Witness trees

Hunting for Frogs on Elston: And Other Tales from Field and Street is a collection of the best of Jerry Sullivan’s Field & Street columns, which were originally published in the Chicago Reader. The essays are short and touch on a range of topics, including prairie restoration, the changing seasons, birding, and the people who have contributed to our understanding of Chicago’s nature. But one of the essays in particular has stayed with me. Indeed, it is one phrase in that one essay that I keep repeating in my head. That phrase is: witness trees.

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The Natural History of a Yard by Leonard Dubkin

In The Natural History of a Yard Leonard Dubkin provides his observations on the natural life of his yard in Chicago over the course of three summers. Dubkin describes the yard thus:

…a little plot of grass bordered by a privet hedge. A high iron fence separates the yard from Sheridan Road… Just behind the iron fence on either side of the driveway is a forsythia bush, and in the rear of the yard, before the entrance to the hotel, is a tall, stately elm tree. That is really all there is to it.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Carl Kock

However, through Dubkin’s probing and close attention, we are shown that there is in fact much more to the yard than that. We meet a whole cast of characters – Dubkin’s daughter Pauline, Emil the gardener, Nutsy the squirrel, families of robins and screech owls, flocks of pigeons and sparrows, and a colony of carpenter ants – as well as various other insects and plants. Dubkin brings the yard to life with his stories about these animals (human and non-human) and plants. He is often ignorant (he readily admits to not being able to name most of the insects in the yard) and always curious, and his spirit of inquiry is infectious.

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