On the morning of May 1, I joined recently retired University of Chicago Professor Fred Donner for a walk through Bobolink Meadow and Wooded Island in Jackson Park. It was a sunny day, warm but cooled by a breeze.
Donner, who studied early Islamic history, has been in Jackson Park nearly every day for the past year. As we walked, he told me the story of how he had started collecting images of wildflowers in the park, which he has showcased on his newly published Jackson Park Wildflowers website.
“When the pandemic started, of course then we were all locked down, I realized I needed exercise,” said Donner. “I couldn’t go to the pool and swim several times a week as I had done before. So, I figured okay, I gotta make sure to get out every day and take a good walk, at least an hour everyday.”
“I started walking around Hyde Park. I saw all the streets of Hyde Park, repeatedly.
“Then one day in May last year, I decided, ‘Well I’ll go down to Jackson Park.’ I hadn’t been down there in a long time.
“So I walked down, through the Bobolink Meadow, and I saw, you know, this wildflower blooming, Dutchman’s breeches in fact. And I thought, ahh, that’s pretty and I took a picture.
“I’ve got my cell phone with me. So, I took a picture of it.
“And then it dawned on me. You know, I’m gonna walk every day. I am not going anywhere for a year. So, I could walk in the park everyday and take pictures of the wildflowers as they come online [bloom]. And then, well, maybe I could make a website of them with these individual photos.
“It hatched in like a moment just walking through the park in May,” he concluded.
As we walked, Donner left the trail to pull up a garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) plant. “You gotta get its roots,” he said as he pulled it up, calling it a “scourge” on the native ecosystem.
“I haven’t tried it, but it’s supposed to taste like garlic and mustard.”
“One of the great things about Jackson Park, is that it’s 500 acres, which is big,” continued Donner.
“It has a whole bunch of different ecosystems, different biological zones. There are riverine habitats, there is beachfront, there are woods, there are fields, savannahs.
“So you get a really amazing range of flora in the park.”
“On my site I’ve got something like 325 different species. And I am sure I haven’t found them all. So there are probably another 100 or so conspicuous species that I will find eventually. Flowers and weeds, anything that blooms. But not like trees.”
Donner retired last fall after 45 years of teaching — seven at Yale University and 38 at the University of Chicago.
“I decided I would rather be gone but not forgotten, rather than be forgotten and not gone,” said Donner.
“I didn’t want to spend all of my time doing Islamic history. And I had more time to actually do the research I wanted to do rather than serving on committees. That seemed to loom larger and larger in my life in my later years at the University. I do miss the classroom some, but I certainly don’t miss writing so many letters of recommendation.”
“And I had other things I wanted to do,” he added.
“I am by nature a collector. Well, this is a kind of collecting,” continued Donner. “You are trying to get every plant and, you know, that appeals to my character.”
“If you collect anything...it forces you to pay attention to taxonomy. You begin to categorize things. So it gets you very much into taxonomy and looking at details and categorizing things. And for a historian that’s also a very valuable or useful way to look at history I think.”
Donner uses the Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers for his initial identifications of the flowers he finds.
“Some plants are hard to find in a guide for one reason or another,” said Donner. “And then there are the cases where many species are very similar and hard to tell apart.”
“John Hilty's website is usually what I use to settle cases where I'm uncertain about similar plants, but you have to have some idea of what you think the flower is for that site to be useful,” he said.
As we spoke, Hyde Parkers Jay Mulberry, his wife Alice, Bethany Pickens and a friend strolled by. Bethany put her finger over her mouth to hush their conversation so as not to disturb my recording. We waved.
Donner’s two children were raised in and live in Hyde Park, and they are raising their children in Hyde Park. Donner has started a project on trees with his oldest grandchild.
“I gave her a tree book; I gave her a notebook. And we would go out, oh for a half hour or so and walk around the neighborhood. We would look at trees and I would say, ‘This kind of tree is a linden tree.’”
“We would pick a leaf and she would trace the leaf in her book and look the tree up in her real tree book, one of these little Golden Nature Guide books.
“Actually (after I published my Jackson Park wildflower website) I had somebody who I sent the site to, and he immediately emailed back ‘But where’s the elderberry? Isn’t there elderberry?’”
“I said, ‘No, that’s going to be in the section, when I do a section on trees and shrubs,’ which is sort of my plan.”
“But I might leave that to my granddaughter. It might be fun for her to do a website on trees and shrubs in Jackson Park,” Donner added.
As I concluded my interview, I asked Donner if there was anything he wanted to add.
He brought up the Obama Presidential Center, and said he thought it would be better placed in the Washington Park neighborhood, where it would have a larger economic impact.
Earlier, I had asked him, “How much do you think Wooded Isle is going to be changed by the presence of the Obama Center?”
“I think it would be changed if you had a huge surge of extra visitors,” said Donner.
“And I am not sure that will happen. Because I think people going to the Obama Center will have plenty to do. They may not come and wander around the park so much.”
“If it doubles to 2000 a day, that probably doesn’t make much of a difference. But if you get 20,000 then you will have large groups of people traipsing through the woods, so that will degrade the environment.
“You know, it’s wonderful as a kind of refuge from the density of population that you experience in urban life. I think that’s why Olmsted wanted Wooded Isle in the middle of his plan for the Columbian Exposition, as a way to get away from the crowds. If Wooded Isle is also crowded, it defeats one of its main attractions or sources of appeal. But we will have to wait and see. It looks like it is a done deal.”