feb. 2017

425 S. Wabash (looking east), Chicago, IL, June 2013 (photo: Brad Temkin)

425 S. Wabash (looking east), Chicago, IL, June 2013 (photo: Brad Temkin)

Nature within the urban landscape is simultaneously close at hand and hidden from view — a paradox of proximal obscurity. Yet its myriad forms are as diverse in kind as their human denizens. City parks, urban farms, back yards, forest preserves, vacant lots, and green rooftops — all these and more comprise the spaces of urban nature.

Despite the ubiquity and diversity of urban nature, it remains largely invisible to and thus unappreciated by many city dwellers. We are much more likely to assume nature exists “out there,” away from our cities and suburbs — especially in remote places characterized by few people and sublime landforms. An implicit corollary to that is that the city is unnatural.

Lurie Children's Hospital (looking southwest), Chicago, IL, May 2012 (photo: Brad Temkin)

Lurie Children’s Hospital (looking southwest), Chicago, IL, May 2012 (photo: Brad Temkin)

Yet the recent coinage of the seemingly oxymoronic phrase urban wilderness signals that we have begun to re-envision the role of nature within metropolitan landscapes. This nature is almost always hybrid in character, a product of human design and action even when appearing “natural” in outward form. Consider our location right here, along the southwestern rim of Lake Michigan — where the surveyor’s grid was laid down upon the marshy prairie, a river’s current audaciously reversed, and lakefront parkland perched atop thousands of tons of landfill.

Gage_Gallery_Spring_2017 rooftop promo emailThe intersections of the made and the natural can be apprehended in such settings . . . if one observes carefully, knows where to look, and possesses a spirit of exploration. The dramatic roofscapes by Brad Temkin in Rooftop: Second Nature are striking visual compositions that reveal the city from a different and unfamiliar angle, as well as information-rich object lessons in how green infrastructure enhances urban sustainability.

More broadly, though, this exhibit speaks to the vital role played by the environmental arts and humanities in envisioning a more sustainable future for humanity as well as for the millions of fellow species on our beautiful yet vulnerable planet. Thought-provoking ideas, artwork, architecture, poetry, stories, historical accounts, theater, music, and film are necessary complements to painstaking ecological analysis and pragmatic environmental policy.

Why? Because ideas and vision matter. Compelling narratives, whether literary or visual, can animate science, challenge our use of technology, inspire policy, and change hearts and minds. Such narratives must guide our thinking to ensure that social equity and environmental justice are not trampled in the relentless pursuit of short-term profits from, say, building oil pipelines across sources of drinking water in the Great Plains; or dumping the “overburden” of mountaintops into the creeks and rivers of Appalachian coal country; or selling more Pepsi or iPhones.

Skeptics of climate change cannot be persuaded by scientific data and evidence-based policy alone — certainly not when science itself is under unprecedented attack in our society; not when environmental laws are in imminent danger of being dismantled; not when the very status of an observed and documented fact is undermined by the brazen contempt for reason and unsettling embrace of doublespeak that now constitutes the discourse of the new administration.

In such fraught and perilous times, a sustainable future can only be achieved, let alone properly envisioned, with the full participation and engagement of the environmental arts and humanities.

By showing us the “second nature” of the urban landscape in these images of green rooftops, Brad Temkin’s art not only delights and inspires with unexpected manifestations of beauty, but also implicitly challenges us to consider what “first nature” is, and what sort of relationship we want with it — one which in we are conquerors . . . or stewards.

This is a slightly edited version of a short speech I gave at the opening reception for Rooftop: Second Nature on 9 Feb 2017 at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL. The Gallery is open 9am-5pm weekdays and 10am-4pm Saturdays.

Posted in Architecture, Arts, Chicago, Education, Events, Green design, Humanities, Photography, Politics, Roosevelt, Sustainability, Urban ecology, Urban nature | Comments Off on Introducing “Rooftop: Second Nature” — Remarks at the Opening Reception, 9 Feb. 2017