Ecology as Winter Moves In… squirrels, roses, straw, and kids learning

squirrel community

I was in the garden Friday and I was watching the squirrels build nests. What amazed me was two things: they were not building nests. They were building A nest. A half dozen squirrels worked together like on an assembly like crawling up and down the giant oak tree trunk to the ground, and then stuffing their mouths with comical bunches of oak leaves before scrambling back up. THEY WERE ALL WORKING ON ONE ENORMOUS NEST! I remember these same squirrels this spring, living up to their names, playing with abandon: chasing, leaping, chittering, and often falling from on high, landing with a thump and exhalation.  Those same juveniles are now mature, cooperating to build this beautiful big nest, which I assume they will share with each other as a cozy winter mosh pit. The other thing was the unusual fact that squirrels were in multiple colors: black, white, grey, and brown! I have never seen that before.

wrapped roses

Speaking of cooperating creatures in the garden, on Thursday the Autumn opened up a warm sunny window for a group of garden volunteers: Meredith, Rob, and Poppy, to carefully wrap and insulate our ornamental roses to protect them from the upcoming bitter cold and the hungry depredations of rabbits in late winter. These roses bloomed beautifully this year, but have suffered through winter for many years, and many have died and been replaced because we never got around to these “care” precautions. Well done and thanks!

straw bales

On Friday morning, with the use of a SUV provided by a long-time gardener, and the offer of a strong back from Nathan, another gardener, we were able to “rescue” seven straw bales used as ornamentation by some local, Lincoln Ave bars, from the dumpsters. These bales are now stored in the garden in one of the empty compost bins where they can be kept dry and mouse-free until next spring. Then we will use them to mulch our planting beds to maintain moisture, prevent soil-born plant infection, and tamp down weeds. Good job!

MA journal response

During this hiatus between field trips, I spend a good deal of time doing post-trip lessons with our Mighty Acorn students (3-5th grade) . With fourth grade, we compiled data and created charts in our journals about the plant communities of Sauganash. These amazing plants self-organize into distinct communities based (at least partially) on the specifics of their preferred habitat (soil moisture level, and ground sunlight levels). Describe to me the plants that you see, and I can tell you what ecosystem you are in! Smart plants!

Take a look:

With 5th grade

We compiled the data on our simulation game that described the dilemma of animals and plants that find themselves stranded on “islands’ of natural land surrounded by “oceans” of development.  It is an astonishing demonstration of how small and isolated “islands” have a hard time maintaining biodiversity, a measure of ecological health. samples of MA student work. After these lessons, I will come and collect the journals and spend many hours reading them and responding to them. This is one of my joys, a “best practice”, to be able to give students feedback, instead of a grade, to give them encouragement, and correct “errors’ in fact, or spelling, through a conversation on the page. Students love to read what the responders have written. They are writing for an audience, they connect with the broader community, and that is a very positive thing. So check my calendar and join me for coffee and a pleasant morning of journal response.

6th river lesson

I will be visiting all three sixth-grade classrooms this week to continue our study of the Chicago River. This week we will be looking at the old, historic, glacially created river, and how it has been altered over the past 200 years. It is an amazing story, mostly hidden from the general view. I hope this knowledge of river history, and its resultant environmental degradation will inspire our students to be better stewards of our natural world than previous generations have been.

2nd river lessons

I will be visiting with the three  2nd grades before winter break to teach about the water cycle, our river system, and the amazing journey of water molecules around the Earth. This lesson includes our adaptation of the Yoko Ono song: We’re All Water! It also includes an activity that results in the creation of a beaded “necklace” that represents the unique, probability-based, process that moves a water molecule from ocean to cloud, to glacier, to groundwater, etc.  WE WILL NEED HELP WITH THIS ACTIVITY as it involves lots of dice rolling around, and beads being strung. Look for the call out!

kinder song and story

I scheduled to visit with the Kinder-kids, these free spirits at the beginning of their “formal” education. I wanted to teach them two songs that went over well last year, during remote learning: a Woody Guthrie medley of”Put Your Finger in the Air”, and “This Land is Your Land”.  I am always amazed at how little ones will absorb a song like air, like they already knew it.  I also did a participatory reading of “The Fight Between Quiet and Noise” the little book I wrote and illustrated to raise awareness of how Noise infiltrated our lives. 

