This window into the preserves of yesteryear offers great winter reading.
For some twenty years—between 1945 and 1964—the Forest Preserve District issued weekly bulletins about the natural history of Cook County. Written by staff, the bulletins went out to classrooms across the county. Revised editions were reissued until 1980. Today they offer a fascinating window into Cook County nature and the Forest Preserves of yesteryear.
Through NEWTON’s Ask a Scientist, an online community hosted by Argonne National Laboratory, more than 750 of these bulletins have been digitized and made available online.
The bulletins explain everything from winter fish die-offs and the continental divide to forest preserve and conservation history. They include colorful first-hand observations and commentary (not all completely politically correct). Their authors clearly take great pleasure in nature:
Take a walk. Wear old clothing of some hard smooth cloth that the burs and stick-tights can’t cling to. Wear stout comfortable shoes. Forget your hat. Stick a sandwich or two in your pocket and “travel light”. Take it easy. Have fun. Relax. Sit down once in a while and be utterly quiet, watching and listening for the wild creatures.
Some bulletins are prescient, as in one from 1945 [misdated online] suggesting the resurgence of coyotes, which according to the bulletin hadn’t been reported in Cook County “in the past fifteen years.” The sight of a coyote back then was apparently so unusual that a forest preserve ranger shot it and sent it to the Illinois Natural History Survey. Today, thousands of coyotes call Cook County home.
Some bulletins are out of date and inconsistent with modern science and best practices. A 1945 bulletin declares: “FIRE IS THE ENEMY OF FIELD AND WILDLIFE,” also requesting of the reader: “When you see a fire in the preserves stop and put it out—if you can. If you can’t, go to a telephone, reverse the charges, and notify the Forest Preserve General Headquarters.” Today we consider fire an essential component of the ecosystem and conduct prescribed burns. We’d never advise anyone to attempt to put out a fire on their own, and we’d suggest using a cell phone.
In a short, descriptive 1947 essay about genes, the writer couldn’t have known of the jump that the field of genetics would make in the modern era, and how it would revolutionize the study of nature, enabling scientists to map entire genomes of organisms, track animals and diseases using DNA and rethink the way species evolve and should be classified.
Though much has changed since they were written (and often because so much has changed), these nature bulletins are full of valuable information and insight about Cook County wildlife. And their themes and settings run through to the present era. The preserves, trails and waterbodies in these essays are the same ones we can visit today, as in this article written in April 1963, 51 years ago:
As spring approaches and the frogs begin to sing, flocks of migrating waterfowl stop to rest and feed on McGinnis, Tampier, Saganashkee and Longjohn Sloughs.
The woodpeckers, groundhogs and grasshoppers still largely do the things they did then. And the preserves are still a place where, “whether walking or fishing or just basking in the sunshine, the wrinkles in a troubled mind may be smoothed away.”
So the next time you’re trapped inside by a polar vortex, spend some time delving into this fascinating treasure trove. Each bulletin will add a layer to your understanding of the complex and evolving forest preserves.