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Dong Lee once described himself to me as "just a kid from the rice paddies." He came here from his native China as a young man and has now retired from a career in the post office.

I met Lee while we were both walking our dogs in Horner Park. We are part of an unnamed and informal group of about 40 dog walkers who are morning regulars there. We dog walkers are not close friends, but we do keep track of the birth of children and other major events in each other's lives. We hold no meetings and collect no dues, but we are cohesive enough to hold an annual potluck breakfast in the park each October. And when Marianne Kykta's dog, Shadow, was hit by a car, we took up a collection to help pay for surgery on the dog's pelvis.

Lately, whenever I see Lee in the park, he's got a field guide in his hands and he's carefully studying the leaves or bark of a tree or examining one of the weedy wildflowers that grow along the fence at the edge of the riverbank. Sometimes he's leading a group, usually dominated by an elderly woman, on a tour of the park.

Lee has become a docent, part of a new Park District program that has thus far trained about 50 volunteer teachers to provide nature-related programs in parks around the city. These days when Lee and I meet, we talk about birds, or the sweet smell of basswood flowers or the grove of ginkgo trees by the parking lot along California Avenue.

For Lee, the job has provided a focus for his enjoyment of nature. For the people who tag along on his nature walks, he provides an opportunity to use the park and a starting point for another informal network like our group of dog walkers. Networks like these strengthen the ties between the park and the community, ultimately the best protection against park takeovers by gangs and other creeps.

And nature programs like those Lee is leading can actually change people's lives. It is common to meet someone who is monitoring populations of endangered plants, carrying out a butterfly census, or conducting a breeding-bird survey --doing precise, careful, scientifically valuable work--whose interest in nature dates to a bird walk or a wildflower walk at a local park or preserve.

Even if your interest never takes you that far, learning about nature in the parks is enriching, adds resonance to your daily life. Once your eyes and ears are attuned to the ways nature reveals itself in cities, you start to see that there is a lot more going on around you than you ever dreamed of. It's like being cured of color blindness, like suddenly seeing reds and greens where there had been only shades of gray.

The docent program was created by Wanda Iza, who was hired last year as the first and only staff naturalist in the history of the Chicago Park District. She has had a busy year. In addition to launching the docent program, she has been discovering some extraordinary natural features unwittingly preserved in our parks: an oak grove in West Pullman Park that dates from presettlement times, and even a bit of remnant prairie at Higgins Field on West 117th Street.

She is the only staff person assigned to this work full-time, but she does have the help of 17 people, one in each of the Park District's 17 regional groupings. Of course these 17 have other jobs as well, and they serve the naturalist program mainly by providing someone for the volunteers to turn to for help when they need it.

The 17 also disseminate information and ideas to other staff members. The Park District has day camps serving 25,000 kids every summer, and Iza has been developing and sending out ideas for nature-related games and activities for these kids.

City kids don't get much chance for the right exposure to nature. "Don't touch that, it's dirty" is the idea they hear expressed most often about anything natural. The question they ask most often is likely to be: "Is it gonna get me?" If you can do nothing more than teach kids that most things really aren't out to get them, you've done a lot. And just as with adults, some kids get really excited about nature. Many adult botanists, ornithologists, and entomologists can trace their interest to a nature-study class they took at age 10 or 12.

Iza is also looking for ways to get more nature into the parks. Thanks to her urging--and a show of community support--six acres of Jackson Park have been sown in native prairie plants, including such showy wildflowers as compass plant, purple coneflower, and blazing star. Soon Chicagoans will be able to see at least a small example of the garden that inspired our city motto: Urbs in Horto, "City in a Garden."

She also got the Park District's approval for a plan to stop mowing the grass on Wooded Island in Jackson Park. The no-mow policy is the first step in the direction of giving the island a somewhat more natural character. In time, flowers will be planted and replace much of the grass. This plan has aroused some public opposition: a lot of people think unmowed grass looks messy. Iza defends it by pointing out that Wooded Island has been formally designated as the Paul Douglas Nature Preserve, and that a nature preserve ought to be more natural than a formal park.

She also has history on her side. When Frederick Law Olmsted-- the pioneering landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park and the White House grounds--was laying out Jackson Park for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he set aside Wooded Island as an oasis of nature in the midst of the fairgrounds. The island was a natural feature, an old beach ridge flanked by marshy swales. Olmsted deepened the swales to create lagoons and raised the surface of the ridge to keep it dry. There were oaks growing on the ridge, and Olmsted left them there. Many remain.

To complete the vegetation of the island, Olmsted sent out crews to gather native plants from Illinois, Indiana, and southern Wisconsin. He wanted the island to look natural and to be natural.

Iza's work has also come under attack in the broadsides against the Park District and its supporters that Steve Neal has been firing in his Sun-Times column. Neal has leveled some serious accusations, including charges that members of Friends of the Park listen to WFMT and WBEZ and that Park District superintendent Jesse Madison is only five foot three; but he has combined them with a lot of silly stuff about garbage in the lagoons, and dandelions and tall grass in Lincoln Park.

Apparently Neal never set foot in a park in the days when Ed Kelly ran things. If he had, he would know that the bottoms of the lagoons have always been trash festivals, that dandelions have long been a prominent floristic element--as the boys in the botany journals would say--in Lincoln Park, and that tall grass is not something that Jesse Madison invented. I can remember times in late May and early June of the Kelly years that the grass east of Montrose Harbor came up to the middle of my calf--and I'm a foot taller than Madison. We can criticize the present regime for not improving things, but it is simply wrong to suggest that Madison brought the dandelions in with him.

Neal has also been pushing the idea that the parks are supposed to be nothing but wall-to-wall softball diamonds, and that nature in the parks is some kind of effete, alien notion brought in by all those "elitist" WFMT listeners.

I have nothing against softball. I've been known to play it myself (my usual position is worst fielder). But a Park District that does nothing but softball--and other sports--ends up serving kids (most of them boys) and young men. Everybody else can stay home. Lee and the elderly ladies he leads through Horner Park can sit and watch the soaps. The parks are not for them.

The division of the world into elitists, who enjoy seeing prothonotary warblers, and honest Middle Americans, who care nothing for such silliness, was a major feature of the Watt years at the Department of the Interior. Only elitists care about preserving the ecosystems in our national parks, Watt's followers proclaimed. All the average park visitor needs is a few pretty trees around. It doesn't really matter what they are.

This supposedly populist view really disguises a serious contempt for the average person. It jumps from the fact that a lot of workingmen like to play softball to the idea that softball is all they want. They couldn't really appreciate anything else, so why offer it to them? It's a view of American workers that comes straight out of a beer commercial.

We should hope that any upheavals in the Park District don't destroy the naturalist program. Parks should serve everyone, not just softball players. And even softball players don't necessarily play softball all the time.

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