Ecology news

Piping Plovers, Screech Owls, and Phenology

Dear Friends, The earth is reborn, fresh and new!In our garden, a parade of rare and beautiful native flowers are revealing themselves, day by day. I have asked our students to seek them out, to sketch them and record the date of bloom. This is a branch of ecology called Phenology, the timing of biological events. One way to take the pulse of Nature. Have a look! Slides 2-12 are blooming or have already bloomed in our garden.

Chalk one up for the Plovers! Last week the Chicago Park District acceded to the urgent requests of birders, restorationists and our middle school students and teachers, to add permanent protection to the part of the Montrose Dune Natural Area that has been the nesting area for the endangered Piping Plovers! The Graff family celebrated by doing a trash pick up at Montrose Point! Well done!

Abbie, Sylvie, and Grandmother Graff.jpg


Elizabeth K and students Leighton and Corinne alerted me to the presence of a clutch of Screech owls in our neighborhood! If we open our eyes, who

Baby Screech Owl.jpg

 knows what we will see. What a gift. Thank You!
Please visit, for news, ecology lesson resources K-8, films and photos,
Mr. Leki

Prescribed Burn of the native gardens 2021- success!

On March 18, we conducted an online workshop to teach (or review) how to be the support crew for the controlled burns conducted at Waters Garden and by Riverbank Neighbors. Here is a link to the recording of the Controlled Burn Support Crew Training for Riverbank Neighbors and Waters Garden. For those who would like to get more training, look for burn crew certification events in January and February next year. We usually conduct our controlled burns around the same time each year.

Gratitude to the Burn Support Crew for another successful year!
Once again, our community has completed a successful burn of the Riverbank at Berteau and of Waters Garden.
Gratitude to all who gave their time to attend the online burn support crew training and who were part of the team for the actual controlled burn.  

The team at both the Waters and Riverbank burns this year included: Bill Keller, Caitlin Meeter, Trina G, Christine M, Arunas S, Lisa Philips, Meg Ford, Sarah Anderson,, Roark Johnson, Simon Reeves, Lisa Madigan, Pat Byrnes, Amy Crum, Jules Peterson-Green, Pete Leki

Thanks to additional community members who have completed some level of training, certification, and/or years of experience in conducting controlled burns including: Lisa Hish, Matt Henning, Rob Coleman, Colleen McVeigh, Gibran Hadj-Chikh, and Beth Hirshley. (please email us if we forgot anyone from 2021)

In previous years, the crew included many others, especially Sue Murray, Kevin Anderson, Jerry Jaecks, Jamal Leki-Albano, Susan Malone, Brendon Gross, Carolyn Dean, Lewis Hoffman, Patrick Briggs, Linnzi Hodel, and others. (once again, please email us if we didn’t list someone we should.)

A Gallery of photos from the 2021 Riverbank Neighbor controlled burn are on that website here.  This year, Pete Leki shared the torch with three Riverbank Neighbor/Waters community women who had the training and experience, Sarah Anderson, Lisa Phillips, and Jules Peterson-Green.  Pete also assisted the Montrose Metra Garden for their first controlled burn. What a difference from decades ago when this was all new!

81 People have joined the one day Solidarity Hunger Strike

Dear Friends, 

We are four hours in to our one day solidarity hunger strike with our friends from the 10th Ward who are fighting for a clean and healthy neighborhood.
Below is a link to our interview with Yesenia Chavez, one of the Hunger Strikers trying to Stop General Iron.

The first part, conducted by Pete Leki is directed to Waters School 8th graders who are learning about environmental justice.

The second half, conducted by Jules Peterson-Green, is directed to the Ward 47 Green Council.

Total running time is 48 minutes.

How can you help? Share and/or donate to this fundraiser going directly to the hunger strikers.

You can also sign this petition and forward it to you friends and networks.

