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May/June 2012

Breaking News! I just got around to unsealing the 8 x 10 envelope that had been lurking in my unopened mail stash, and out popped a congratulatory letter from the National Wildlife Foundation with my certificate (suitable for framing) announcing that my city yard is henceforth a certified wildlife habitat (www.nwf.org).

The certification program has existed nationwide for many years, but I only got converted to the cause after an inspiring bit of evangelism from John Eskandari, tree and shrub high priest at Gethsemane Gardens in Chicago. John has been proselytizing for a program called Chicago Green Mission, whose goal is to get 1,000 city residential, church and school gardens certified as wildlife habitats. “Wouldn’t it be great if Chicago became the first city in the country to get certified?” he enthused.

I thought so too and took home the brochure and application form. I quickly realized that my yard met the criteria for food, water, cover and places to raise young. Most of you probably qualify, too. Even if you live in a Chicago six-flat.

The arrival of the certificate was a nice bit of serendipity since I had just been reading Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field & Street by the late naturalist Jerry Sullivan (University of Chicago Press, $25), a book that explores the multiple ways nature still exists in Chicagoland and the ways it’s threatened. The book is a collection of essays that Sullivan wrote as “Field & Street” columns for The Reader newspaper, and it’s a marvel. Pithy, laugh-out-loud funny and scientifically right on the money. While its 70 different topics are wide-ranging — why fireflies flash, how squirrels’ nests are made, ice fishing, the first recorded ant transplant in Illinois history (don’t ask) — the importance of saving what we have and helping it to flourish runs as a theme throughout.

And so I began reading the title essay with keen anticipation. Sullivan describes how he and six other “frog surveyors” hopped (oops) in a van one night in May and began exploring northwestern Chicago and the nearby suburbs. They made 20 stops and heard frogs at three of them — North Park Village, LaBaugh Woods Forest Preserve and another forest preserve site north of Oakton Street along the North Branch of the Chicago River. None, alas, along Elston Avenue.

But what of those habitats where the explorers did find frogs? Are they healthy today? Or has nearby development so degraded them that the frogs and other wildlife have disappeared?

Some of what happens to nature is beyond our control. But not our backyards. This is where we can do our bit to help the insects, butterflies, birds and animals that are necessary to life. The key word is habitat. It’s being lost all over the world, and with it, the biodiversity that’s essential to life on the planet. It’s up to us to put it back. One backyard at a time.

Carolyn Ulrich