We stuffed our packs and rolled up sleeping pads borrowed from gearhead friends. We took a train to a bus and then walked ten minutes past crowded museum steps and beach front hot dog stands. We signed waivers and scoped out spots for our tents alongside a thick row of wiry green stems. We caught glimpses of choppy Lake Michigan through openings in the brush. The glowing gray buildings of downtown Chicago stood sentinel to the west, hugged and held by the hot afternoon sun.
We kayaked in a shallow lagoon bordered by bog-loving plants, learning proper paddle technique and racing each other from end to end. The breeze off the lake and the droplets of water that inevitably found their way into our boats kept us cool. We hiked slowly back to camp where we drank beers and ate perfect, plump plátanos around a well-tended firepit. The sun dipped down behind the city and we watched the bright moon rise red over the lake. We shared jokes and ghost stories and turned our fingers sticky with melted marshmallow.
That night we heard the cars rush down Lake Shore Drive, and the wind whip rhythmically at our tent walls, and the crickets chirp out loud, to each other, to themselves. We heard the distant hiss of a neighbor’s tent zipper, and the ringing of an ambulance floating deep through downtown.
The morning brought squishy walks through dewy lawns, a climb along the rocky lakefront, and a race to catch the quickly changing light of the sunrise. The sky and clouds churned an infinite number of colors, and we watched the waves creep over the hard concrete dock. People in pairs sat below the planetarium, clicking photos of the neon pink sun, or just watching the day open up.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the cloud cover thickened and the threat of storms rolled in. We broke down camp, warmed our bagels over the bonfire, and made our way back to the bus. Sitting on the elevated subway, clutching our transit cards and cellphones, still clipped into our giant packs with sand between our toes, the distance between nature and the city quietly collapsed.
I thought back to our hikes to the lagoon, to floating through marsh plants in a bright red kayak, to spotting glowing planets in the hazy pink sky. I thought back to the crackle of the early morning fire, and the sound of hot coffee being poured into a stainless steel thermos, and the patterns of clouds passing over a burning hot sun.
I remembered the early morning conversation we had with one of the campout guides, about the places he’d lived and how each of them are entirely unique and can’t be replicated. About how Chicago is it’s own amazing thing, and so are the forests in Oregon, and the culture in Tennessee. I thought about the times I’d wished Chicago could be different, more, something else, something better. And I felt something shift in my mind where a frustration had once been. I felt full and excited and grateful. And I looked forward to another night, some time in the future, spent out under the stars.
We spent a night camping on Northerly Island with REI. Camping within the city of Chicago is essentially non-existent, so this experience was incredibly unique and special. I’ve gone out before on an excursion with REI and can’t recommend them more highly. They are experts who are fun to be around and take care of everything. But even if you can’t make it to the next campout, a hike around Northerly Island Park is still time very well spent. The park can be accessed on public transit using the #146 bus to Museum Campus.
Last weekend we had two straight days of giant, loud, destructive storms. Rain poured in buckets from the sky, and deep cracks of thunder shook the neighborhood, waking up a chorus of angry car alarms. Giant hail shot holes straight through my nasturtium leaves. Shoes got soaked, plans got canceled, and somewhere in a dusty corner of the grid, the switch for all the streetlights on our block got turned off. At first I figured they’d come back on the following night, but it’s now been six days and we’re still in the dark. And I love it.
For the past week, it feels like we’ve been living in the country. Yeah, there’s still noisy traffic and from the sidewalk you can still see a pair of glowing gas station logos in the distance. But in our living room, every night at dusk, we watch the sky gradiate from blue to pink, and the crowns of honey locust trees turn black with the setting sun.
I never thought about just how omnipresent streetlights are, how loud and invasive they can be. How easily their withered orange light paints every nighttime memory and experience. I revel in the times spent away from the city because I’m often closer to wide open green spaces, but also because I’m farther away from buzzing street lamps and light pollution.