Environmental Justice

Dear Friends,  
This past week I spoke to our eighth graders about Environmental Justice. In our city and county and country, certain communities find themselves surrounded by toxic industry, with polluted air and polluted soils and water. These communities suffer from higher rates of asthma, cancer and other health issues. And these communities tend to be poor, working class, African American and LatinX. As one 8th Grader commented “It’s just not fair.”
At issue at this moment is the relocation of the General Iron Recycling smelter from  Lincoln Park, to the far Southeast corner of Chicago, a community surrounded by garbage dumps, sludge drying pads, industrial fumes and chemical dusts. This community is engaging in a courageous struggle to deny an operating permit to General Iron. A group of local residents has been engaged in a Hunger Strike for the past week to try to force the City to commit to denying the permit.  Waters Ecology interviewed one of the strikers, Yesenia Chavez, a college student majoring in Biology, to share with our 8th graders.
On Monday people from around the city, including our community,  will join the hunger strike for one day. I,  along  with others in our ward, including

As of Sunday, noon, our list from our neighborhood organizations includes:

Solidarity can tip the scales away from injustice. 

Learn more and consider signing up here for our local neighborhood effort to support the city wide event.

Here is the link Chicago Audubon and activist Judy Pollack, who initiated this support action, to sign a petition and join the Hunger Strike:

Mr. Leki

Pandemic Gallery

During the Pandemic school shutdown, I have received many photos from school families and friends from the field: many birds (alive and dead), gardens and prepared dishes, landscapes, moons, suns, river and lake. I’ve put them together in a gallery showing. Our children are here, but you won’t see any crowds. More than anything that defines the Pandemic is our inability to gather together. Hoping for the day, soon, when that will be remedied.

Valentines to Mother Earth

Dear Friends,
This past week we spent part of my time in the primary grades writing Valentine’s cards to Mother Nature (Except for Kindergarten. They made cards for their other moms) I asked the kids do a beautiful drawing, and write a message to Mother Nature. I asked them to punch a hole on the card and attach a string or ribbon. I asked them to ask their folks to take them to the riverbank, or Waters Gardens, or even to a tree or bush in their own yard, and attach that card. In this small way we could thank Nature for her gifts, and maybe others would see the cards, read them and be reminded.

The Kindergarten cards are mostly renderings of the unlikely pairing of a spider with a palm tree. They saw something in each other, these two, and love blossomed. May that be Mother Nature’s gift to us, the ability to see in another being, something that connects, that creates something new. Cloud and tree, bacteria and Blue whale, we are truly One family, One being, on this beloved Earth.

Thank you, friends, for sharing your children’s messages.

Mr. Leki

Cottonwood, Valentines, and Karen Lewis

Dear community, Jules writing.

1 Here’s the new little eco-film clip that we made this week that was shared in some ecology lessons. It’s not cinema quality, but that’s not the goal. Often, parents also see the videos and let us know that they enjoyed them too. They are sweet to watch with your children. enjoy. If I had time to do another draft, there would be a 3rd segment after the musical interlude, a segment where we share something I discovered myself.. that you can recognize cottonwood trees with your eyes closed, by listening for them. I’ll try to record the sound this summer. I love cottonwoods! There’s so much to love about them and their little heart shaped leaves!

2 Valentines to the garden, the flowers, the trees, or mother nature: This week, some of Pete’s ecology classes made some Valentines and will be bringing them to the garden or other natural places. This was an idea inspired by friends Andrea Dennis (Friends of the Park) and Leslie Borns (steward of Montrose Point) who invited us to participate in a similar project (more on that in coming days…) We thought we would invite you to also write a love letter to the river or garden or a place on this planet where nature touches your heart. If you are so moved, you are also invited to document your Valentines and send us a photo. I’ll use them is a little video or for the website… Here’s one…

3 Many in the community are planning to attend the virtual services for Karen Lewis today at 5pm and wanted to share the invitation. I’ll add that if you don’t know who she is, it may lift you up immensely to see the video that will be shown. Many many many loved her and wished that cancer didn’t stop her. She was running for mayor. She changed Chicago for the better. Her vision and example can still guide us. If you miss the services, we’ll see if we can share the link to the video. If it weren’t pandemic times, there would be a massive event and we would all go together.

