Archive for the ‘Chicago’ Category

Word on the street: Sidewalk poetry

July 9, 2008

Like most big cities, Chicago has its share of graffiti. Most of it is mindless tagging, the annoying human equivalent of animals spraying their scent to mark their territory. Only this is done with spray paint or markers or—in the latest defacement innovation—acid that actually etches into plate glass and has to be ground and polished out. This is vandalism, pure and simple.

But there’s a much more creative side to graffiti that, if it doesn’t exactly make me ready to forgive taggers, maybe causes me to adopt something of a philosophical “take the good with the bad” attitude. Most famously, graffiti has given us artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It also gives us random poignant moments like this piece, spotted downtown last winter, near Columbia College:

And on a grander scale, this piece done with stencils and spray paint by graffiti stencil artist Peat Wollaeger:

Most recently, graffiti gave me a bit of street poetry. Well, sidewalk poetry, to be more exact. Walking up to the Bucktown offices of the ad agency where I work one morning, I saw a seemingly random word stenciled onto the sidewalk. And then another. And another. When I explored later, I discovered there were 38 words in all, in 29 groupings, spaced out over two city blocks. Someone or a group of someones had cut out these stencils and, in the wee-est of the wee, small hours of the morning [Bucktown and neighboring Wicker Park are infested with late night bars], had applied a poem to the streets of Chicago. Here it is:

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Small Bites: Drink, eat, look and watch right

July 2, 2008

Need a reason to drink more tea? How about 33 reasons?

One of the cool things about food blogging is that you don’t always have to find stories. Sometimes they find you. Recently, Fiona at NursingDegree.Net wrote to tell me of an article that had been posted on their blog, “33 Health Benefits of Drinking Tea.” Their impressive list includes some of the usual suspects, like the fact that teas contain antioxidants and can create a calmer but more alert state of mind. But did you know that tea can lower stress hormone levels, protect bones, lower cholesterol and help keep your skin acne-free? I didn’t.

Read all 33 reasons to drink more tea—you’ll find some big surprises and even bigger benefits. Then go drink some.

Breaking news from The New York Times: We don’t eat as healthy as we should.

In Monday’s Health section, Tara Parker-Pope tells us about The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating. This is a short list compiled from nutritionist Dr. Johnny Bowden’s The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About What You Should Eat and Why. And while the list includes hardworking choices like cabbage and beets, it contains some fun foods, like pumpkin seeds and cinnamon.

Look good while you cook, eat and drink right.

For no reason I can think of, we only just discovered the Chicago Antique Market last weekend. Held the last Saturday and Sunday of each month May through October, it offers an amazing array of antiques and collectibles at reasonable prices. It’s also home to the Indie Designer Market, where we met Peg of TAYGA. They say successful companies find a niche. TAYGA’s niche is aprons custom tailored from designer fabrics. A more fashion-savvy eye than mine [Marion’s] recognized some of the fabric as being from designer Amy Butler.

These are no Auntie Em aprons here. They have cleavage, for crying out loud. And they’re reversible, so you get two looks for the price of one. I’m happy to report they also make cleavage-free versions for men and kids. You can check them all out here.

Emeril returns with a “Bam!”

Being quite possibly the last person in the known universe who doesn’t have cable, I didn’t know that Emeril Live had been cut from the Food Network last year. But now Sienna from Fine Living Network has written to let me know that Emeril is returning to TV—”Bam!” and all. You can catch new episodes seven days a week starting July 7. In the meantime, you can catch some preview clips and videos right here.

You can’t spell “team” without c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e

May 28, 2008

I am not a sports guy. Ever. The sports section of the newspaper only sees action in our house when we’re painting. So when I got an email invitation to meet Team USA, I came thisclose to hitting DELETE.

Then I saw it was Team USA of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. The World Pastry Cup. This was a decidedly different story. So it was, a couple of Mondays ago, that Marion and I found ourselves at the lovely Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel, sipping wine, nibbling on delightful little appetizers and anxiously awaiting the dessert portion of the evening.