Thanks to all, 

Mr. Leki

Turkey’s flying, Puckered soils, and a Tiny Green Machine

Dear Ecology friends,

You may have heard a strange distance gobbling from somewheres up on high in the past few days. I have. So did my little neighbor girl. She said, “Look Mr. Leki Gobble Turkeys”. High, high overhead they hovered, in ranks of 30, 40, 50, sometimes circling, catching the wind, and then streaming again southward. She thought they were turkeys fleeing Thanksgiving. But they were Sandhill cranes making their annual pilgrimage to Florida. The sound of their chorus is unforgettable.  They were probably heading to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife area in Indiana, a roosting and resting sight. There, the birds congregate at dusk, to spend the night in collective safety. The sight of them arriving there from all directions, coming in for a landing with their long legs extended down, and the great collective roar of their voices is a great hope-giving uplift. It is a marker of the season, Fall passing into winter. Another sign is the crunch, the feel and sound of soil beneath your feet after the first hard frost. The soil “puckers” as bits of moisture freeze and expand, opening tiny cavities in the ground. It is the perfect time to sow native seed: the tiny crevices offering winter protection and await a blanket of snow.

For the past month, egged on by the shortening daylight, the trees are undergoing their almost magical transformation: the life-giving, energy-harnessing chlorophyll is being broken down, and stored safely in the tree’s trunk and underground, to be re-assembled in spring. Left behind are the other pigments: the  Carotenoids, yellow and orange, and the Anthocyanins ~ purple and red.

That’s what I’ll be teaching the First Grade today, our first-in-class lesson in our year-long study of trees. I wrote this song during remote learning, to raise our awareness and appreciation of chlorophyll:

Tiny Green Machine

Chlorophyll Breakdown (Lyrics)

By P. Leki

Chlorophyll is green

A tiny green machine

It lives inside of leaves

And makes food for the trees.

When Autumn comes around

The chlorophyll’s broken down

It flows into the trunk

And underneath the ground.

That’s the way it works

That’s the way things go

That’s the way things end

That’s the way things grow.

A blessed holiday to all,

Be well, and

Stay well.

Mr. Leki


Leo Rosie Juliana and mom Kate

Hello Dear Friends, 

Fall is truly falling, with bluster and a chill, a sprinkle of rain, and dust of snow.

Many things are wrapping up, including the garden and the riverbank.

Several families came out to the riverbank stewardship day on Saturday, and I am still hoping that we can get the 8th graders out to do stewardship in the Garden and to eat roasted potatoes and drink spiced apple cider. If we can set a day this week, I hope we can get some help supervising and cooking and all. I am meeting with the first-grade teachers to start up weekly tree lessons. I am meeting with the 4th-grade classes to review the plants that live in each ecosystem at Sauganash.

On Wednesday, November 17, Report Card pick-up day, parents will be able to have a look at their child’s ecology journal, from 3-7th grade, while waiting for your teacher conference. During the week I will start responding to student journals. If anyone would like to help learn “journal response”, to read and write back to our students, please let me know. I have 240 Mighty Acorns journals to read. Coffee?? Cookies??

I am looking for a used Weber (or other) grill to use with classes coming out to the garden during this chilly season. I am also asking for everyone to keep an eye out for straw bales that we can retrieve to use as mulch next year.

Be well!

Mr. Leki

The Beauty and Power of Nature (and Grubs)

Dear Ecology Volunteers!

We made it through our Fall Field Ecology schedule without mishap or cancelation. More importantly, our students and volunteers were able to experience the tremendous beauty and power of our wild natural places. What a difference from on-line learning. Heartfelt thanks to the scores of volunteers who made these adventures possible.Our Harvest Day potato / cider / firepit storytelling was postponed until tomorrow, November 1, 2021 for pre-K through 2nd grade. Today I will be cutting and wrapping potatoes in the garden at  3:00. Want to help? Bring your favorite knife and cutting board. We need to prepare 300+ servings!  I am relieved to have dedicated volunteer fire keepers / potato chefs ready to light the oven early tomorrow. Because of the postponement because of rain, the issue of additional volunteer help is unsure. We will need help buttering and salting potatoes, getting our little ones seated, serving hot cider and generally watching over things. Can you help? The schedule is attached here, disregard the Field and Face painting activities.  5cuNPmLZzW1ZtOwjVd/view?usp=drivesdk

