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Urban wilderness: a walk around the neighborhood with Scott Holingue



It was stiff, about the size of a human forearm, wrapped in yellowing, blood-stained gauze and plastic. And it smelled of death.

Some animal or human had dug it up from its shallow grave on the edge of Lincoln Park's North Pond, northeast of Stockton and Fullerton. Like the joggers, cyclists, and mothers passing with their children and prams, I didn't at first see the ominous package. But I was with Scott Holingue, a Lincoln Parker who's become the unofficial caretaker of the pond, and he seems to miss nothing during his daily treks through the area.

I wanted to move on. If this thing was a human arm I didn't want to know it. But Holingue kept poking at it, apprehensive but persistent, determined to see what it was. He's the kind of guy who puts wounded pigeons in his pockets.

He wrapped his hands in one of the thin brown plastic bags he carries for dog poop and gently opened the gauze. He soon learned, to my relief, that it was the corpse of a cat that had been buried too shallow. "I'll come back and bury it better later," he said, lifting the putrid package and putting it in a coppice at the pond's edge.

Holingue, who works as an illustrator for the Chicago Tribune, has been walking the area around the ten-acre pond his entire life, more than 50 years. It's only a block from his grandparents' house, where he was raised and still lives. He comes to the pond six times a day, walking at least one of his four dogs and observing the wildlife. "Human wildlife too," he says. He calls it his "urban wilderness" and knows it so well he's written a book about it, Tales From an Urban Wilderness, with Tribune writer Kenan Heise.

The thesis of their book is gently understated but insistent: "It is not enough to campaign to preserve the national parks and their forests and wildlife or to save the wetlands and state preservation areas; we need do the same for life, both plant and animal, in our city parks. The future of this neighborhood and of our city is bound together with this half-mile-square piece of land. The story of the park is that life is bounteous and good and also interdependent."

Holingue, who regards the pond as his neighborhood, is the quintessential neighborhood activist: he hasn't joined any organizations and hates time spent arguing in meetings. Instead he's a direct-action guy, a Clark Kent friend of the animals, even the widely disparaged pigeon. He gives the term "do-gooder" fresh life, being neither sanctimonious nor preachy as he prowls through the park, often joking darkly about the foibles of his fellow humans.

He literally takes things into his own hands, including stray Old Style bottles and plastic six-pack holders. He's rescued a duck whose feet were stuck in the ice, a baby starling that was in the path of a Park District lawn mower, and all sorts of pets, from alligators to ferrets, that have been dumped near the pond by their owners. And he's spent thousands of dollars and hours of his time patiently nursing sick ducks and abandoned baby birds.

Once he brought home a baby grackle that had fallen from its nest and been abandoned by its mother. He painstakingly fed it little eyedropper squirts of formula every half hour, but when the work week began he was certain the Tribune would have little tolerance for grackle nursing. First he took a taxi home every two hours. When this proved too wearing he sneaked the bird into work in a small jar, taking it into a men's room stall for regular feedings. An untimely squawk from the bird alarmed a man relieving himself at the urinal, but the man left without investigating.

Holingue doesn't just help birds and animals. He says a couple of weeks ago he was the only one of 20 passersby who intervened when a black street repairman, fearful of losing his job, stood passively as a middle-aged white woman cursed him, insulted his race, and even pushed and hit him after he told her she couldn't drive her Mercedes south on Lake View because of road repairs. Holingue pulled her away from the man, then took down her license number.

"You don't know who you're dealing with," she shouted as she got back into her car. "I'll get you."

"You don't know who you're dealing with," Holingue shouted back.

Six years ago the pond was drying up, decaying into a polluted puddle. Holingue complained vigorously to every Park District employee who would listen--custodians, clerks, and big shots--about the health hazard posed by the buildup of bacteria, including botulism bacteria, in the muck. Finally Park District crews cordoned off the pond, put up warning signs, refilled the pond, cleared debris from the drain, repaired the freshwater fill pipe, and installed an aerating fountain in the center of the pond that runs year-round. The fountain spray keeps the pond from freezing, which attracts ducks and other waterfowl all winter long.

