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  • Jennifer Jewell


Migratory Bird Garden at the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Ill. Image courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium, All rights reserved.


For this week’s third episode in our 5-part series on our gardens as healthy habitats, and we gardeners as important land stewards and biodiversity advocates, we go inland and we get aquatic - on two levels - you’ll see what I mean.

We’re joined this week by Christine Nye, Horticulture Manager at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium - a Beaux Arts meets state-of-the-art aquarium, originally built in 1930 along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Grant Park - on a sister site to the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium. A Migratory Bird Garden is just one of the gardens surrounding the aquarium under Christine’s caring eyes and hands.

Many of these gardens have been directly planned for creating habitat - but as you’ll hear, what she’s been doing at the Shedd Aquarium this last 20 years is a model for her entire region and beyond and - gets to all of the layers we’re intending and striving for when we talk about gardens that create healthy habitat for all creatures.

Christine joins us today from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago.

"Every garden that I’ve conceived of and installed with my own two hands,

and the help of others, is to just bring this point across to people: before

we can have an aquarium and the infrastructure that supports that we have

to have our planet earth. That is why I have the gardens I have, because they help. "

Christine Nye, Horticulture Manager, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL

The Shedd Aquarium was conceived as a gift to the city by businessman John G. Shedd in 1924 along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Since its first director, Walter Chute developed the broad vision for the endeavor, the mission has always included research, appreciation, and conservation of regional species and ecosystems in addition to the more exotic attention grabbing collections.

In the last 20 years, this mission has actively been manifested through the aquarium's gardens – inside and out. Under the caring direction of Horticultural Manager Christine Nye, the Shedd Aquarium’s more than 13 gardens offer lessons in beauty and healthy habitat for humans and visiting wildlife – including the 1000s of birds who visit – resting and refueling along their migratory pathway known as the Mississippi Flyway. Interestingly, I first learned of Christine’s work in relation to the hops she harvested at the Shedd last year, and which went into a regional batch of the Resilience IPA – conceived by Chico's own Sierra Nevada Brewing as a fundraiser after last year’s Camp Fire.

Christine's visionary Migratory Bird Garden at the Shedd, which now thrives where once up to 40,000 square feet of manicured lawn sat, is just one of the 13 she's developed and oversees. This garden very specifically welcomes and helps to sustain birds passing through on their north and south migrations along the Mississippi Flyway, which stretches from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the Audubon Society, "more than 325 bird species make the round-trip each year along the Mississippi Flyway, from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and in Central and South America."

As we noted in our conversation, it might seem unlikely to us as plantspeople to go to an aquarium for a good garden experience that expands our understanding, but the Shedd and Christine Nye are modeling exactly why they are positioned perfectly to offer out just that kind of experience. The Shedd’s physical location along the shores of Lake Michigan, their history as a research aquarium in our country, and their mission to "spark compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world" remind all of us that we – and our gardens – are interconnected with the whole web of life –– for better or for worse. We and our gardens can help make this difference between better or worse – for the soil, for the air, for wildlife, and for the watersheds and sources where our aquatic friends make their lives.

Last Week Dr. Anurag Agrawal encouraged us to take a multi-prong approach with our own actions on behalf of our fellow creatures, whom we hope to welcome to and help sustain with our gardens.

The gardens at the Shedd Aquarium model the importance of support and advocacy at garden, land, and policy levels. This past December, the Shedd sent a letter to their membership sharing their position on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed changes to our Nation’s Clean Water Act – I thought I’d share some of their position here.

"We are writing to express our strong concerns regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rules to amend the existing definition of “waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act is an important statute that has shielded habitats, aquatic wildlife, waterways and tributaries from pollution, protections that will now be lost for many wetlands and isolated waterways under the new definition.

We urge the continuation of the current waters of the United States requirement that federal protections extend not only to major water bodies, like rivers and lakes, but also to the streams, ponds, marshes and wetlands that feed into them. These water bodies all offer important benefits including, protection of wildlife, habitat, recreational opportunities, pollution filtering and stormwater management.

The existing Clean Water Act has drastically protected aquatic wildlife and habitats and reduced water pollution in the United States, including increasing the portion of rivers safe for fishing by 12 percent. Water is a shared, free-flowing resource. The newly proposed definition will expose acres of wetlands and miles of streams to runoff of pesticides, fertilizer and industrial pollutant, particularly in lightly regulated states. It is critical that the EPA does not reverse federal water protections to ensure a healthy network of aquatic ecosystems.

We ask you to refrain from narrowing the definition of waters of the United States that will put aquatic ecosystems and wildlife at risk. At this moment in history, we should be working to uphold and strengthen the Clean Water Act, not undercut it."

You can follow along with the Shedd Aquarium Gardens at the Shedd's website under the Sustainable Practices/Gardens Tab

Join us again next week as the conversations continue in this 5 part series on our gardens as important and sustaining habitats for the wildlife of our native areas, when we’re joined by Dr. Susan Wethington, of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network.




In this conversation with Christine, I was so moved by her voice of deep concern, worry, and care when she was sharing the percentage of the US that is covered in maintained lawn, and the percentage of our native prairie plants – plants we love in our gardens – that are left remaining in their native spaces – and the inverse correlation between the increase in lawns, the decrease in native prairie and the degradation of water quality and security across the board on all fronts.

The gravity of her understanding and love, and her despair, is audible. Her deep gardening impulse is all the more impressive - her decades of work, and even in despair her redoubled efforts to share the joy of her plant love and plantlife with others is something I am so grateful for in this world. It's what inspires and motivates Cultivating Place

Thinking out loud here – as I listen to Christine describe the beautiful call of the redwing black birds arriving at the Shedd – how when she first started gardening at the Shedd there was 1 single nesting pair, and now there are hundreds – my heart lifted a little.

Here, where I garden and cultivate place, we’ve been hearing our meadowlarks arrive and increase their activity, and the snow geese and sandhill cranes are moving too – their high calling conversations are audible high overhead – sometimes plaintive and sometimes melodic – you can hear them before you see them, craning your own neck to find the line of them against the sky.

Simultaneously, the painted lady butterflies are migrating through right now – en masse – their populations seem strong this season – a solid reminder of what we care about and why. And on the ground level, we seem to be at the tail end of the forest-to-water-and-back migration of our endemic California Newt.

As we knew it would – Spring arrives with all kinds of signs of life, and messages of beauty calling out to us. Our gardens are perhaps our most loving reply to these calls.

What creatures mark the season in your garden? I’d love to hear – I hope you might share with pictures or comments by email to me so I can share out, or on the comments in the weekly Cultivating Place posts on Instagram and Facebook. I’ll look forward to seeing and hearing from you there – and thank you as always for listening and being here with me in this!

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