Before Chicago, there stood at least one oak tree:
For almost three hours, crews from Fernandez Tree Service hacked away at one of Chicago’s oldest trees, a centuries-old, sprawling bur oak that had reached the end of its life span. The nearly 70-foot giant was here long before the zoo was built in 1868, when the area was just a lakeshore covered with tall grass, and possibly even predating the incorporation of the city of Chicago.
Director of horticulture at Lincoln Park Zoo Katrina Quint said the tree is 250 to 300 years old. The caramel cross-sections of the trunk have diameters of 60 inches…
Scott said that in northeastern Illinois, about 1 million acres of land used to be oak forests. There are only 17% of those oak ecosystems left, and 70% are in private ownership, meaning that they’re not in protected status, she said…
Morton Arboretum’s Robert Fahey wrote about this native species loss in the 2015 Oak Ecosystems Recovery Plan, led by the Chicago Wilderness and the Oak Ecosystems Recovery Working Group. Fahey overlaid 1830s public land survey data with 1939 aerial photography and 2010 analysis to see where oak ecosystems used to exist and where they exist now.
The Chicago area now has many trees, but losing one of its oldest trees both harms the ecosystem and severs a connection to the past. Trees are an important part of the landscape and can outlive development and people.
One thing that cities and suburbs tend to do is level the landscape, plop buildings, roads, and more on the ground, and place all sorts of infrastructure underground. It is hard to imagine that prior to the Chicago region, there existed sand dunes, waterways that operated differently (the Chicago River, in particular), groves of trees, swamps, and prairie spaces. The growth of Chicago was bad news for these natural settings as the city consumed land and resources, produced much pollution, and recreated “nature” along the lakefront and in parks.
I hope more people can see what areas looked like before mass development in the United States. This can help prompt thinking and action about what we might do with land beyond building houses and providing pathways for vehicles.