In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and The Rock River Times present 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
President, Four Rivers Environmental Coalition
Several weeks ago, I wrote about the back 40 at Reuben Aldeen Park, dubbing it an “oasis” in the pavement, with the hope of enticing the city dweller to tramp into the wild. There came a satisfaction with addressing an option that everyone could reach. This appealed to my recent revelation about the importance of urban environmental initiatives. Shortly after the article went to print, the challenge was posed: not everyone can easily reach Aldeen Park. Write about a place that has wild things that can be reached off a bus stop.
OK, then…here it is, Dahlquist Park Outback: A Ribbon of Prairie Remnant. Start by boarding the Rockford Mass Transit District bus at the station. Proceed on the East State Berth H No. 11 bus and jump off at Valley View Apartments (3300 E. State St.). Put your back to the road and the clutter of the city, then walk south into Dahlquist Park. At first glance, the only wild things in sight may be a heated tennis match or a little smack-talking over a pick-up basketball game.
Set your foot on the .43-mile walking path, but do not make the full circle. Here is where the wandering to the outback begins. Stop at the horseshoe pits. Behold, Keith Creek runs away from the park proper, forming a grassy strip that extends to the hills of Twin Sisters. Examine the green ribbon of landscape. Imagine buffalo, a rolling thunderstorm on the horizon and the prairie state as it was 200 years ago.
The tallest plants are two different types of sunflowers: the cup plant and rosinweed. Even on a November day without yellow blooms, these stand-bys are identifiable, both with sandpapery leaves and brushy balls for seed heads rising up a good foot above my head. At the intersection of leaf and stem, the cup plant forms a mini watering hole with pools forming in the indentation. Little Bluestem is the most prominent prairie partner lining the whole ribbon of flora along the creek. A nickname is the turkeyfoot grass, as clinging grass seed and three-way branching resemble a scaly bird foot. Today, it is like 100 turkeys lay on their backs kicking upward into an ashen sky.
Some of the other “winter weeds” to be viewed are cotton-tufted goldenrods and asters. Then, to add some color to the drabs, notice the pink stems of the pokeweed flagging in the sedges by the bridge. Venture too close to the water’s edge, and the itchy pinch of a stinging nettle will serve to remind you this is not a tame place. Trees reinforce the concept that this is the bush. A leaning and broken black locust serves as an upscale condominium for wildlife. This meadow dweller is not valued for curb appeal, but for the protection it provides from bank erosion, as well as woodpecker, raccoon, squirrel and insect hideouts. So it is here, in the perfect tangle of grasses, nests, shrubs and well-placed trees, that a taste of wilderness can be reached from a bus stop.
Katie Townsend is a free-lance writer and environmental education consultant. She serves as president of the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and is on the steering committee of the Green Communities Coalition.
From the Nov. 24-30, 2010 issue