But this week, the vacation came to us. Our top floor apartment became a cabin in the woods. Stars have been shining just a little brighter. Sleep has come more easily. When I walk through the door, I pull on relaxation like a cozy winter coat. And all we had to do was turn off the lights.
These days the hard asphalt feels miles thick. Solid. Impenetrable. The endless sidewalk unrolls for blocks, dirtied bubblegum dotting the peeling curb, crumbling and worn by the hot summer sun.
My eyes, magnets for green, spot the plants squeezing through cracks in the street. Many like to call these plants weeds. Nuisances, pests. So-called invasive or foreign species, identified as outsiders. Aggressors gobbling up space and resources. Taking hold in soil never meant for them.
In this country, black people are weeds. Brought over from a foreign land, we were cultivated, domesticated, beat back, and disposed of when deemed too wild or unprofitable. We’re seen as opportunistic and greedy. Our features are considered vulgar and undesirable. Experts gather to discuss methods of blocking the spread of our blight. And we’re deliberately eliminated — razed when we take up too much space, destroyed when we simply try to exist somewhere we’re not welcome.
There are things I know how to talk about because I know them so well. And then there are things I struggle to talk about because I know them so well. The helplessness of seeing people that look just like me be systematically overlooked, held back, locked away, and murdered. The hopelessness that comes with learning our history, discovering that the oppression may have shifted gears, but that it’s never really gone away. The frustration of witnessing people continuously deny and belittle experiences they have never had and could never have. The resentment from watching those people speak for me and down to me. The confusion and anger from knowing that some minds can never be changed, that some people will never recognize their privileges, that some truths will never be acknowledged. The emptiness I feel when the dizzying thought crowds my mind: what if justice is an impossible, unattainable dream?
I’ve been keeping an eye out lately for construction zones, not for the buildings in progress, but for the plants that often take advantage of the newly open space. It seems that the rigid asphalt can actually be broken away quite easily — like the shell on a hardboiled egg — revealing the loose, damp earth below. In some emptied lots, the prairie has already rushed in, that grassland that develops after the humans have gone and the earth is left to settle and heal itself. The place where weeds and wildflowers sprout freely, plants differentiated only by context and perspective.
Many of these pop-up gardens won’t make it past the summer. They’ll be sprayed or chopped or smothered. And many of us won’t make it another year. Black people continue to be murdered, black communities continue to be fragmented, our voices continue to be drowned out. But despite their attempts at mowing us down, we keep rising up. We keep growing. We evolve. We sprout thorns to protect ourselves. We blossom.
I have a soft spot for weeds. Unwanted. Misunderstood. They persevere, finding the will to thrive under less than ideal circumstances. They get cut down, pushed over, uprooted, and they keep coming back, stronger than ever. They are resilient. They are beautiful. And so are we.
The solstice has come and gone, which means it’s officially summer. People are parading to beaches in droves. Gardens are filling in. National parks are being crossed off bucket lists. I don’t have any imminent plans for specifically outdoorsy travel, but it’s always on my mind. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of rivers and canyons and mountains and deserts that I want to experience. My hope is that there’s enough time (and grit and money) to ensure I see them all, and it’s always my hope that having visited these places, I’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the land, myself, and the people who came before me.
I often think about how love of the outdoors is typically represented in the mainstream. Sometimes it’s about getting away and connecting to nature. Often it’s about fitness or extreme adventuring. Very rarely it’s about heritage and cultural sensitivity. Also very rare: depictions of capable, interested people of color spending time outdoors and enjoying it.
I’m a person of color — a woman of color, no less — who loves nature and being in it and learning about it. I don’t usually see a lot of other people who look like me on the trails, or on the catalog pages of outdoor equipment retailers. But I know we exist. Because I exist.
The Code Switch podcast recently did an episode on Being Outdoorsy When You’re Black and Brown, and it was beautiful. They talked to people of color about how and why they get outside. They talked about how many different ways connecting to the outdoors can look and sound and feel, despite the lack of representation and historic barriers of entry. They talked about organizations working to increase access to the outdoors for people of color. It was a dialogue about inclusion, and positivity, and growth. It made me proud to know there were other people out there wanting to have these conversations. And then I looked at the comments.
