Chicago Local Fauna Report: Breeding Plans, Respects, & A Thought About the Prairie Dreaming

I imagine that land can dream, and the swampy prairie that was here had a prophesy dream about Chicago as a dark flash of stones and steel that would segregate the soil from the sun. The wolves and buffalo went away, the prairie went almost silent for a few beats of history. This city appears in history instantaneously, as a disruption. A measure later and the broken bones of ecology have set. The prairie lurches back in empty lots and along the railroad tracks.

People don’t dream about the prairie the way they used to, but they still do. I daydream about it and I’m rooting for it in Chicago.

Specifically I dream incessantly about breeding and releasing local native fauna into the wilds of the city. To begin with, the Ruffed Grouse. This is a large majestic prairie bird, historically resident to the neighborhood: it should be able to rough it out in some nook in the city (I have seen pheasants in Detroit). I conceive of breeding them in the basement on a massive scale and releasing them everywhere. (Perhaps there is some kind of Ruffed Grouse bird box that could be built and distributed in empty lots and parks?)

Ruffed Grouse
Coming to Chicago alleys: the Ruffed Grouse

Also I fantasize about breeding the teensy weensy Four-toed Salamander, which I guess I would probably do in the bathtub. When I have my way, these little lungless guys will be crawling all over Chicago. No, there is not much clean wild water in Chicago. I’d spread salamanders on Woody Island, Humboldt Park Lagoon, Northly Island, maybe up north on the Chicago River. Perhaps furnish a section of a park as a salamander fresh water fountain refuge, with all their favorite mosses (both Philadelphia and New York have resident salamander populations).

I am loving the local reptiles– they’re so benign. I would like it if there were a problematic amount of Smooth Green Snakes in Chicago — like clogging up the curbs. While we’re at it, let’s get some American Glass Snakes in the house, too.

American Glass SnakeBefore we part, let’s tip our hat to the mighty burbot, a feisty fish, the only freshwater member of the cod family. This fish can live almost 1,000 feet beneath the surface of Lake Michigan. The burbot: for the ultimate “meanwhile” perspective– as in, “Meanwhile nearby out to sea 1000 feet down the burbot were stirring.” Remember the burbot.

The deep fresh water burbot

What the Strangers are Like Here

If you forget to wear your glasses in Georgia you will mistake perfect strangers for your friends, so honeycombed will be their words (ladies without names calling you “darling” or “baby” like its nothing). Conversely in small town Vermont the strangers will be unmistakable– cut into strips by the shifty eyes of the Yankee proletarian cabal who secretly run things. In Chicago, strangerliness is core civic culture: a traditional local way of life with rooted system of social values. The style and code of being a stranger among strangers is a hunk of Chicago’s dialect. A Stranger is one of the city’s mascots.

Strangers have always needed somewhere to live; Chicago, in the spirit of the old west, has always been a stranger’s home. Generations drift in and out of a labyrinth of rooms built by the foreign scion of lost worlds; transitory people, countless millions who lived here for a month or season, people pulled by the eddy of economics to move, to go to the site of modern work amongst the efficiencies of so many other people (strangers themselves). A common ground for people to be strange against.

Home sculpture Humboldt Park Chicago

The strangers have a good perspective on the city’s vast riddle-like Unknown, as ceaselessly butting against their ignorance of the truths of the city’s endless rooms, and also knowing their own personal complexity as of the Unknown to the rest of the city. The people here have taken a familiarity with this kind of Unknown.

Now every day you will meet with new people in the city and never meet their end. And no matter how many people you know, you can easily never run into people you know.

Generally the strangers in Chicago act professionally, maintaining a mannered distance. Strangers won’t make a big fuss about you. They might extend simple polite courtesies, like holding a door, giving up a seat on the bus to an old folk, or offering a helpful hand or word. But generally they prefer to remain non-verbal, with minimal chit-chat, without an agenda toward fellowship (though alas some will cat call). Chicagoans are minding their own business, assuming they’ll never see any given trainload of people ever again in their life.