One reflection, during this lovely, mysterious time of year: Our 5th grade Mighty Acorns  ecology lesson is about Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity. It explains that the disruption of vast, connected ecosystems results in our protected natural areas looking like and acting like islands in a sea of development. One way we judge the health of a natural area is by keeping track of the number of species living there. Higher species diversity signifies ecological health and resilience. If diversity drops over time, the preserve is in trouble and our management techniques are inadequate.  One ecological rule of thumb is that islands (preserves) that are larger, and closer to each other will likely maintain biodiversity better than those that are smaller and farther apart.  We were running a simulation game in the picnic grove last Thursday, in a light drizzle. We were on the 20th round of this game when the kids let out a shriek. They pointed to a very large buck white-tailed deer in flat out pursuit of a large doe. They thundered across the grove like racehorses. I’ve never seen anything like it. We joked that they were looking for a bigger island to live on. Which brings me to Welles Park and the grubs. The thing about monocultural lawns is that they lack resilience. The ideal is to have one species of grass growing to the exclusion of everything else. This means that if some insect or disease is attracted to that species of grass, they can tear through that community like those deer racing through the grove.  And they leave behind…. nothing. The same goes for corn and soybean fields. To maintain those monocultures, endless pesticides are used. These are unstable ecosystems constantly in conflict with Mother Nature’s determination to create bio-diversity. So, rather than be grossed out by the grubs, we should consider these vast grass plantings, and remember that the grubs have contributed their copious waste products (and many of them, their own bodies) to that waste area. Birds have eaten them and left their own waste, enriching the open ground. Maybe now is the moment to plant a perma-cultural forest of edible fruits there. Grubs create a problem in low diversity ecosystems. Why not diversify and, as a bonus, create a space to involve neighbors in agriculture and the harvest of delicious food. The grubs have raised our consciousness!

Mr. Leki

Last Garden Stewardship Day!

Dear Garden Friends, 
This is IT! This is the last Garden Day for 2021. What a year. What a memorable, challenging, and wonderful year. Bucket loads of appreciation for the endless joyful help and energy you all contributed. Tomorrow will be a wrapping up. There will still be things to do later, but there is something very satisfying about putting away the things that make the garden, straightening out and ordering. I was thinking it would be amazing to have a Mid-Winter Garden day in the Annex, where we do maintenance on our wheelbarrows, and tools, fix or toss broken tools and sort through buckets to see what is hidden there. And after, a fire in the pit, surrounded by snow.
So we will meet from 10:00 until noon, then gather around a fire for food, music and friendship. I wanted to share with you a little story of the season that I wrote. I’ve already shared it with the ecology volunteer list, but wanted to also provide it to our gardeners and families, as an alternative to the often horrific bloody mayhem that is offered up in the broader culture during this mysterious, poignant time. 

Hey! We’re Okay! How are you?

See you tomorrow.

Gorgeous Autumn


by Robert Frost

Oh hushed October morning mild
Thy leaves have ripened to the Fall
Tomorrow's wind
If it be wild
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call
Tomorrow they may form and go.
Oh hushed October morning mild
begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief
Hearts not averse to being beguiled
Beguile us in the way you know
Release one leaf at the break of day
at noon another
One from our tree
one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist
Enchant the land with amethyst
For the grapes sake
if that were all
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit
must else be lost
For the grapes' sake along the wall.
O hushed October morning mild
Beguile us in the way you know
Begin the hours of this day

This beautiful poem by Robert Frost was put to music by former neighbor and dear friend Doug Lofstrom. It was performed and recorded by the Bullfrogs Community Choir and is shared below. This is what our students, parents and teachers have been enjoying these past few weeks in our wild places. This next week will mark the finish of our Autumn Field ecology schedule. Nineteen trips to experience  the wild.  Many thanks to the scores of parents and volunteers who have and will share these adventures with our students. 

Monday, October 25,  10:00, 1st Grade Room 210 are slotted to visit the garden to harvest potatoes and study trees. Unfortunately, at this moment,  there appears to be an 80-90% chance of rain. If so, we will reschedule. Happily our potato harvest is excellent and enough to supply all the students who will visit the garden during Harvest Day (Friday, Oct. 29).

On Tuesday , October 26, 2021, 7th Grade, Room 305, will travel to Montrose Point to be introduced to the Lake and Dune, their ecology and  origins, hosted by Friends of the Parks, and the Corinthian Yacht Club. Last week, my co-leader, Andrea Dennis, from FOTP, reminded our students, as they contemplated the swelling waves and sparkling waters of the Lake, that we are part of this ecosystem, our very bodies are connected to the Lake’s waters. Please join us for this adventure. The bus leaves at 9:30, and we return at 1:15. Bring a healthy, waste free lunch to be enjoyed harbor-side. 

