After 15 years of tramping through forests, identifying and improving the habitats of Illinois’ precious native flowers, Forest Park resident Kathleen Garness is being recognized for her tireless efforts. In September she was named “Outstanding Citizen Volunteer of the Year” by the Illinois Association of Park Districts and will also be honored by the Cook County Board and have her photo taken with President Toni Preckwinkle, well-earned recognition for the many hours and miles Garness devotes to her role as steward in the Cook County Forest Preserves, even though, in her unassuming manner, she believes there are other unsung volunteers more worthy.

Her pet project is protection of the state’s wild orchids. Illinois is home to 50 species of native orchids and 40 of these can be found in the Chicago region. Garness underwent rigorous training to map the orchid habitats and monitor their growth. 

“I jumped into the deep end of the botany pool,” she said, “but it’s been very rewarding.”

Garness was a budding botanist at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park until the school abruptly dropped the program. She went on to DePaul and then obtained her master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University. Religion and orchids would seem far apart, but every aspect of Garness’ life is infused with her Christian faith.

She stumbled back into botany through her son, Ian Halliday, whom she refers to as her “Magnum Opus.” Halliday was in Boy Scouts, on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, when he and his troop visited Volo Bog to earn merit badges in conservation. Garness was dismayed to see an orchid that had been ripped out of the ground and left on the boardwalk to die. She decided to make orchids her cause.

She attended a training session at Chicago Botanical Gardens and was assigned to collect data on “plants of concern,” like orchids, which are vulnerable to poachers. Her assignment was a tall order: to find and collect data on 100 plants every year. This kind of job doesn’t sound dangerous but Garness learned it contained hazards.

For example, the Purple Fringe Orchid blooms in July-August, in the “muckiest mosquito-filled” section of the forest. Fighting off squadrons of mosquitos was one thing, stumbling over a tree root was far more serious. 

“I broke my arm in eight places,” Garness recalled. “Another time I broke an ankle.” As a result of these mishaps, she no longer ventures into the forest alone.

Garness was not covered by the forest preserve for her injuries and she is not reimbursed for the considerable amount of gas she burns, driving to and fro. But she’s not complaining. 

“It’s cheaper than therapy and a lot more effective,” she said. Nothing makes her happier than nature. “I don’t eat out, drink, or smoke,” she declared. “My only vice is buying gas for road trips.” Since much of her work is done in Lake County, the cost adds up.

Her sworn enemy in the forest is buckthorn. This voracious species was imported from Europe and is destroying native plants and wiping out the habitats of birds. 

“Buckthorn steals the sunlight,” Garness said. “When it’s removed, wildflowers thrive.” To combat the “exploding population” of buckthorn, she is certified to use herbicide when managing a habitat. 

Thanks to the efforts of Garness and other volunteers, species like the White-fringed Orchid are making a comeback. “I occasionally find a patch of pristine prairie — living-room size,” she said. “There’s a hundred acres of prairie in Theodore Stone Forest Preserve, at 67th and LaGrange Road.”

In addition to caring for plants (she calls them “my babies”), Garness likes to draw their portraits. “The focus of my art is on education, creating representations of plants and animals.” She worked on a project for the Field Museum to draw renderings of the 20 plant families of the Chicago region. She also made 70 illustrations of flora and fauna for the publisher of “Little Gospel” books. For The Nature Conservancy, she created a scarf bearing the images of “Species Making a Comeback,” which included plants and animals.

Her day job is running a pre-school out of her Forest Park home. Trained in Montessori methods, Garness creates an educational and artistic environment for her young students. It’s the kind of place where the snacks are healthy and the TV is almost never on. She believes many urban children suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.” She believes kids with learning disorders would benefit from trips to the forest preserves. 

“Many kids are very deprived of nature,” she noted. “I’m glad the Cook County Forest Preserve is rebuilding camps in the woods.” 

Garness has never lost her sense of wonder about nature and will continue to restore prairie plants and protect their habitats. She also intends to paint all of the orchid species native to Illinois. 

“I’m one-third of the way there,” she said gamely. 

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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