Established in 1989, the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is the most prestigious event in the industry. It takes place bi-annually in Lyon, France, during SIRHA, the International Hotel Catering and Food Trade Exhibition. This year, after a grueling selection process followed by months of intense training, teams of pastry chefs from 20 countries will convene in Lyon in January to dazzle a panel of 22 judges and a live audience with their technical and artistic wizardry in the realm of desserts, chocolate, sugar and ice. Specifically, each team is required to perform live before an audience and prepare in ten hours:

A Chocolate Cake, composed of Valrhona Grand Cru Chocolat, presented on an all-sugar sculpture
A Plated Dessert, representative of the team’s country, presented on an all-chocolate sculpture
A Frozen Dessert, using Ravifruit Frozen Fruit Purées, presented on an ice carving.

The official partner and founder of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is Valrhona, a premier French chocolatier. Since 1922, Valrhona has been producing chocolate couverture in the middle of the famous vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage in the Rhone Valley, France, near Lyon. The company is literally “Aux sources du Grand Chocolat” in its role as a planter, discoverer, selector and blender of fine and rare cocoa beans. The French are nothing if not obsessive about food, and we are all beneficiaries of their perfectionist tendencies. Valrhona, for instance, is committed to the creation and enhancement of authentic, intensely-flavored and unique chocolates; they are unique among chocolate producers in offering more than 10 dark chocolates with a cocoa percentage above 64%. And they are currently the only company in the world that produces vintage chocolate made from beans of a single year’s harvest from a specific plantation.

Valrhona’s business is also concerned with encouraging initiative and talent. They have sponsored the Coupe du Monde from its beginnings nearly 20 years ago.

Geographically spread out, Team USA’s training schedule forces them to be organized and focused. Once a month, throughout 2008, the team will meet for intensive weekend training sessions at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This year, the team consists of President and pastry chef consultant En-Ming Hsu; Team Captain David Ramirez, Executive Pastry Chef at The Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida; Rémy Fünfrock, Executive Restaurant Pastry Chef at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Roy Pell, Executive Pastry Chef at The Phoenician, Scottsdale, Arizona; and Team Alternate Jim Mullaney, Executive Chef at The Cloisters Hotel, Sea Island, Georgia.

The United States has sent a team to Lyon since the competition’s inaugural event in 1989 and has come home with the Gold in 2001, the Silver in 1997 and the Bronze in 1995, 1999 and 2005. Team President Hsu served as Team Captain in 2001 when Team USA was awarded the gold.

So what are Team USA’s prospects for winning this year? Well, if the Chocolate Passion Fruit Cake we sampled [winner of the Best Chocolate Cake in 2007, and yes, those are little flecks of gold leaf on the top] is any indication, I’d say they’re pretty delicious—er, good.

RIP, The Spindle: Big art in Berwyn dies

May 7, 2008

Last fall I wrote about an unusual landmark in suburban Chicago that was threatened with demolition. Sadly, it fell last week, another victim of progress, if yet another Walgreens can be deemed progress. We learned about it first at Curious Feet St. Louis. Be sure to read this brief, heartfelt post. You’ll also find links there to photos and video of the demolition. Here’s my original post:

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.

Alas, it is now gone. And the world is just a little bit blander.

A museum! At night! With wine! We are so there.

April 2, 2008

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There’s a lively, happy holiday song that office supplies company Staples hilariously appropriates for its back-to-school sale TV commercial every year. Parents gleefully shop for school supplies as their kids look glumly on; meanwhile, Andy Williams cheerfully sings to us that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

That’s how we feel about Members Night at the Field Museum.

For starters, the Field is one of our favorite museums, chock full of fascinating things that teach us about both the natural world and the many and varied cultures humankind has created over the millennia. Anytime you get mummies and dinosaurs—including Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world—in the same place, you’re off to an interesting start. But there are also cases of butterflies, a Pawnee Earth Lodge, Aztec and Incan treasures, fossil plants… and room after room after room of amazing natural life played out in taxidermy dioramas. Like the imposing grouping of water buffaloes above. Equal parts awe-inspiring and slightly surreal, these displays give most of us the most intimate view we will ever have of the creatures that share the planet with us. The museum not only wows you with its amazing collection, it goes to great lengths to tell you why it all matters.

