Celia Michener, volunteer in Harbert-Payne Park Submitted photo

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This is the second installment in an occasional series about volunteers for Evanston’s natural areas.

At a certain angle, meandering the paths at Harbert-Payne Woods, Celia Michener might herself be a woodland creature checking on the beds of wild ginger and mayapple. She watches for the deer that wander through the shrubs and trees, including Caesar, a grand and antlered buck that wandered the woods last year. She named him. Now there is a young buck resting a wounded leg near the mayapple beds.

Harbert-Payne Woods is in the 13.5-acre Harbert-Payne Park located on the east side of the North Shore Channel from Main Street to Dempster Street. With brambles of invasive buckthorn, but also cottonwood, walnut, cherry, redbud, and other trees that offer good forage, the park is filled with migratory birds in spring and fall.

Ms. Michener is one of two park stewards at Harbert-Payne Woods, who plan and oversee habitat restoration by community members: removing invasive plants that are not good for wildlife and adding paths and native plants that provide food and cover for wildlife. Harbert-Payne Woods in particular is benefitting from the Channel Habitat Fund, a new grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation that will apply up to $28,000 to restore and expand natural habitat in Harbert-Payne and Ladd Arboretum.

“I always loved playing in the dirt and I have never become tired of that,” Ms. Michener said.

“I grew up in Kansas and loved the outdoors. As a child I dug clay and made my own tiny tea set out of clay. Nearby there was a creek and undisturbed woods. There was an outcropping of limestone. I would watch the flying squirrels and walk the shallow creek.” Not just watching the birds and wildlife in the park, Ms. Michener enjoys seeing kids running roughshod and wild in the natural areas of the park. It is clear she feels their joy of discovery and freedom.

Moving to Evanston in 1969 after her husband took a position in the Northwestern African Studies Library, the couple with their son and daughter lived in an apartment in southeast Evanston. “I felt so constrained because I didn’t have my outdoors,” she said. She planted flowers near the abandoned railway tracks along Chicago Avenue. Eventually she secured a plot at the James Park community garden, where she staked out the original garden plots. 

About 11 years ago, she moved to a house next to Harbert-Payne Woods, a quiet corner of Evanston.  “I can see Harbert from my front window,” she notes. “When I moved here, it was just a park people passed through jogging or on bicycles, not heavily used. Then I saw people working to remove buckthorn. I said, ‘Hmm that’s great.’”

During the pandemic, Evanston parks, including Harbert-Payne, are heavily used, say the stewards who oversee the parks. Many Evanstonians are taking stretch breaks and mental health and exercise breaks outdoors with walks, jogs, and chats in Evanston parks.

Harbert-Payne also is the site for a dozen or more volunteers weekly, led by Ms. Michener and Allison Sloan, the lead steward at Harbert-Payne.  They remove invasive buckthorn and plant natural habitat for birds and wildlife. Common buckthorn is a non-native invasive plant common along the North Shore Channel, which runs beside Harbert-Payne Woods. Common buckthorn suppresses and squeezes out native plants. It also provides poor quality food for bird: its berries can cause a severe, laxative reaction: hence the Latin name, Rhamnus cathartica.

Ironically, the buckthorn also provides cover for birds and deer in Harbert-Payne. So rather than having it removed all at once, it will be phased out slowly so that native plants can grow and replace the invasive buckthorn groves. Natural areas in Evanston are required to be maintained by groups of community volunteers.

Ms. Sloan, the lead steward at Harbert-Payne, invited Ms. Michener to work with plant selection, as Ms. Michener knows so well how to germinate native woodland plants, like wild onions. 

Ms. Michener is enthusiastically adding plant diversity in Harbert-Payne. “I’m somewhat limited in what I can do physically, but I love to help with planning, plant and seed selection, and leading work groups.”

At 79, Ms. Michener has survived pancreatic and breast cancer and knee replacement. She says her knees gave out from overuse from gardening, backpacking and canoeing, but it led to the very lucky early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Ms. Sloan, Ms. Michener, and their loyal volunteers are planning to add many food-forest native plants, like pawpaw, elderberry, mulberry, pecan, and serviceberry trees, as well as blackberry and onion. It can take as much as five years for the plants to start producing, so Michener is keen to encourage visitors to leave buds and blooms. “As soon as a flower appears, it is picked within one or two days,” she sighs. 

The new Channel Habitat Fund will permit educational signage too, which Ms. Michener wants carefully worded.  She suggests new signs might say “Leave the flowers for everyone to enjoy. Let them make seeds to reproduce themselves and to feed the wildlife critters.” Signs might also explain, “We cut out the invasive buckthorn so that the native plants can thrive. Also, we cut and remove dead trees that have fallen across the paths.”

Ms. Michener said, “I hope people understand why we are cutting trees in the woods and will not find it disturbing.” 

Though somewhat unsightly, wire cages also protect new plants from rabbits and deer. Eventually they will be removed or moved to another new plant to give it a safe start. It is critical, Ms. Michener acknowledges, “We need to say how we develop the park for people’s enjoyment.”

Harbert-Payne plans for the future at are to enlarge the natural area, group species together and hopefully let them spread. “Groups of species are easier to keep an eye on,” Ms. Michener considers. “Easier to gauge their success. Easier for education purposes. Easier to educate about them and care for them. Easier to understand whether they are successful and will spread.”

“Nature will win out,” Ms. Michener says, thinking about wild onions. “Strange thing about them – they don’t form their bulbs the first [year]. They look like little chives with a little spear. It’s fun for me to learn and meet these plants in more detail.”

More about the Channel Habitat Fund:  The Illinois Clean Energy Foundation will match donations and volunteer labor with financial disbursements of up to $28,000 for the habitat restoration and signage.  Contributions to Citizens’ Greener Evanston for the Channel Habitat Fund, up to $7,000 are matched three times the value of the donation, meaning $7,000 in private gifts will unlock $21,000 in foundation funds. Anyone who wishes to donate can go to https://greenerevanston.org/channel-habitat-fund