On Wednesday October 27, 5th Grade Room 318, and Thursday, Oct 28, Room 319 will visit Sauganash Prairie Grove as Mighty Acorns. They will be studying Habitat Fragmentation and its effect on biodiversity. They will take part in a simulation activity that will help explain why larger natural  land masses located closer to each other will tend to sustain higher levels of biodiversity. They will also explore Sauganash, and collect rare seed. Join us at 9:15  for a briefing on the day’s activities. There will be a picnic lunch on site. Back by 1:15.

Friday, October 29, is Harvest Day at Waters. We will be hosting Pre-K to 2nd grade in the garden for our home grown, organic, baked potatoes, with hot cider, around the fire circle. I will share with the students a story that, I hope, helps  explain both the mystery of this season, and why it is celebrated around the world. I invite anyone who is able to help me prepare the oven, the campfire, the cider, the potatoes, to cook, and serve and settle our little ones for the story.  I will be visited by 10 classes, one at a time, starting at 9:15. It is a marathon of potatoes and stories and smoke and cider. Please let me know if you can help. 

Here is the link to the 3rd story of this Halloween,

Day of the Dead trilogy,

Hey! We’re Okay! How are you?

The foto below came to me as a surprise, a telephoto candid by former Waters parent, restoration ecologist, and well known bird expert Jeff Skrentney. This group of 4th graders are learning about the plant communities that live in the slough and flood plain wood. 

Mr. Leki

Cool and crisp October Day!

Wasp nest devoured by friendly skunk

Dear Waters Gardeners, 
Beautiful Fall day predicted for tomorrow, cool, breezy, no rain.
Join us from 10 until noon to weed, prune, clean potatoes, generally clean up, and…

…make a fire to burn brush and cook food for a shared midday meal and music. Bring food and song.
Join us!

Please read this message from Arunas:

Community Gardeners,

As another season winds down, now is a good time to clean out our plots and think about next year. Please let us know if you plan to garden at Waters next year. You can drop us an email @ Every spring there is high demand for plots, so anything you can do to help us get an accurate idea of how many plots we have available is greatly appreciated. Please also let us know if you do not plan on gardening next year.

When cleaning out your plot, please throw tomatoes, cucumbers, and any other plants that look blighted into the green Dumpster on the north end of the parking lot to the west of the annex (there’s a little Dumpster area over there behind the wall). Other plants can be chopped up and thrown in the compost bin.  Tomato cages and fencing can be placed on the south side of the ugly shed in the “tomato cage cage” by the green house.

If you plan on gardening next year, now is a great time to plant garlic. A few tips on planting garlic: Farmers markets, garden stores and Whole Foods all sell garlic you can plant. Supermarket garlic is zapped so it will not propagate, according to the dude at the farmers market, at least. Simply break up a bulb of garlic and plant each clove about 3-4 inches apart, about an inch or two down. I usually cover my cloves with some chicken wire or something to keep the squirrels from digging up my garlic while they try to bury their acorns. In June or July you’ll have garlic!


Spirits, part 2

Dear Friends, One time my mother went to Walgreens for some remedy and turned down an aisle full of “Halloween” merch. Endless, plastic, funky, junky stuff. But she stopped short at a huge display of “witch” masks. Rubbery, gross, straggle-haired monsters. My mom said: “They look just like me”. Grey face, grey skin, wrinkles, a wart, big nose. Literally, my mom thought these were masks of her…that beloved, much loved, face, that had been through so much trouble and turmoil in life to create it. She blew my mind with this insight. I really hadn’t thought about it until then. What can you say???? Why are older women merchandised as horrors? Why are they not honored, and revered as sages?? Attached is Spirit Story, the 2nd in this series. I wrote it years ago, inspired by the season, the moment, maybe by my mother. My hope is that you will share it with your children, with tea or cocoa, at night, before bedtime.

