Huntington Library & Botanical Gardens

Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Tall cactus with tree in background, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Aeoniums in the sunlight, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Succulent closeup, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Twisted cactus, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Adventure featured heavily in my early years growing up in Los Angeles. My mom probably wouldn’t describe it that way, but that’s the way I experienced it. I’m the youngest of three daughters, and we’re all so significantly spaced apart in age that by the time my middle sister went away to college, I still had several years left at home. My mom and I became adventure partners. We tried every type of cuisine, we took long walks through museums and sat through marathon theatre performances, we drove great distances to faraway festivals and gatherings. The city was our playground, and we took every advantage of it.

This elaborate itinerary building wasn’t, to my knowledge, part of any grand child-rearing scheme. As far as I know, my mom never set out to make me an artist, or a lover of the arts, or a foodie, or a traveler. She just took me along with her to experience things she was interested in. And luckily for both of us, they became things I was interested in, too. All the seeds she planted took root eagerly, and my personality and my own interests began to form and flourish. It may be no surprise to hear that I became an artist, and a lover of the arts, and a foodie, and a traveler, and many, many other things that resonate with her influence.

Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Small succulents, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Tall cacti, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Giant floss silk tree, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Cactus patch in the shade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Closeup of cactus spines, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

When I went back to Los Angeles recently to help my mom celebrate her 70th birthday, I schemed to take her back to one of the places she’d introduced me to decades before. The Huntington Library is a historic mansion-turned-museum, and the hundred odd acres surrounding the mansion have been turned into a series of mind-bendingly beautiful gardens. The last time we went to the Huntington must have been decades ago, back when my mom still drove her little white Ford hatchback. This time around we were car-free, which means the trip was a lot longer, but also, that much more rewarding.

Closeup of swirling spiny cactus limbs, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Curved path among barrel cacti, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Tall, smooth cactus in dappled shade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Multi-colored succulents, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Brightly colored agave closeup, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

We spent most of our day shuffling through the Desert Garden, which spreads and curves through 10 acres of spines, barbs, and branches. Places from childhood tend to feel smaller when revisited as an adult, but the Desert Garden felt exponentially bigger and even more impressive than I could have guessed. On a Monday afternoon, we had the garden mostly to ourselves, and the mockingbirds who screeched and chattered to each other from the tops of swaying, feathery yucca trees. With each turn of the path, the shapes and textures and colors blurred at the periphery, the dusty memories of walking these same trails years ago in perfect focus in the front of my mind. Our handful of hours at the Huntington reminded me of a lot, about where I’m from and the experiences that compounded to create the person I am today. But what stood out to me was the realization and the reminder that there’s no better company for a long, slow stroll among the plants than my mom.

Swirled agave closeup, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Silver dollar jade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Thin spiny agave leaves, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Green and yellow variegated agave leaves, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Desert plant resting against shaded fence, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Cholla cactus fruiting, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Montrose cactus, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Shaded long leaves, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Cactus flower, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Agaves in black and white, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Center view of the path in the Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Jacaranda tree in bloom, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Monstera Deliciosa in the shade, Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Garden plantings at the Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

Sun-kissed agave spines, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

My mom gazing upon the Desert Garden, Huntington Library, San Marino CA / Darker than Green

The Huntington is located in San Marino, CA, a mainly residential corner of Pasadena, which is a lovely city northeast of Los Angeles. If you’re traveling there on public transportation, make sure you bring a book…or two. From the westside of Los Angeles, our trip took over 2 hours. But! It was a lovely ride, and I continue to be amazed with how robust public transit has become in L.A. since I moved away. However, I do have one word to the wise for train trippers – you should spring for the Lyft when you arrive at Allen Station. It won’t cost too much, and you’ll want to save your walking energy for when you get to the Gardens. Avoid Tuesdays (they’re closed), tickets are less expensive on weekdays and free on the first Thursday of every month. My only other tip – have fun, and bring someone who loves adventures as much as you do. If that person is your mom, even better.



