Sidewalks: A story lovely as a tree

If you have ever wondered how many trees are in Lincoln Park — on one of those days you weren't wondering what to wear or where to go to dinner — Liam Heneghan will tell you.

For more than a year, this professor in DePaul University's environmental science program and co-director of the university's Institute for Nature and Culture has been engaged in one of the most intriguing and exciting academic endeavors we have ever encountered: counting the trees in Lincoln Park.

"How many trees? Well, in a way, that's like the 'How many jelly beans in the jar?' game," says Heneghan, the lilt of his native Ireland caressing his words. "But when all is said and done, I think the number will be 10,000."

Since May 15, 2009, he and four students (Jake Hartle, Erin Weber, Cory Cote and Meredith Van Acker, whom he refers to as his "collaborators") have been prowling the park from Hollywood Avenue south to North Avenue. They have been collecting data on the trees: species, location, size (measured as diameter at breast height), health and canopy cover.

"I have been fortunate to work on a lot of cool projects," he says, mentioning previous ecological adventures in such exotic climes as Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. "But this is the one that gets me out of bed early in the morning … and, amazingly, the students too."

Heneghan calls this work the DeepMap project, its name taken from William Least Heat-Moon's book "PrairyErth," and loosely defined as something that does not involve just the natural history of an environment, but also its socio-cultural significance.

"As we have been collecting the data, we have also been observing how different communities use the park," he says. "How have insects and animals and people interact with the trees? How have they played a role in people's lives? Is there a tree under which your parents first kissed?"

A native of Dublin, Heneghan has been here for 11 years (after four at the University of Georgia), living in Evanston with his wife and two kids.

"I knew little about the city beyond the images of gangster movies," he says. "Most ecologists are not at all interested in urban and suburban places, beyond their degradation. I think this is profoundly wrong. There are so many possibilities here."

Though his initial collaborators will graduate this year, he expects that they, joined by others, will conclude the tree census by late summer or early fall.

Their efforts, supported by the Chicago Park District, will certainly be of great value, since plans call for planting millions of trees in the area in the next decade and assisting in creating a "new ecology that will be of great use as cities strive to become, and remain, hospitable to biological diversity," Heneghan says.

Heneghan is a scientist with his Ph.D. in ecology, but in talking to him it's impossible not to sense the poet and philosopher in him; indeed, he is working toward a master's degree in philosophy. He talks of the park's "dense little forests" and "savannah-like areas," and about "how people grow to love a place."

When he says "I have been thinking about trees for a very long time," you know that he does not mean in the simplistic manner of poet Joyce "I think that I shall never see" Kilmer, but in a fashion more akin to the deep and passionate and encompassing way that his fellow countryman James Joyce thought about life itself.