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Otto: Discovering nature 
in downtown Chicago

Published: Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011 11:29 p.m. CDT

When I went to Chicago the other day, nature really wasn’t on the agenda. But that’s exactly what is so great about our natural world. Even in a sea of asphalt, concrete and skyscrapers, encounters with nature are pretty much unavoidable.

I’d gone into the city with my friend Tricia and her daughter Brianne to help celebrate Bri’s 16th birthday. Although there wasn’t a set plan, we’d figured on Navy Pier as our sightseeing destination, with stops at State Street and Millennium Park.

Little did we know that the first sight to see would be along Washington, just east of the Chicago River, where we were brought to a halt by a cold-blooded killer – a cicada killer, that is.

The robust wasp, measuring more than 1½ inches in length, buzzed past Brianne’s head – not unnoticed – and plopped down on the sidewalk, probably to take advantage of the warm sun streaming down. It was a big female, to be sure, with an attitude about her that was impossible to ignore.

Once the squealing subsided, we took a closer look.

Cicada killers, if you’ve never seen them before, are impressive on many levels. Females grow to be about two-thirds as long as your pinky finger and are boldly marked in black and yellow, with orangish legs and wings. True to their name, they capture cicadas with a paralyzing sting, then fly them back to their burrows and stuff them into chambers where they will serve as food for the wasp’s developing larvae.

We left the killer to conduct her business there by the bridge and, after a leisurely and pretty much nature-free stroll through Macy’s, made our way to Millennium Park to take in the Bean. (I’m sorry, I know Cloud Gate is its real name, but come on, that thing is a bean.)

We snapped a few pictures, took advantage of some excellent people watching and were about to head up Michigan Avenue when we were stopped by yet another stunning sight, growing in the mulch: stinkhorns!

Stinkhorns are fairly common fungi that never fail to amaze me. Their pinkish-orange stalks are capped with a dollop of dark olive slime, the goo from which the “stink” emits. Foul by human standards, the material is next to irresistible for insects, particularly flies, who alight, prowl around, then fly away, carrying the mushroom’s spores away and perpetuating the species.

The Michigan Avenue stinkhorns we found were a bit past their prime, so I can’t be sure whether they were dog stinkhorns or the oxymoronic elegant stinkhorns. But either way they were fascinating. Even better, there were no crowds obscuring our view, nor was there a line when it came time to take their picture.

With that excitement past, we walked north on Michigan, over the bridge, around the giant (and kinda creepy) Marilyn Monroe statue, through Pioneer Court to Illinois and, soon, Navy Pier.

I don’t know if you’ve been down that way recently, but about a month ago a couple of Texas artists known as The Art Guys put up a wooden sculpture of boxy letters that spell out the term, “fix-ice machene.” According to Navy Pier’s website, the work is a “a surreal image that acts like souls moving through the landscape making a statement of the human predicament.” Uh, huh?

OK, clearly I’m no art expert, but to me the enormous plywood letters were nothing more than a distraction – a misspelled one, no less – from the real attraction at the Pier that day: the hundreds of dragonflies feeding above the lawn.

With gnats and biting flies in abundance, the winged predators – mostly green darners, from what I could see – had their work cut out for them. They soared and swooped, grabbing bugs by the thousands – insect control at its chemical-free best.

The rest of the afternoon and evening passed uneventfully – I believe we may have seen a few more tall buildings – and before we knew it we were back on the train .

Arriving in Geneva, we walked to where our car was parked and headed home. I think we might have passed some shops and restaurants, the sorts of things Third Street is noted for, but I can’t be sure. I was absorbed in the sound of katydids in the treetops, and the nasally calls of nighthawks hunting in the skies overhead.

• Pam Otto never has, and likely never will, work as a tour guide in Chicago or Geneva. She is, however, the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District, and can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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