Walking in Circles - An Old Orchard in January

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By Dave Coulter

Rough Edges

Last Saturday we took advantage of this snow-free-so-far winter to walk the Phantom Prairie trail at Crabtree Nature Center in northwest Cook County. This trail is one of E's favorites - which, to paraphrase a line from Pulp Fiction - pretty much makes it a favorite of mine too. And what's not to like about it?  The trail skirts oak savannas, prairies, and wetlands, all in various states of restoration (hooray!) And there are also signs of human life from prior years. The trail winds along an old horse track, and through a derelict pear orchard.  

Lately, the old orchard has become one of my favorite sights on this walk. I can't explain why this spot captivates me. The trees themselves are in middling to poor condition. Those that remain upright are in varying stages of vigor. A few have lost nearly all their bark, the bare weathered trunks remind one of those thousand year old Bristlecone Pines that persist in the Sierras. One dead tree we studied was broken, snapped midway up the trunk where the wood had been tunneled away by ants. The workers gone, their intricate galleries now exposed in the winter sun.  

But these pears still bear fruit.  On one walk last fall we were suprised to find late season pears still clinging to branches. Most had fallen to the ground where they had become the latest feast for the local fauna.  We stopped and dodged a few yellowjackets to gather up a few unscathed specimens. The pears were overly sweet but not over-ripe.  We snacked on a couple as we continued on our way, and brought some home as a novelty.

It's clear that the Forest Preserve is saving this orchard for a reason.  Recently there has been plenty of restoration work at Crabtree, including the removal of non-native shrubs and trees. The restoration work has proceeded in and around the vicinity of the pears. I'm glad for this intent. These trees remind us of a past landscape that is fading from view.

And maybe their work isn't done?  They remind me that in the back yard I grew up in we had a couple of apple trees. They did pretty well for us and it was fun to watch them grow. Perhaps this old grove of beat up pears will inspire modern homeowners to plant trees that will feed them.    

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