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Magic in the dark

We went down to the south side to meet him for dinner. Curried potatoes, peas, and paneer formed miniature mountains on our disposable plates. An army of little plastic cups huddled nearby, all filled with green chutney and tamarind sauce that was never quite spicy enough. After eating and talking, the three of us walked west and turned into Nichols Park where the crickets’ song outplayed the honking horns on 53rd Street. I marveled at how tall the trees has grown, and smiled when he told us he could never imagine living anywhere else in the city, that Hyde Park’s glut of green had set an unmatchable standard. The heavy curtain of dusk began to fall as I pointed out familiar plants in raised beds – the day’s light draining faster and faster, until in some corners, it got too dark to even tell the leaves apart. He stood back a ways, gazing out past the warm streetlights and the cool glow of the early evening moon. He stared directly into the densest part of the park, where the darkest greens had turned all the way to black.

Twilight through silhouetted trees, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Those that know me personally know that magic is one of my core values. I believe in it. Not necessarily because I’ve experienced it first hand (though I have), but because I don’t want to live in a world where magic isn’t possible. So I choose to believe. Some days the tricks feel clumsy and poorly executed, begging to be picked apart. Some days the leap of faith is impossible to clear, and I feel firmly tethered to the ground, by the weight of realism, pessimism, the gravitational pull. But even still, even knowing how challenging believing is, I work hard to rekindle the magic, to cut the ties that hold me down, and lift off.

At the end of last month, in an instant, I lost magic completely. The unexpected news: a good friend had suddenly died. A friend whose wit and generosity were unmatched. A friend who was gentle and sweet and weird and wonderful. A friend who shared love and was loved, fiercely, by so many. The shock of the news threw me outside of myself in a way I never could have imagined. The swirling cyclone of regular deadlines, errands, and need-to-do’s, slowed and eventually withered away. None of it mattered. My body felt stretched to its limit, bulging with the bulk of this new reality, struggling to contain the questions, and the tears.

The grief that followed — the psychological, emotional, and physical pain — was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It followed me everywhere and rushed over me in fickle intervals, flattening me without warning, wrapping me up in guilt and regret. Memories that would have made me smile days before now felt sharp or shapeless. My deep yearning for understanding pooled in my throat. But the answers never came.

As adults, we’re groomed to believe that facts are what matter and that everything has an explanation. So when we’re faced with a situation that is truly inexplicable, we prod and push at it, pounding it down into a more recognizable form. I thought about how often I’ve demanded answers, proof – how often I’ve felt entitled to clarity and certainty. How often I’ve focused on these bits of data instead of remembering that sometimes, often, there simply are no answers. In magic, it’s easy to shriek, “How’d you do that!?” or push aside the curtain and research the secret behind a trick. It’s not as easy to witness a mystery, and accept it just as it is. And I don’t know of any mystery more opaque, more complete, than death.

I have lost a friend. His partner has lost hers. His sister has lost her brother. His parents, their son. Magic can’t begin to ease that kind of pain. But over the past few weeks, I’ve discovered that learning to accept the unknown is its own sort of magic trick. Uncertainty bears a jagged edge, but on the other side, there’s a softness not felt or witnessed by many. There’s comfort in the darkness. There, we can let ourselves wonder wildly – our belief in what’s possible, ever-expanding. There, we can catch glimpses of what used to be, and who used to be there. Or who may be there still, floating among the shadows.

That night in Nichols Park, I foolishly thought I knew what the future held. Even as the evening grew dim, I fixated on the coming of the next day and the return of the sun. But now, I anticipate the arrival of that murky gradient on the horizon. I lean back and look up as the clouds retreat into deeper and deeper shadow, until finally, twilight drifts away, and I can wrap myself in the magic of the black night sky.


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Reading: Belonging

Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks / Darker than Green

Daddy Jerry always tried to get his grandchildren to come out in the pitch dark “to learn the dark” – to learn its comforts and its solace. We can do that and learn to be comfortable in the darkness and beauty of our skin. No one can take that spirit of belonging away.

bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, from chapter 18, Healing Talk



There are books that wrap you up in another person’s story, immersing you in their new and different world. And there are books that, like a freshly cleaned mirror, reflect your own experience right back at you. From the very first page of the first chapter, “Belonging: A Culture of Place” was my mirror.