I’d seen it before, not the exact words, but certainly the anger. “Why is it always about race??” “Can NPR report on something without tying it to skin color??” “How is this a story?? Just go for a hike and relax.” A complete dismissal of the personal accounts, the nuanced reporting, the richness and diversity of experience. I saw this same sort of visceral negativity in the comments in The Guardian’s April feature on Outdoor Afro. I’m consistently amazed at how negative people can be when presented with an idea or experience they’re unfamiliar with. There’s so much I don’t know or understand about the world around me, but I try my best to keep an open mind and acknowledge when I’m coming at something from a position of privilege. It seems like something as earnest and crunchy as talking about building community in nature wouldn’t become a battleground for statistics and claims of race baiting. But now we discover that no topic is safe.
My impulse is to run away. To take a break. To take a hike. To go outside and water my garden. And I suppose, in one way, this may be the best way to combat the history that tells me these spaces aren’t for me and the indignant commenters that tell me my experience has no merit. Do I want to walk into an outdoor store and see adventurous women on full bleed marketing collateral that look like me? Yes. Do I want to purchase a ticket to an outdoor excursion and know that I’ll be around people who value diversity and new experiences as much as I do? Definitely. Do I want to browse the interpretation plaques in a National Park visitors center and see text acknowledging the displacement of indigenous people and the environmental stewardship efforts pledged by the Park Service? Of course. But I also know change is slow, and the people in place to make the change are usually very hesitant to do so.
The answer may just be to venture out, to go camping and kayaking, to climb mountains, to canyoneer the narrows, to tend our gardens, to acknowledge and protect nature, to create beauty where before there was none. But we should also make sure to continue asking questions, and having conversations, regardless of how uncomfortable they make people feel. The answer may be that in nature, like everywhere else, our presence and our voices are equally important.
It’s no surprise that I love trips to the plant store. A friend of mine once described the sense of unbridled joy and limitless opportunity for self-healing she felt whenever she went to the grocery store. This is how I feel at the plant store.
Plant stores sell more than just plants. They sell beauty, and oxygen, and therapy. They sell commitment, a connection to the natural world, and a renewed understanding of time. All for relatively cheap. If it’s a good garden store, you can walk out of there with something special, a combination of colors and scents and textures that is completely unique to you. And then you can bring it all home and enjoy it everyday.
I’ve been spending time (and money) at garden centers for decades. I wouldn’t call myself a gardening expert, but I might be an expert on plant stores. Here are some of the tips I’ve collected over the years.
1. Check out your space
If you’re planning on some cleaning and greening — whether outside or inside — enjoy the space for a while before spending any money. The urge to improve can be pressing, but it’s worth it to pump the brakes get a sense for what you’re working with. Grab a chair and a cool drink. Watch the light, watch where it goes and when. Look for spots where the sun is strongest and observe where it’s weakest. Watch for wind or high traffic areas, knowing these are the spots where delicate stems could be bent and broken. Figure out what you want, what will grow well in your space, and take notes.
2. Set a budget for yourself before you get to the plant store
We all want a lush, verdant garden today, right now, immediately. These days we expect convenience and speed in all things, and our desires for a perfect green space is no different. However, when planning a garden, you can have it fast or you can have it cheap, but you can’t have both. The most magical gardens you’ve seen have been built slowly, and almost certainly didn’t look perfect in their first year. Likewise, if you’re not starting plants from seed, you’ve got to be willing to put some money into it. Consider what that number looks like before you get to the plant store. This will help you avoid both a busted wallet and a broken heart.