Just as important as the exhibits—arguably even more so—is the work the staff does in the field. At any given moment, the museum has teams of scientists and anthropologists all over the planet, not only collecting and cataloging, but furthering science with their research both on expeditions and back at the museum. And on any given Members Night, you get to talk to some of these people.

We begin every Members Night visit the same way. We head for the Great Hall, get wristbanded for alcohol consumption, buy our drink tickets and grab a glass of wine. As cool as just being at the museum is for us, being there after hours with a drink in hand ramps it all up considerably. We have to be careful, though. At a similar event at the Shedd Aquarium once, instead of marveling at the beauty and diversity of the sea creatures on display, Marion just found herself wondering how each might taste.

time-flies.jpgWine in hand, we immediately head behind the scenes. Members Night is like an all access pass to a rock show, only for science geeks. All those places usually marked No Admittance? You’re admitted. You get to wander the halls, peer into offices, see what scientists put up on their walls and doors—there were fewer Far Side cartoons this year than in previous visits. You get to see where work gets done, exhibits get planned, where at least some of the museum’s vast collection of study specimens is stored. While the museum’s exhibition space is vast, high-ceilinged and continuously being updated, behind the scenes is a fascinating rabbit’s warren of utilitarian, dark corridors with pipes and wiring snaking overhead. Dark wood doors with frosted glass windows open onto cluttered offices and brightly lit laboratories.

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Coolest of all, though, is you get to meet the people who work in this fascinating environment. And rather than being irritated about having to work extra hours on these two nights every year, they are genuinely delighted to be surrounded by people interested in what they do. Asking someone a question is like flipping an on switch. Fascinating information just starts pouring out.

On our most recent Members Night visit last week:

Marion and her sister Lena learned that ancient textiles are often repaired with one of three grades of Japanese paper made from mulberry bark, extremely strong, but so light and thin it “feels almost like nothing,” as Marion said.

dodo.jpgI learned that, unlike humans, all birds have circular disklike bones in the backs of their eyes, and that, like humans, they have kneecaps. I learned this from a scientist seated next to the case of live dermisted flesh-eating beetles that clean study skeletons for the museum. She was carefully tweezing little bits of gristle and flesh they’d missed on tiny bird skeletons as we talked; Members Night is not for the squeamish.

We spoke with a zoologist whose current project is photographing minute flies that live on bats. The flies are so specialized that each species of fly lives not only on one particular species of bat, but only on one specific part of that bat. Around the neck, for instance, or under the wing [which Marion kept calling the armpit, and the zoologist kept gently correcting her]. As a bit of trivia, this is interesting enough. But it is anything but trivial; it is yet one more bit of evidence that every environmental choice we make affects many, many more fellow inhabitants of this planet than we can begin to imagine.

One might think this event would be about as well attended as a Friends of Sylvia Plath poetry reading. Well, one would be wrong. It is packed both nights every year. And not just by the pocket protector crowd—it is about as diverse an audience as you’ll find anywhere, by any measure you choose. Of course, if you’re still reading this, chances are I’ve stirred your inner geek too. Maybe we’ll see you there next year. Marion’s already trying to work out a way for us to get in both nights next time.

Art and food together. “Is this heaven?”

February 6, 2008

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Last Saturday night we went to Chicago’s first ever Slideluck Potshow, held at the spacious Madron Gallery. As the event’s name sort of implies, it’s a combination potluck dinner and slideshow. At first blush, this sounds like something the Moose Lodge in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, might put on to liven up a long winter night, with everyone oohing and aahing over the multiple green bean casseroles and Ed’s 827 slides of the Alaskan cruise he and his wife Doris took, “when was it now, two years ago… three years ago?” Or as my Brooklyn Buddy Ronnie Ann put it, “Now wait a minute… people willingly go to watch slide shows without having committed a crime?”

Except the slideshow was art—very current work by Chicago artists. The crowd was an entertaining mix of mostly artists and hipsters. The food was plentiful and, for the most part, really good and interesting—this was not the kind of event where you show up with a bag of Doritos or a green bean casserole. And there was even a potluck dessert table and a potluck bar.

For our contribution, we brought a nice bottle of California sparkling wine, and Marion made a heaping bowl of the delicious soba noodle salad she posted on Blue Kitchen last week. The latter was an especially big hit—had the bowl been scraped any cleaner when we picked it up at the end of the evening, we could have just put it back on the shelf.