Mr. Leki

Spirit Story

Poly Halloween

My mother used to tell me about a time of year when she was growing up in Southeastern Poland called “Babya lato” or “woman’s summer”. It was a time like right now, when the days were shortening, getting cooler, the leaves were turning, the wind and mist and fog mysterious, dew points changing. At this time you might exit your home and encounter, full face, a finely made spider web, with bits of captured insects included, the mistress of the web quickly scurrying for cover. In my mom’s home and youth, people would brush these weird and beautiful constructions aside and remark: Babya lato! It was a demarcation of a turning of the seasons. Not awful or terrifying, but strange, other wordly, visitations. Maybe, it is that kind of memory that encourages people today to buy all sorts or paraphernalia to decorate their homes for Halloween: like the ubiquitous shreds of polystyrene “spider web” that is stretched across so many porches. And the plastic skulls and ruined witches, and endlessly bloody corpses littering our front yards. What are we trying to say?To represent?For me, that endlessly mysterious sound of wind in tree, of wing overhead, the quiet knowing eye of rabbit and owl, the discovery of a deer skeleton, perfect and clean, on the forest floor,the red tinged leaf,this is the mystery and power of the season.A season of ending, and remembering, of connecting with the memory of past and the promise of a tomorrow, of spring and renewal. With that, I share with you the first of three stories that I have created.This one is called “Luz”, about a little girl walking home from school.I hope you will share it with your children as one substitute to the diet of horror and fright that seems to saturate this blessed and mysterious season.

Mr. Leki


Potatoes, adventures and our friend the Skunk!

Hoo with a harvest of bur oak acorns,Remains of yellow jacket nest after skunk work

Monday Potatoes

Early results have revealed an extraordinary potato harvest. Potatoes like rich loose soils, kept moist but well drained. I think that our great crew of Waters waterers are responsible for keeping our beds consistently moist through a brutal drought.  Thanks! On Monday, October 18, 2021, ther first of our first grade classes will harvest garden potatoes. The potatoes will cure, be cleaned and prepped for Harvest Day baking on Oct 29.  The first grade classes will divide into two groups, for two activities: potato harvest, and leaf collection. First grade ecology involves the study of the trees of Waters School, starting with our beloved and ancient oaks. If you would like to assist, Room 211 at 1:30 until 2:10. Room 210 and 208 will be scheduled soon. Learn about spuds and trees! (More about Harvest day later)

Tuesday, October 19, 2nd Grade Room 202 will hike to the Riverbank Neighbors Natural Area (at Berteau and the River) to learn about the geography of our neighborhood (map reading), riverbank trees and plants, animals and  weather. We leave shortly after drop off, 8:30, and return by 10:30. All are welcome to join us.

Wednesday, October 20, 4th Grade Room 207 will visit Sauganash as Mighty Acorns to explore, learn about the communities of plants that live there, and gather precious, rare, seed. We leave at 9:30, enjoy a picnic lunch on site, and return by 1:15. Join us for a briefing at 9:15 by the fish tank.

Thursday, October 21, 4th Grade Room 315 repeats the above adventure, and I invite all to join us, same times same place. 

On Friday, October 22, 7th Grade Room 302, will be introduced to the ecology of Lake Michigan and the Dune ecosystem at Montrose Point. Hosted by Friends of the Parks and the Corinthian Yacht Club, these trips are a breathtaking introduction to the re-birth of a dune ecosystem living on the edge of one of the world’s biggest and most beautiful Lakes. We leave at 9:30 and return by 1:15. Join us 15 minutes early for a briefing. Bring lunch.
On Saturday, October 23, we will gather in the garden for our series of Saturday stewardship days, 10:00 until 12:00. Last week we finished installing a section of split rail fencing to try to protect the badly damaged new plantings on the slope of the north swale (more about this later), we continued the restoration of the Journeys and Refuge Garden, we started the process of winding down the agricultural garden beds, AND we ended with a beautiful campfire, on a beautiful Fall day, sharing food, music and stories. One of our garden volunteers, Norbert, was stung a week or so earlier by yellow jackets while weeding a section of the path leading to the fire circle. I inspected the area searching for a ground nest, but failed to find one. Oh, but there are better investigators than I! Saturday we saw the aftermath of a skunk discovery of the wasp nest. A deep hole was dug under a timber, and the remnants of the honeycomb-type nest littered the ground. This is the second time a skunk has come to our aid in this way. All hail the Skunk, our friend. Join us next Saturday.

You must be a CPS Approved Volunteer to attend field trips. 

CPS volunteer application. to Beth and all the other volunteers who helped me prep hundreds of ecology journals for our students ALL DONE! WELL DONE!

Mr. Leki