3. Bring a bag, or a box, or both
If you’re driving, you don’t need to worry about this because you can just put everything into your car. If you’re like me and you’re walking or taking public transportation, bring something to help you transport your finds back home. Canvas bags work well if they’re gusseted and made from sturdy fabric. The straps will help you carry more, though if you carry the bag over your shoulder, delicates leaves and stems can get damaged in transport. Cardboard boxes work well too as they keep everything upright and are relatively easy to carry. But you can’t just throw them over your shoulder. Unless you have incredible upper body strength, there’s a limited amount of weight you can bear with just your hands. I’ve found the bag/box combo to be the best, providing a flat bottom and straps for easy carrying. Grab a cardboard box, place it inside your canvas bag, and plan to fill that thing with plants.
4. Ask for help
We’re all still learning, even the master gardeners among us. When at the plant store, don’t be too proud to seek guidance. Look for an employee or the owner and ask questions. If you’re looking for something special, they’ll know if it’s in stock. If you’re looking for something for a specific area of your garden, they’ll be able to help narrow down the options. They may have direct experience with the tricky plant on your wish list and can give you advice on how to make it work. These people are an excellent source of free plant advice. Take advantage.
5. Inspect your picks
Don’t get a plant home and then realize that it’s overrun by pests. Don’t just assume every plant in the store is equal in health and quality. If you’re at a good, independently owned plant store, chances are high that most picks will be good picks. But give your plants a thorough once over anyway. Look for infestations: weird bugs or strange substances on the leaves. Look for new growth. Healthy plants grow. Some species grow slowly, but there should almost always be some sign of growth. Look at the roots. Some guides will tell you to avoid plants that are rootbound (ie, you can see roots growing out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot). It get can extreme, but it’s not always as much of an issue, especially if you’re planning to repot or put the plant in the ground as soon as you get home. If you’re a plant doctor and feel confident in your rehabilitation skills, by all means, buy away. Otherwise, zero in on the healthiest specimens.
6. Look for smaller versions of the plants you like
This is a quick one. Smaller plants are cheaper and easier to carry. If you’ve chosen a plant that will thrive in the space you picked out for it, it will quickly grow to be as big as the version that would have cost you $16 (or more).
7. Treat yourself
And on the other side of the coin, if you find a plant that’s kind of expensive, but just thrills you, do yourself a favor and get the plant. Splurge. On a plant. If buying the plant and all the others in your basket blows your budget, maybe leave the others behind. Like money spent on experiences, money spent on plants will come back to you many times over.
8. Only pick up what you love
I don’t believe in filler plants. Everything in your garden should make you happy when you look at it. Extend Marie Kondo’s life-changing edict to the garden. Every plant you own should spark joy. If you want a vegetable and herb garden, get veggies and herbs. If you want a container garden of all perennials, get them. If you love bright color and refreshing your garden every spring, load up on annuals. Don’t pick up a plant just because you need “something.” Leave a space bare until you come across the right plant for the space.
9. Don’t take it too seriously
We’ve all killed plants. We’ve all forgotten to water, or watered too much, or picked a plant that needed way more sun than we have in our apartments. The only way to learn about plants and get better at taking care of them is to make those mistakes. So the next time you’re at the plant store, challenge yourself and buy something you’ve never seen before. Buy something you’re not sure you’ll be able to keep alive. You just might surprise yourself.
We’re at the tail end of a long stretch of warm weather storms. Just like spring, summer came early — the hot, muggy days expected of July went ahead and showed up in late May. Fans are set up in every room. Beds have been stripped of their comforters. Ice cubes clink in sweaty glasses of water. And every day brings a rain shower of varying intensity. Today, the thick white cloud cover overhead is slowly shifting to gray. Sharp gusts of cool wind burst through dense canopies as if to say, “Get ready.”
Before I moved to Chicago, my understanding of summer storms was sorely limited and essentially flawed. The “rainy season” in Southern California mostly comprised of a few weeks in November when the ground goes damp and everyone forgets how to drive. Here in the Midwest, I’ve learned the extreme weather season lasts all year.