After the crowd had sufficiently fed, imbibed and networked, we all settled in—mostly sitting on the floor [and feeling fairly collegiate, I think] for an amazing show.

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Slideluck Potshow is the brainchild of advertising and editorial photographer Casey Kelbaugh. It began in his backyard in Seattle back in 2000, when he invited friends and colleagues to bring slides and food. He told me Saturday night that the first shows really were slideshows, with artists loading their slides into carousel trays and projecting them onto the screen: “Click-click… click-click… click-click…” Now it’s all gone digital [of course], with images being set to music and the whole show being run from a laptop to a projector.

Kelbaugh did a number of slide show parties in Seattle before moving to New York in 2003. He wasn’t sure how the idea would fly there, but he gave it a shot and hosted his first New York Slideluck Potshow in his East Village apartment in 2004. According to a New York Times article, “He was surprised when 120 people arrived, obligingly toting home-cooked dishes as well as images of their work. The event mushroomed into a kind of open-mike night for photographers and other artists, who would show up with trays of slides or CDs to show.”

As Slideluck Potshow’s own website says, “Slideluck has become something of a global phenomenon, as they are now taking place everywhere from Berlin to Minneapolis, Mexico City to Washington, DC.”

And now, Chicago. Chicago’s show was heavy on the photography—no surprise, since Kelbaugh is a photographer. The work was a real mix of images, ranging from beautiful to compelling, disturbing, amusing, lyrical and sometimes just plain strange.

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Particularly moving was a series of paired images by Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante. He began visiting an Illinois family farm 13 years ago, taking thousands of pictures of the husband and wife, their land and their animals. In 2002, the farm was sold and became a subdivision. Last year, he returned to the area and began shooting the new life there. He was surprised by what he discovered when he did. “I just started to watch and to shoot and I began to realize that there were so many similarities in what I was shooting to what I had shot,” Strazzante said. “When I think about it now, it’s really eerie.” Here’s a link to a Tribune piece that includes more of his wonderful photographs.

As with any group show, there were a few clunkers in the bunch. But they were greatly outnumbered by real gems. At the end of the evening, we left happily sated, our bellies and brains equally full.

You are here. And here. And here.

January 9, 2008

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More than 30 museums and institutions in Chicago have been participating in a Festival of Maps this fall and winter. We’ve only scratched the surface, but have seen some amazing treasures. At the Newberry Library’s Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West exhibit, a map drawn by George Washington during the French and Indian War. William Clark’s map of “part of the continent of North America,” drawn during his exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis. At the Field Museum of Natural History’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibit, Charles Lindbergh’s flight map for his historic New York/Paris flight in 1927. Two maps drawn by Leonardo da Vinci and loaned to the Field by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And a tattered roadmap of the U.S. that lovingly traced a family’s impressively extensive road trips in the pre-superhighways 1930s, covering much of the country, from Florida to Washington state and stretching even into Canada.

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Many of the maps on display throughout the city are beautiful works of art in their own right, or significant pieces of history. Just as often, they represent major breakthroughs in our understanding of our planet, and the civilizations and cultures that have inhabited it. A painstaking map of the ocean floor made in the 1950s from sonar readings proved for astonished scientists that the earth’s crust was made up of separate moveable plates. Also at the Field, a map on a video screen depicted the American Civil War in four minutes, with each second representing a week. The map showed the gains and losses of territory, with many areas changing hands more than once as battles raged. All the while, a counter in one corner served as a grim reminder of the human cost, more than 1.3 million soldiers dead at the war’s end.

But it’s not all history. A number of interactive exhibits show how GPS and other technologies are remapping the art and science of mapmaking. And why, even with all this technology, there is still a need for human eyes at ground level.

Some exhibits have already closed, and some will end soon. Others will continue into the spring. For more information, check out the appropriately map-based Festival of Maps website.

Wait. Wine fights lung cancer too?

