In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and The Rock River Times presents this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit fourriver.org.
By Katie Townsend
Wilderness invokes an image of untamed landscapes and natural cycles spinning without interference from humankind. The knowledge that such places exist invites reactions like dancing in the rain or even howling at the moon. Too often, we settle for the contentment of knowing that somewhere out there the natural world is unfettered, but inevitably beyond the grasp of our urban experience. Not so! I’ll let you in on a secret…just look for an oasis amid the pavement.
The definition of oasis, according to Webster, is a fertile section in a desert that contains water. Working with that metaphor, the development along North Alpine Road and between the Rockford College parking lots and residential streets can be every bit as sterile as the Sahara Desert. However, within those perimeters is a 92-acre green space bisected by Keith Creek. I invite you to explore the city oasis known as Reuben A. Aldeen Park.
Any spirited individual will discover that this nature reservation has wilderness in the heart of its tract. Leaving the borderlands of the picnic shelter, ball field and portable toilets, look for a landmark along the creek line: a large black walnut tree with a wood duck box! It marks an entrance as mystic as the door to the secret garden. Walk the “backwards bridge” (a name passed down as oral tradition by generations of summer campers), and then follow any trail that catches your fancy, uphill to the northern hardwood forest. This is the land of giant sugar maple trees so great and plentiful that this hilltop would be the envy of any sugar bush operation in Wisconsin. (It makes me think about pancakes with a pat of butter and perfectly warmed maple syrup).
Back to the forest, there are other interesting trees to see. Look for the diamond bark patterns of the walnuts or the warty complexions of the hackberries. Look for flashes of the mottled pink Solomon’s seal berries, and the fire-engine-red of the jack-in-the-pulpit bunches should not be missed when viewing the understory. The Virginia creeper vine is spiraled around tree trunks waiting for the autumn showing of her scarlet chains. Yet, the charm of this place is not just visual. The leafy curtain has screened out the noise of traffic. The heavy forest canopy makes this a shady and mellow spot. This is a deep woods nirvana.
Even heading back toward the bustle of society is enriching, as the track along Keith Creek reveals a variety of winged insect residents. Dragonflies and their slender cousins, the damsel flies, perform sky ballet. Cabbage moths, sulphur butterflies, monarchs, and swallowtails follow up as field guides. It is time to return to my car and, ultimately, the pavement. However, I will look forward to returning to the refreshment of the Rockford Park District oasis at 623 N. Alpine Road, Rockford.
Katie Townsend is a free-lance writer and environmental education consultant. She serves as vice president of the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and Steering Committee of the Green Communities Coalition.
From the Sept. 15-21, 2010 issue