My first big warm weather storm happened during my first summer in Chicago. I was in college at the time and paid $270 a month to live two blocks from campus in a sunroom with white-framed windows on three walls. The subsequent winter would see me huddled by a space heater, attempting to ignore the frost growing on both sides of my single paned glass. But in the warm season, windows and curtains stayed open to let the breeze flow through. The room was my refuge in the trees. I spent much of that first summer sitting in the window sill, watching the lazy handful of neighborhood kids and graduate students jaywalk three floors below.
One afternoon in my bedroom, I noticed the light change. The buttery yellow walls had begun to glow a hazy orange. I leaned closer to the window screen and struggled to focus my eyes on the sky, sidewalk, brick buildings across the street. Everything was bathed in the eerie orange light, deepening rapidly. The air hummed with electricity. The cloud cover thickened and before long, the sky let loose an angry spew of hail that turned green lawns white and rattled violently against our cement facade. As quickly as it came, the hail slowed and then stalled, melting away and taking the thick orange sky with it. Hot, wet asphalt and leaves fat with the weight of water were left behind as the only evidence of the storm.
In the years since, there have been many more hailstorms, some worse than others. We’ve had thunderstorms that blew out power for entire neighborhoods, powerful stabs of wind that felled the oldest trees, curbside flooding that turned intersections into lakes. There was even that year when we were first introduced to the legendary derecho. A this point, I’ve had a lot of experience with this city’s intense weather. But every time the sky darkens and the winds ripple through wildly swaying trees, I’m still surprised.
I suppose it’s the city’s brush with untamed nature. We don’t have craggy mountains to arch our necks at, or vast oceans to dive, or deep forests to wander. Chicago’s natural beauty has been largely leveled to make way for historic feats of architecture, temples of culture and academia, and a few hundred lovingly tended urban parks. But the weather is our great equalizer. We’re all cold on the hundredth straight day of freezing temperatures in April, and we’re all in awe of the uncontrollable power of a wild summer storm. It doesn’t matter how much we try to insulate ourselves with society and technology. One way or another, nature always overpowers, stuns, delays, distracts, reroutes, impresses, terrifies, and drenches us.
The breeze outside picks up speed and the windchimes on our back porch sing louder and more often. A distant rumble of thunder echoes, and the skies churn from bright white to a swirling gray. When today’s storm breaks, I have my face pressed hard to the glass. I watch in awe as the army of droplets fall, and as the wind blows unknowable patterns in the soaked and shining streets.
I’ve started taking the California bus in the mornings, which has dramatically improved my commute time as well as my morning mental wellbeing. The bus is rarely crowded, the drivers are always at ease, and I’m able to completely avoid the traffic madness on Western Ave.
On one of last week’s bus rides, I noticed a Chicago Park District sign at a clearing in a dense mass of woodland trees. Turns out, everyday I’ve been riding past a park that I didn’t even know existed. Just by slightly shuffling my morning routine, I happened across a new green spot in my city to explore. So this weekend, this long last weekend in May, we took a trip to explore this new park. We hopped on the California bus, got off at the second to last stop, wandered through the clearing in the trees and right into Clark Park.
The park is nestled between Belmont on the South, Addison on the North, Lane Tech high school on the East, and the Chicago River on the West. There are a few different zones, each catering to a slightly different slice of the North Center neighborhood constituency. The bike baths, hidden by tall trees and thick foliage, feature jumps and ramps for the budding X Games hopeful. The long paved sidewalk snakes along the river, providing glimpses of the glittering gray water from above and between clumps of leafy green. A wide open grassy field just south of Addison allows for solo yoga stretching, duos of footballers, and packs of picnickers.
In the middle of the park rises a dark gray angular structure, sided with smooth slate and perforated with giant river-facing windows. This is the WMS Boathouse, a year-round training facility for rowers and storage space for many of the kayaks you see floating down the river from May to October. When we wandered by, we saw a small handful of bright eyed weekenders outfitted with neon life vests, tugging their boats down the dock and into the water. A beautiful and serene spot to launch an afternoon’s paddle.