January 2, 2008

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What can’t this miracle elixir do? We’ve all heard how moderate wine consumption can fight heart disease. And if you’re a regular WTF reader, you know it can actually improve memory. Well, now the November issue of Cancer Epidemiological Markers & Prevention reports that drinking wine can actually reduce the risk of lung cancer among non-smokers. As a recent article on this report at Wine Spectator’s website states, “While smoking has been identified as the greatest risk factor, a significant number of lung-cancer cases are unrelated to tobacco use.” Read the whole article here.

Living in Illinois now reduces lung cancer risk too. As of January 1, virtually all public places in Illinois are smoke-free, including bars and restaurants. Whether you’re a smoker or not, you have to applaud that waitstaff, bartenders and other industry workers will no longer have to accept secondhand smoke as a work-related health hazard. And selfishly, I’m looking forward to hanging out in some of my favorite bars without coming home smelling like I’ve been hanging out in some of my favorite bars.

Photo credit: Sebastiani Vineyards

Big art in Berwyn, Illinois

September 26, 2007

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.

Little prairie on the, um, prairie

August 1, 2007

The entrance to the prairie was less than auspicious. Less than promising, for that matter. We arrived at the tiny gravel parking lot at the end of a dead-end street to find the narrow gate on the tall, rusted chain link fence secured with a heavy chain and padlock.

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We’d driven some 30 miles down to 159th Street in the southern suburb of Markham, Illinois, to hike around in “the largest remaining example of high-quality grassland in Illinois” only to find it seemingly closed. But looking closer, I realized that the chain had a lot of slack in it. I gave the gate a push, and it swung open enough for us to duck in under the chain. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to keep hikers out—just ATVs, dirt bikes and such.

aphrodite-on-bw.jpgThe rest of the Indian Boundary Prairies [incorporating the Gensburg-Markham Prairie] are equally basic in terms of services. There is no visitor’s center, no gift shop—there are no restrooms. What there is, though, are more than 300 acres of prairie looking much as it did 8,000 years ago. Prairies or grasslands once covered the entire central part of the North American continent—more than 140 million acres. Less than one percent of that original prairie still survives.

Prairies don’t knock your socks off like mountain ranges. They don’t immediately inspire hushed awe like forests. When we stepped inside the chain link gate our first visit, I have to admit I was less than impressed. Off in the distance, semis rumbled along I-294, and utility poles strung with power lines cut right through the middle of the huge open space. [One set of power lines has already been buried, we since learned, and the Nature Conservancy, Northeastern Illinois University and the Natural Land Institute, who own and manage the site, are negotiating to have these lines buried too.]

dickcissel.jpgAs soon as we headed down one of the trails, though, and started taking in all the wonderful details around us, the beauty of the prairie became apparent. There was life everywhere. Wildflowers were scattered throughout the grasses. Butterflies, bumblebees and other insects flitted, buzzed and hopped around. And there were birds. Some only made their presence known with their songs, but others flew overhead or perched on fences, power lines or plant stalks. Hawks, redwing blackbirds, goldfinches. A pair of unfortunately named Dickcissels plotted our progress for a while, moving from plant to plant, announcing that this was their territory.

Suddenly, it was easy to imagine the prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction and to understand its quiet power. We spent a couple of hours hiking around, stopping often to just look and listen. [Okay, and freaking out over the ticks. When we realized we’d forgotten to bring insect repellant, I was thinking mosquitoes, not ticks. I was happy to learn that these are not the Lyme disease-carrying ticks, just the annoying ones. For our second visit, we used insect repellant—end of tick problem.]

As we were about to leave that first afternoon, another visitor appeared. We talked for a moment, and when our geeky enthusiasm for the place became apparent, he excitedly asked if we wanted to see some wild orchids. We of course did. Turns out the other “visitor” is Northeastern Illinois University biologist Ron Panzer. He’s spent some 25 years helping restore this patch of prairie, successfully reintroducing the Franklin’s ground squirrel, the Regal fritillary butterfly and a host of other creatures and plants.

We ended up spending an extra half an hour or so trying to keep up with Dr. Panzer as he bounded around, pointing out countless subtle things we’d missed and filling us up with more facts than we could possibly retain. It was great.

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At his urging, we came back to Indian Boundary Prairies a few weeks later and found it completely different, as he said we would. Grasses taller, new plants in bloom, even more butterflies. And for me, at least, I found an even greater respect for the subtle beauty of the prairie.

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