Until recently the Chicago Park District concerned itself solely with human recreation. It had thousands of employees--more per capita than just about any other park system in the country--but it had no experts on the flora and fauna of the parks. Only Holingue and a handful of other citizen-naturalists who look after little pockets of the parks seemed to care about the wildlife on the tens of thousands of acres of open space in the Park District's domain. Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks, says, "Until the recent appointment of Geri Weinstein, a naturalist hired from New York City, the Park District has had no real naturalists or landscape experts--just a bunch of tree hackers who don't know what they're doing. They've had no foresters, no naturalists, and no sensitivity to the natural environment or wildlife under their domain. Scott reminds all of us that there is wildlife in our parks that we must respect, nurture, and care for. The Park District has emphasized recreation, but it has not paid attention to the importance of the natural habitat and the wildlife that depends on it."

On our walking tour Holingue talked about the natural marvels of the pond. "Most people just see what is directly in front of them. I try to teach them to see beyond their noses and beyond their immediate concerns. While waiting for the bus they might miss a marvelous blue heron circling over and landing on North Pond. In the next month the north end of the pond will be thronged with all kinds of ducks and migrating waterfowl--Canada geese, wood ducks, mallards, mergansers. And the trees and brush on the edge of the pond will be filled with migrating songbirds who have used this area as part of their annual flyway for years, perhaps centuries." He also recalls the regular visits of a great horned owl that preyed on rats and other rodents that live near the pond.

Holingue's attention is now focused on preserving the craggy trunks and twisting branches of dead and dying older willows and cottonwoods on the shore of the pond, whose major threat is overzealous Park District chain-saw crews who feel the need to "clean up" the dying trees. He recently helped preserve the stunning trunk and branches of a fallen willow tree. "I bought a two-and-a-half-ton jack and propped it up with a tree stump I brought from Wisconsin." The tree, now sprouting new branches, is a favorite spot for youngsters to play.

"You know the wildlife needs all the scraggly brush and dying, hollow tree trunks they can find," he says. "They make ideal nesting grounds and protect them from the harshness of the weather here. But these chain crews, for no reason other than it's their job to cut trees, will come in and butcher these trees and clear away some of the best habitat for the wildlife along the pond. Ducks live in and lay eggs in these hollow trunks."

Just then a rat scampered out of one of the hollow spaces of a tree. And the rats?

"They're part of it. They owe their existence to the human garbage bins and cans that line the street in front of those million-dollar homes and apartments. It was hard for me at first to accept all these different forms of life, wildlife and human wildlife, that are part of these urban wilderness spaces--like the guys who come out every night to break into people's cars."

Holingue says he sees a lot of crime. It keeps him out of the park after dark.

But what bothers him more than crime is indifference. When he went to free the duck frozen by its feet, not one of the numerous people standing nearby waiting for a bus offered to help. And when he went to assist an old man who stood on the sidewalk in a blizzard, unable to move against the wind, Holingue saw scores of people simply watching the man from their apartment windows and from across the street. One woman later praised Holingue, telling him "I was wondering if anyone was going to do something"--as if she were incapable of doing something herself.

The most concern shown for ailing animals, he says, has been displayed by homeless people living around the pond, trying to feed themselves by fishing. During the summer of '88, when the pond dried up, homeless young men living in the gazebo at the edge of the pond waded into the fetid waters to pull out ducks and save them for Holingue, who took 12 home and nursed them back to health.

Holingue says there are several organizations that have as a mission keeping the park in better shape. "But except for an annual cleanup they might organize, I never see them out here. Members of these organizations sit around and argue and argue, when they could just as well come out here and start picking things up, defending the trees, or looking after the birds.

"For me, though, it's no great cause. It's a neighborhood thing. My neighborhood happens to be this pond and park. Doing what I do is nothing special. I just keep my eyes open. And when I see something I can do something about, I do it. I don't know why that should be regarded as so unusual. It's just a matter of not turning away from creatures in need--birds, trees, or humans--whether it's our business or not."

In his book he writes, "We all need to realize that wildlife in North America in its full variety could, with the awareness and concern of its human neighbors, win its battle for a place in our cities. And yet, as natural resources diminish, it is losing that struggle as surely as it is in Africa and along the Amazon."

Holingue says he believes most people want to help but don't. "What keeps most people from jumping in and doing something is not fear but embarrassment. They don't want to be seen carrying a beer bottle they picked up or walking around in wet or dirty clothes like I sometimes have to. I don't mind though. It's what I do."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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