We wandered for a while through dappled light and wide open sun, listening to the whir of bike gears from deep within the brush. Plans were built to return later in the summer for a double kayak trip followed by a picnic on the field. An errand in nearby Roscoe Village pulled us east, where we passed a lush prairie, a symbol of what all the land in Chicago once looked like. The tall reeds and grasses bent in the breeze. Native leaves and stems soaked up hot midday sun, growing longer and greener with each passing day.
Last month I launched a newsletter, a monthly missive recapping past blog posts and compiling some of my favorite articles/posts/images from the vast, bottomless web.
Among the political muck, endless digital advertisements, and sponsored posts, there remain a few people who choose to garden, to observe the natural world around them and share their perspectives online. My newsletter features their stories as well as my own, putting writers and artists from vastly different areas and backgrounds in conversation with each other. This is the green internet; a growing, fluid place where we can share and plan and think about nature during the times when, for whatever reason, we’re not able to just go be in it. Here’s a glimpse of last month’s inaugural memo.
If you like what happens here on Darker than Green, then you may very well enjoy this bonus slice of internet I’ve been working on. A new newsletter goes out this week. And I promise it will be filled with plants, poetry, activism, awareness, and all the other things that keep us going.
We live on a busy street in Chicago. These two lanes cut through most of the north and south sides, and are often used a backup for drivers routing around the city’s endless construction. There’s usually a steady flow of traffic, pedestrian revelry, ambulance sirens, window-shaking bass, and reggaetón. In short, it can get loud.
When I first moved into the apartment, I didn’t know how I was going to handle all the noise. Even with the windows closed, the sounds aren’t muted completely, just muffled. My first few months of opening the front door was enough to routinely startle and distress. Five years have since passed. And though the noise is still there, now I’m pretty used to it. Wooden floor squeaks and blender rumbles mix with the constant din of the city beyond.
Mornings mean breakfast in the east-facing kitchen, where we turn sleepy faces toward the hot sun and watch, swaying in the breeze, a quarter mile of treetops. The loud concrete crackle in front of our apartment becomes a quiet green echo in back, the sounds softening through the filter of wind and leaves. Occasionally we can hear the distant roar of the El train and the hefty puff of a passing bus, but what we hear most is birds.
The birds were here as soon as the word ‘spring’ shivered on the city’s tongue. The giant tree next door was brought down last fall, so now our towering callery pear tree serves as the avian highrise for so many pairs of tiny wings. The tree’s leaves fill in more with every warm day. Hidden by foliage, we rarely see the birds, but by our ears we know they’re there.
There’s one we hear so clearly. Her plaintive song rebounds against our brick building and pierces through the chirping clamor. It’s loud and unmistakeable. Three minor notes, descending in order, held long until they warble. I haven’t heard her before this year. Maybe the extended cold spring keeps her here longer than nature would have wanted. Some furious internet research led me to believe she’s a golden-crowned sparrow, a western bird that typically flies north and south along the Pacific coast, but whose habitat appears to be expanding east. An expansion, I assume, motivated by the extreme fluctuations of our new weather norms.
Along with the rattle of a faulty engine and the soaring sweep of an airplane overhead, I keep an ear out. For the sparrow. For her three long notes. For the shuffle of a warm breeze through green coin leaves. For the trickle of a hose, feeding budding sprouts in the raised bed nextdoor. For the clink-sigh of a beer can opening on a nearby patio, and the sizzle of a steak on a neighbor’s dusty grill. For the cement crack and hard wood drill of construction machinery across the street. For the car horns and the geese honks, drifting through an open window on a cool pink evening.
A few weeks ago we took a (long overdue) vacation to Asheville. This past winter wasn’t the harshest or the coldest, but the pull to go somewhere warm and green was still pretty strong. This beautiful mountain town in Western North Carolina was exactly what we were looking for. I’ve put down some of the spots we most enjoyed in the new Asheville Green City Guide. Check it out, and browse some of my other Green City Guides here!