Within an hour’s drive of downtown Chicago, in pretty much any direction (except east, of course), you can come across “the wilds of Chicago.”
That’s what photojournalist and nature photographer Mike MacDonald wants people to discover in his new coffee-table book “My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland’s Startling Natural Wonders” Morning Dew Press, $75). Through more than 200 immersive landscape photographs and 23 essays and poems and 24 additional location chapters, MacDonald opens a window on some of Chicago’s wilderness through the lens, via two dozen preserves — 350 square miles of natural prairie, woodlands, wetlands and sand dunes and occasionally the creatures that inhabit the settings.
MacDonald recently talked to me about his book and what the prairie, through the lens, has taught him over the course of more than 20 years. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows.
“What blows people away is not the wildlife necessarily. It’s that there’s this huge expanse — and then, Wow! That’s Chicago!
“Although in nature there was green stuff and flowers that were pretty, there could be invasive species in there that aren’t native to our area and diminish the biodiversity that we have. They change the nature of the chemistry of the soil, so native plants no longer grow. I thought anything was good if it was green and growing. Most people think anything green is good.
“I would look at the places in Chicago Wilderness magazine [to find places to photograph] and then go to the library or bookstore and look for books about Illinois’ prairies. I eventually came across a two-volume book by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission all about the designated Illinois nature preserves. One volume, about an inch thick or so, had the entire state’s preserves listed. The other was just as thick but was just for the Chicago area’s preserves.
“The book happened over time. When I first thought of doing a book, it was going to be more or less a beautiful photography book about Chicago nature. I wasn’t thinking I’d have this grand purpose.
“You can’t love and support something that doesn’t exist. The only way people are going to know about the prairie and fall in love with the prairies and restore Chicago’s wetlands and savannas is if they come to know it.
“When you take a picture in the mountains, the mountains are inherently photogenic. When you come to the prairie, there are no mountains or streams. And when you take a photo, 3-D collapses into 2-D. So when you have the flat prairie, the small flowers get even smaller, the prairie gets even flatter. Over the years, I’ve created processes to make those photos very immersive and use the natural light to separate the subject matter. I call it ‘glancing light.’ And because in many instances there’s direct sunlight and shadow, it adds to the three-dimensionality of the shot. Suddenly, you can see every blade of grass in the prairie.
“You scout locations over a period of time, even over a year. Once I get to know these preserves and [their] different varieties of flowers — because they pretty much bloom the same time each year — I can return at specific times of the year to get the shot I want. I started to create an events calendar on my computer so I would mark the days to visit a specific prairie to get the shots I wanted — my appointment calendar with nature!
“I think what I’m doing differently is I’m showing people vast scenes they’d never expect. People think nature in Chicago is the [Morton] Arboretum or the Botanic Garden, which are more like living museums. I’m showing landscapes. There’s a vastness, a glorious vastness here.
“Nature is beautiful in all its chaos. You can go to a prairie and say, wow, this place is a mess! It’s glorious to the eye and to the soul, but to a camera it’s not. With my photographs, I’m trying to create order from this glorious chaos in the lens. I’m trying to tell a story of what I’m seeing there, in all that combination of plants. That’s how I frame it. I have to frame it properly, or the story and emotion won’t come across.”