The strangers of Chicago cooperate to set each other free. They give each other the space they need for their grain of humanity– they know how to leave you to it. They are alone together in their crowded estrangement. The Chicago stranger can be indecent and untrustworthy. But this whole paper hive is built on the trust of strangers. Generally you’ll find them reserved, competent, patient and sophisticated about the city. And they’ll find you and look right through you, content to let you float away into your dreams.

Things Chicago Could Have Folksy Nicknames About

When you introduce Chicago (in print or conversation) you will immediately mention one or more of the city’s vacuous nicknames: the Windy City, the Second City, City of Big Shoulders, Hog Butcher for the World. These phrases are charming and classic, inviting a foggy familiarity. But they are also cliches, exhausted of description and accuracy. This metropolis has enough character for better nicknames.

Here are some distinctive attributes that Chicago today could be folk-famous for, with some cute new nicknames sprinkled in.


They could sing about the remarkable FLATNESS of Chicago’s land. Being “flat” has negative connotations (for soda pop, breastlessness, performance) but it uniquely makes possible various efficiencies for the city like the grid system, the easiest possible urban biking, being able to build everywhere. Euphonious words to use in a nickname may be “linearity”, “level”, “plane”, “even”.  Flatness has aesthetic consequence, too: on almost every street and sidewalk you can see straight til it blurs off at the horizon. Hence I imagine a nickname about vanishing points, like “Land of a Million Vanishing Points.”

Chicago Sky

The prehistoric inheritance of Chicago is the GLACIERS that plowed the prairies of the Midwest and melted to become the great fresh water Lake Michigan. Human encampment at the edge of glacier melt makes economic sense: it’s the root of wealth. Fresh water, essential for all life, is a fundamental form of value; Chicago abuts one of the most vast concentrations of it in the world. As global drying — not global warming — will remain Life’s true ecological problem, Chicago may be “Third Coast” (to some) today, but it is “First Coast of the Future”: “The City on a Beverage.”

Chicago’s ceaseless RE-FACING, as considered elsewhere on this blog, perhaps deserves a nickname. The swamps are drained, the streets and buildings elevated, the rivers canalized and reversed, all elevations leveled, the lake-front land-filled. Marshall Fields is Macy’s and the Sears Tower is Willis. Each generation’s bohemian skid row has been swallowed in condo glass: from the Water Tower district of the 1910s, River North of the 50s, Old Town of the 60s, Lincoln Park of the 80s, Wicker Park of the 90s, Logan Square of the ’00s. Chicago Chimera. Mass movements of people, immigration and segregation (politely referenced as “City of Neighborhoods”) scramble who the city is and how it is used.

The city would do with a nickname regarding restaurant FOOD (something blustery like “Good Food Capital of America” would suit me). Chicagoans are passionate eaters and have palettes trained to know what tasty food is (very many non-Chicagoans have shocking ideas of what good food tastes like). For both proletarian fare and yuppie post-modern gastronomy, Chicago cuisine is superior (something that locals know but other people do not). (You could throw in DRINK too– it is a place full of drunks and easy liquor.)

An unsung thing that has always struck me about this city is its SKY. It’s a matte gray many days of the year, but often singularly bizarre, complex, colorful, and, to these sentimental eyes, stirring. Lingering Midwest industry does us a favor here– sunset in Chicago is as insane-looking as anywhere. The brilliant orange and violets of the winter sky at night are also nonpareil (they can see many more stars in Brooklyn). “Land of Candy-Colored Sky”

Well, “Land of Enchantment” is already taken, but the heavy feeling on the ground in the city, the lyrical VIBES which sweep over us are real. To suggest the feeling of the streets, while alluding the benign little lappings of the lake, I suggest the nickname “City of Good Waves.”

Runner-up nicknames to use or workshop: “Chicago 2” (instead of Second City), “Bus Stop to the World”, something about ALLEYS, or “the Grid” (Steve says “I only walk cardinal directions and make 90 degree turns”).