By Rod Myers.
In the Fall of 1955 I was a patient at Illinois Research Hospital in Chicago. I was 4 years old and a victim of Congenital Muscular Dystrophy. The hospital was trying to solve my mobility problems. Home is where I really wanted to be, in the little town of Adeline, Illinois.
The next January two freedoms were granted. The hospital let me go home, plus I was walking for the first time in my life. Thanks to a pair of shiny new leg braces my bipedal life had begun. Now when scouting the yard I could peer into the low spruce hidden nests of the sparrows with the red skid marks on their heads. I could catch butterflies, pick the tops off taller weeds, and look into low tree cavities. Being upright also meant I could get knocked down, get spanked and get stung on the rear!
We lived next to the town cemetery which became my playground. The cemetery was excellent habitat for plastic flowers, dead people, and for many living bird, mammal, insect, tree and spring wildflower species. The Adeline Cemetery possessed two of my favorite things, the pussytoe flower and the eastern screech owl.
Ironically, two years later, our family moved to Rockford, Illinois, renting an upstairs apartment not fifty yards from a huge cemetery. My bedroom windows faced a craggy, old silver maple full of hollows. One small hollow straight out from my window housed a red phased screech owl. I watched this bird every day for at least an hour until he disappeared two months later.
The huge cemetery became my outdoor classroom and playground. While exploring the cemetery I began to notice the relationship between vegetation and wildlife.
Most of my childhood was magical and happy, thanks to a loving family and the enchantment nature gives.
It was late summer in 1987, and as I looked out my federally subsidized, city apartment patio door I wondered if the crewcut lawn was as dead as it looked. I wondered if I looked as dead as my spirit felt. The years had taken a toll on my body and life. One key element was missing from my life – nature. Being separated from nature can happen quickly for those of us with physical and transportation problems. Ironically, the disabled who would greatly benefit from gardens and wild areas have access to them the least. Most of this country’s disabled are urban-bound and below the poverty line. Most are dependent upon public transportation which does not travel to forest preserves beyond the city limits.
As for me, I was lucky enough to have joined up with a local prairie group. The prairie group even hauled me to the Wade Prairie near Byron and Stillman Valley, Illinois. The prairie hoppers went as far as to carry me in the wheelchair to a hill in the Wade Prairie. There I sat stunned by the beauty of the forbs and grasses flagging in the wind, mimicking my long unrestrained hair. Over my shoulder behind a fence was a house and back yard. The back yard looked just like the prairie! The residents let the prairie take over the yard. “That’s the way I want my yard to look,” I thought out loud. “It can look that way,” said a jack-booted prairie person with the legs of Thor.
After getting permission from the landlord, two of my friends and I put a 15 x 15-foot prairie restoration in my yard. Being aggressive prairie restorers, we expanded the prairie every year. My natural area is now ten times larger than the original plot. In 1995 a prairie pot hole and sedge meadow were added to the yard. The next year we added an 8-foot bur oak, and underneath it we started a savanna section. In 1997 native shrubs were planted and a woodland wildflower section was started under the ornamental shrubs that I could not extirpate.
My yard is my love; it is my child. It has pulled me out of depression more times than I can count. I watch over the yard and I guard it like a badger. Human and domestic animals know not to go in there. Every year a new yard crew comes to mow the rest of the yard once a week. When I watch the crew, they are being watched! The badger in a wheelchair will chase them if they even think about cutting the native plants. More than once I’ve heard the phrase, “Can’t we just get along?” yelled at me in Spanish. Nothing brings terror and anger to my heart quicker than the sound of a weedwacker.
My yard has been on the Rock River Valley Native Landscape Tour the past two years and will be again this summer. This gives me a chance to brag about the sixty-five species of birds that have visited my yard, like the clay-colored sparrow, one of eleven sparrow species that visit in springtime. Raptors include the Coopers hawk, kestrel, Merlin and winter goshawk. On a balmy mid-February day in 1995, I bolted out onto the patio, flushing two mourning doves hiding near the bird feeder. All of a sudden behind and above a repetitive screeching startled me. I wheeled around and there on the roof was a peregrine falcon. Immediately the bird rose and flew to the north. I sat there stunned! Apparently I spoiled the prospects of the falcon having a dove dinner.
Over a hundred native plant species live in my yard. The list includes pale purple coneflower, rattlesnake master, indian plantain, rough blazingstar, sawtooth sunflower, blue-eyed grass, shooting stars, big and little bluestem and prairie dropseed. Some of the wetland plants are bulrush – river and soft-stemmed, marsh marigold, swamp milkweed and narrow-leaved cattail.
The pothole area has green frogs, toads, and chorus frog tadpoles rescued from an evaporating depression in someone’s back yard. A married couple in the Wild Ones put five tree frogs in the pothole. The tree frogs proceeded to traverse half the neighborhood giving away their individual location every night at dusk.
I guess the big excitement last year was the insect survey. A friend and I observed 361 insect species. I can confidently say that at least 200 species eluded us, especially in the wetland area. We caught most of the moth and beetle species at night by using a rope, a white sheet, and a black light. Warm damp nights brought out the most bugs. Many species were observed during the warmest part of the day – flying or hopping from plant to plant. I drew a picture of every bug that gave me a prolonged look. I learned a lot about shape and aerodynamics drawing these truly magnificent creatures. The species list included the golden digger wasp, wolf spiders, cicada killer, marsh fly, twelve species of dragon flies, twenty-three species of butterflies, twenty-five species of leaf hoppers, twenty-eight spider species, sixty-three moth species and eighty beetle species. I’m not sure where the rest fit in. Oh, and I forgot the bees!
Once again let me say that I love my yard. It probably saved my soul.
I will continue to advocate for disabled access to natural areas. I am an environmentalist and I applaud other environmentalist that fight to save natural area from the sprawl. However, those that oppose disabled-access trails in qualified public lands must look at the damage that the able-bodied do to natural areas. Disabled people stay on paths because they have to. A good number of the able-bodied stray from the paths and trample plants to observe, to gain solitude, to photograph, to video, to bird, and to collect. People are loving natural areas to death.
Public lands aren’t just for the healthy elite. You shouldn’t have to pass a physical exam to experience a natural area. The disabled are not the enemies of nature, and by the way, stay on those paths!
A sincere thank you to Rod Myers and Fran Lowman for bringing this story to us.