[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
Remembering betrays Nature,
Because yesterday’s Nature is not Nature,
What’s past is nothing and remembering is not seeing.
Fly, bird, fly away; teach me to disappear.
On the far south side of Chicago in the Calumet River Valley, once a thriving industrial engine of steel production, the greatest in the world and now almost empty and discarded, there is a wasteland—a tattered expanse crisscrossed with railroad tracks, unfinished roads, abandoned steel factories, a backwards-flowing river, and a few persistent wetlands, heavy with slag and toxins that the waters have absorbed for over a century while remaining a breeding ground for migrating birds.
In the drab, early spring, the newly arrived birds are abundant in Calumet. Black-crowned night herons settle in their nests (they have begun nesting low here at the marsh’s waterline, rather than in the trees, though no one knows why). Mute swans coil in the reeds or fish in Dead Stick Pond and emerge with brown-stained necks. At Indian Ridge, an egret stands on the edge of the water, a calligraphic stroke of white ink, grasping stems one by one to create a nest. Amidst arsenic, lead, cyanide, mercury, and aluminum are double-crested cormorants (their twin tufts announce they are ready to mate), terns, house wrens, even pied-billed grebes.
At Big Marsh, a body of water so polluted it is silent, are the tiny tree swallows, preening their iridescent teal feathers and zipping above the surface of the water to snatch insects. The house sparrow, a plainer bird, competes with the swallows for territory and nesting spaces. The house sparrow is an invasive species, successful the world over because it can nest and reproduce almost anywhere. One ornithologist calls them “yucky.” Others report they have seen sparrows rob bluebirdsand purple martins of their nests by destroying eggs or pecking their rivals’ eyes out. The seventeenth-century physician Culpepper attested to their venery, recommending them as an aphrodisiac. Sparrows could be nymphomaniac witches in disguise, or even the devil himself. When St. Dominic was preaching on deception, Cecilia tells us, a group of sparrows descended. The monk asked a nun to bring him one. He plucked it clean of its feathers and pitched it out, admonishing the bird: “You wretch, you rogue! Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind.”
When steel was made here, elevated conveyors hauled up iron ore, limestone, and coke (a nearly pure form of carbon coal) and dumped them into tall blast furnaces heated to an unimaginable thousand degrees. Fires didn’t stop. Every eight hours, the belly of the furnaces would be opened to drain the molten iron from the bottom and the slag from the top as more coke, ore, and limestone were poured. It was a constant rumble of production. “If there’s soot on the windows, there’s food on the table,” went one saying. The furnaces sprayed a film on cars and windows, the same red color of the slag mounds bordering the wetlands. Work in the steel mills seemed limitless for anyone willing; there were skyscrapers, cars, and railroads to build. Underfoot, slag feels otherworldly, too chalky to be rock and too hard to be soil. The more slag the mills could dump into the marshes, the more land they had to build on. It poured like molten lava. For hours, the sky and ground glowed red.
A graduate student conducting field research here holds up a dingy piece of plastic. She’s pulled it from an intruding sparrow nest in one of the ninety boxes she has mounted to study Calumet’s tree swallows. Like the native tree swallows, house sparrows build grassy nests in hollowed-out trees or birdhouse boxes. Sparrows are not picky. Their nests are a messy mix of grass and garbage scraps. The tree swallow, however, after its long migratory return from Texas, Cuba, or the shores of Mexico, creates a neat little cup of grass in the bottom of the box and beds it with white, downy feathers that occasionally catch the wind. If a swallow loses a feather, it will chase after it and return it to the nest. If one slips and spirals out when the researcher opens a box door, she goes after it too. The edge of the water at Big Marsh, just across the street from an illegal landfill and Lake Calumet, is littered with debris. People haul in garbage and toss it on the side of the road: scrap metal, roof tiles, drywall, folding chairs, tires, the shell of a stereo. The road dead-ends at the river, where a vast sludge-drying field cooks sewage and provides a resting place for a colony of ring-billed gulls. The few remaining wetlands have become keepers of the unwanted, swallowing hollowed-out cars, beer cans, broken bottles, a shoe. On one of the many railroad tracks radiating out of this place along the Calumet River, police even recovered the bones of a child. ◊