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The Sure Cure for the Winter Blues

The Churchill Woods volunteer workgroup soaking in the sun on a 5-degree day in January.

By Jason Halm 

January almost broke the record for giving us the least sunshine of any January in this area’s recorded history. So don’t worry, you’re not the only one feeling a little blue.

Fortunately, I’ve found an awesome way to beat those winter blues back, if only for a few hours on a Saturday morning, and I hope you’ll join me because February promises to be cloudy, too.

Most Saturdays, particularly in the winter, you can find me at Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn just up the bank from the East Branch of the DuPage River, cutting invasive species out such as European buckthorn and honeysuckle.

That’s right: In order to preserve our area’s natural ecology most effectively, we cut down trees, or more accurately shrubs. Why you ask? We remove aggressive native and nonnative shrub and tree species that are taking over high-quality woodlands, savannas and prairies in the preserves in order to maintain its biodiversity.
West Chicago Prairie VOL workday 505x375 

In areas overrun with buckthorn and honeysuckle, oak trees become bound by the invasive brush, growing straight up and not spreading wide and free. Hiking trails and expansive river views become obscured by an aggressive stand of even-aged shrubs.

By removing invasive and exotic vegetation, we also restore the fire ecology to the forest preserves, which we aim to turn into oak savanna, at least in most areas. Native Americans, particularly the Potawatomi, would set fires and let natural fires burn through many of these areas, before Europeans came and stifled the fires and the vibrant ecology and fertility that fire brought to the soil. Selective clearing and prescribed burns give native grasses and forbs the advantage over nonnative, fire-intolerant species.

It’s a joy to see the glorious “grandfather” oak trees along the river at Churchill Woods that have survived many generations. We think they deserve to spend some time with their progeny. And an extra bonus for our efforts is that we get to spend time with a group of very pleasant and dedicated folks, ranging in age from 8 to 70-plus, all joyous to be outside on a wintry Saturday where they are kept warm from the work.

The benefit, then, is that by preparing this land for its first burn in some time, we prepare ourselves to more fully embrace the area’s ecology.

And we look, too, with reverence towards other groups in the county and in the region that have been doing similar work for much longer than us, notably the West Chicago Prairie Stewardship Group, operating out of the forest preserve they took their name from when founded in November 1983!

I was fortunate enough to join several members of the West Chicago Prairie group for a recent workday last month, clearing invasive re-sprouts from an area that’s been cleared three times since work began in the preserve, according to longtime volunteer Scott Hensey. Their wisdom, experience and labor of love will prove immensely helpful to us at Churchill (and throughout the county) as we move into our second year of restoration work and beyond. 

West Chicago Prairie 505x190 

I love going for long walks with my dog through the forest preserves, and biking or kayaking when the weather allows, but restoration work holds a special place in my heart for me and many others, too.

To not only be a tourist to a natural preserve but also do real and meaningful work in the restoration of that preserve is a wonderfully deep experience that I long to share with you. As Churchill Woods site steward Andrew Van Gorp put it:

“There’s something very fulfilling about restoring our connection to place. Belonging to a place is something you can see when people stop sawing or lopping and take a moment to take in the world around them. Some snap a selfie or wander off, others delight in investigating the nature around them. Usually there’s a smile, but sometimes it’s just a glow. The glow is almost as if the feeling of belonging had sunk down to their heart and smiles from within. Humans are healed by the landscape when they realize they are an important part of that landscape. They realize they are not destroyers or consumers of the land, but they are protectors.”

If you’re looking for a cure for the winter blues, join a Volunteer Restoration Workday by registering online or calling 630-206-9630.

See you out there!

West Chicago Prairie savanna 505x115
 

 

Jason Halm TOP 

About Jason Halm
Jason lives in northern Will County and loves exploring the outdoors of the DuPage and Chicago regions, paddling, hiking, biking, and eating a broad swath through the area, while approaching the outdoors with experience and passion in education, tourism, food, adventure, restoration and agriculture. He can be reached at jasonphilliphalm@gmail.com or @jason.ph on Instagram. 
 

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