Here is a link to the online event. 5pm today Thurs, 2/11/21

be well.



Hello Ecofriends,

At this time of year we traditionally, with the Kindergardeners, begin a little project on growing spider plants, Chlorophytum comosum. These tropical plants have long, narrow,  arching leaves. When they are ready, they develop long arching stems dotted with delicate white flowers. When the flowers are finished,  they leave behind the primordial beginnings of a new plants, clinging to the stem,  miniatures of their mother, complete with leaves and a straggle of roots hanging down. The leaves and the roots vaguely resemble spiders. The babies can be clipped from this umbillicus, and set in a jar of water where they will steadily increase in size, both leaves and roots. After a few months they are ready for planting in soil, and beginning the cycle again.


That is what we normally do with the kinder kids, and if you have a spider plant, and a kindergartener, you might try it at home. A very low risk experiment.  When I showed the kinder-kids a spiderplant this week, one child burst out: “We have that! You gave one to my sister and now it is HUGE!”
The project comes with a slightly absurd and a-scientific song and story about a spider that falls in love with a palm tree, gets married and has kids. It is on the website under Kindergarden, and is linked here. The song, I wrote, and the recording is of my grandaughter Nicole and I. The artwork was done by my grandson Salim.

(BTW, the weird crusty, crackling part in the middle is when I ask the kids to make the sound of a spider walking up a palm tree) Some years ago I asked my son Jamal to translate the song into Spanish, and what he produced far exceeded the original. Apparently, in Latin America, the name for Chlorophytum comosum is Lazo de amor, a ribbon of love. In Jamal’s version,  a ribbon is vaulted aloft in the air by a wind, and is tangled in the leaves of a palm tree. So wonderful was this experience that the ribbon and palm married, and the children that resulted were “lazo de amor”, spider plants. This wonderful song ends with a chorus that says: 

Between the ribbon and palm tree There is a lazo de amor

Between a tree and the earth, There is a lazo de amor

Between the clouds and the treesThere is a lazo de amor

Between me and my mother There is a lazo de amor…..

It is a wonderful thing to think about how many things can be paired in this way ,things held together by un lazo de amor, extending the song to infinity. I stopped singing this song several years back because the fast clip of the spanish verse is daunting for kindergarten kids. But the choro  (the response) at the end is easy:  “Hay un lazo de amor”. I hope they, and you, will try it, and that you will invent new pairings, things held together by “un lazo de amor”.

lazo de amor, written and performed by Jamal
érase-un fino listón que llevado por el viento-
-en las bellas ramas de-una palmera se-enlazó
tan a gusto se sentían que-al rato se casaron
y tenemos como resultado-este lazo de-amor
entre el listón y la palmera
(hay un lazo de amor)
entre el agua y la tierra
(hay un lazo de amor)
entre el árbol y las nubes
(hay un lazo de amor)
entre yo y mi mamá
hay un lazo de amo o or

Be well, stay well, Mr. Leki

Snake and Turtle

Dear Friends, Normally at this time of year we would be rehearsing with our 1st grade actors to put on the play: The Legend of Snake and Turtle.We found a version of the play performed and filmed and edited by Waters Media Lab students supervised by Julie Peterson and Vicky Mendoza from more than ten years ago.  It was their first time using the technique of “green screen”. These students have now graduated high school! The second clip is the accompanying song with some great stills showing Waters School history. I have been sharing these with the primary grades classes and they are all linked at

Old Waters Media Lab-Two Friends and the Legend of Snake and Turtle

Old Waters Media Lab- Two Friends Song


Mr. Leki