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Book Review: My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago

My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland's Startling Natural Wonders. Mike MacDonald. Downers Grove, IL: Morning Dew Press, December 21, 2015, Large Format, Hardcover, 240 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

The vast majority of the land in Illinois is covered with monoculture—acre upon acre of corn and soybean fields. Ironically, the best nature preserves are found in and around the big city of Chicago, where pockets of unspoiled nature escaped the rush to develop and build, surviving long enough to be protected by the better angels of our nature.

In My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago, landscape photographer Mike MacDonald has successfully captured the beauty and biodiversity of these precious preserves. More than 350 square miles of natural areas can be found in Chicagoland. After paging though this inspiring book, you will want to explore every one of these area gems. In addition, after reading the book, you will be ready to detect the many plants of the areas, distinguish their various landscapes, and discern the rolling seasonal changes that bring so much variety to these wonderlands. You’ll want to do as MacDonald did and build up an “appointment calendar with nature.”

It took an impressive investment of time and knowledge to take the engrossing photographs that adorn this book. MacDonald would stalk his sites—studying the vegetation, weather, and light conditions—until he got just the right image. And that took a deep knowledge of the plants and their life cycles, as well as a keen eye for detail. In one case, he showed how the light shift in just twenty minutes transformed a prairie scene.

The result of MacDonald’s work is shock and awe: page after page of arresting images including wind-blown grasses that doodled smiles in the snow, icicles shaped like a row of champagne glasses along the edge of a steam, and a pearly flower blooming under a May apple’s protective umbrella.

Attractive as they are, the photos are only one of the enthralling aspects of this book. MacDonald has a way with words, which he reveals in rich captions, poems, and engaging essays sprinkled throughout the book. His words convey a wealth of fascinating information about Chicagoland’s flora and fauna: how purple coneflowers explode from rocky kames, how wild lupine provide the only nesting place for Karner blue butterflies, and how the directional leaves of skyward-reaching compass plants can help you when you’re lost.

Readers will also learn about stewardship of the land: how prescribed fire is a conservationist’s most effective ecological restoration tool, and how more than 200 volunteers were able to dig up prairie sod and successfully transplant it nearby. The call to protect and restore nature is strong throughout the book, given MacDonald’s longstanding relationship with Chicago Wilderness, one of the region’s preeminent environmental alliances. 

This book, with its lush photographs, smart layout, attractive design, professional editing, handsome typography, and heavy, glossy paper, knocks the ball out of the park. Unfortunately, however, the cost of these features place the book out of reach, price-wise, for many people. Another shortcoming is that while the book’s title talks about the “Wilds of Chicago,” virtually all of the photographs were shot far from the city. Why skip over the natural wonders of the Windy City, with its lake and rivers, cemeteries and parks, paths and trails? Although not bucolic, the Magic Hedge, Northerly Island, and Caldwell Woods, to name just a few locales, surely offer limitless photographic potential and nature lessons. Also, the book’s glossary is very thin, and an index would have helped readers turn to their favorite flower or forest preserve.

That said, it is inconceivable that anyone will ever match MacDonald’s gorgeous photography, insightful commentary, and astonishing commitment to Chicagoland’s natural landscapes. We are all in his debt and should hope that he will produce another such exquisite tome.


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