Belonging has been a central pursuit in my life since childhood. I felt a connection with the earth from a young age, but felt kept apart from it for many reasons. Not owning a home, not owning any land, living at the whim of landlords and gatekeepers – I learned my place by learning what places were not and never would be mine. As a young adult, I left behind the city where I grew up and started to learn what my new place could be. I’m still on that journey. I’m still in search of the perfect place, the place that welcomes and holds me, the place that remembers with me, the place I can feel at home.

With “Belonging,” bell hooks is telling her story. It’s a non-linear narrative, a series of essays ranging skillfully in topic and tone, but throughout the book she builds her own path toward a fully realized sense of place. Generously, she brings the reader along as she ventures inward, deep into her memories and personal experiences of finding and losing her connection with the world around her. The thread of this book weaves through issues of race, of gender, of environmentalism and self sustenance, of legacy and family, of art and artisanship. hooks swivels effortlessly from autobiography to rich critical theory, and references a diverse group of texts in almost every chapter. Many of my favorite writers are quoted (eg, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker), as well as essayists and critics I was unfamiliar with, but who now have prominent spots on my reading list.

Throughout “Belonging”, you gain an increasingly deep and complex understanding of what the process of returning to oneself looks like. hooks takes us with her, back to Kentucky, the land where she was born, back to the physical places she knew as a young girl, to uncover the elements that together create a sense of belonging. She also introduces us to some of the historic and systemic barriers to belonging – segregation, unchecked capitalist society, white supremacy, and the well known, widely shared, but ultimately false narratives about who we are, the narratives told to us over and over again, both internally and externally.

The most powerful plea hooks makes is for black people to remember their agrarian roots, and to rediscover the ways of knowing that were once central to our personhood, but that we drifted from in the rush to align ourselves with dominant capitalist culture. hooks’s beautifully wrought cultural criticism helped make me aware of my place in that legacy, the legacy of black people being deeply connected to the land, the legacy of being country people, southern people, earth people – the power in maintaining that knowledge of self, and how being separated from that legacy and history is one of the great sources of our generational pain. In speaking about agrarian black folks, hooks asserts “it is my destiny, my fate to remember them, to be one of the voices telling their story.” Reading this book, I realized that my work rests on that same line. That bearing witness to the natural world the way I do brings me closer to the people we were, and to the people we can be.

While reading, I found myself constantly reminded of experiences and thoughts I’d had, fragments of ideas I myself had written, and realizations I’d never been aware of, all laid out before me in a dazzling quilt. hooks is a master of critical theory, and at times I had trouble keeping up with her arguments, but she’s also a master of the personal essay, and has written her life and the lives of her family members so vibrantly that I almost feel as if I know them intimately. Nearly every page of this book left me vocalizing, the generations of black women who live on inside me, acknowledging recognition of themselves and their green lives lived. Nearly every page begs to be quoted, nearly every sentiment needs to be read aloud to whoever will listen.

As soon as I finished “Belonging”, I wanted to pick it back up and start it all over again. I delayed returning my cherished copy to the library, avoiding the calendar like in the days leading up to taking a visiting loved one back to the airport. Reading this book was like an extended therapy session. I felt seen and known. I felt part of a community of thinkers and writers, artists and storytellers, creative and resourceful lovers of the land. With every turned page, I felt the comfort and relief you feel when you come home at the end of the day. I saw the map slowly appear before me, the invisible ink darkening on the page, marking the way toward finding the place I belong.

Buy on Indiebound / Buy on Amazon / Buy on Abe Books


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Finding Nature in the In-Between

Simone Martin-Newberry at Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Earlier this month, Gale Straub, the wonderful woman behind She Explores, interviewed me for an episode of her podcast. The episode is now live and I’m so proud of it. Gale and I chat about all sorts of topics that are close to my heart: plants, seeking out nature in and outside of the city, my relationship with my master gardener mom, the importance of public land and acknowledging the history of the land, growth and discomfort, and moving through the world with eyes open.

Because I’m a practitioner of radical honesty, I’ll admit here that I was wildly nervous before the interview, terrified that I wouldn’t make sense, or wouldn’t sound smart enough. It took a couple gentle nudges from Gale before I even agreed to do it. But the lesson here is clear – fear isn’t a good enough reason to say no. Sharing my perspective via this podcast episode has been revelatory. And being able to connect with others based on our shared experiences has been tremendous.

Listen to my episode here: Episode 66: Finding Nature in the In-Between
And afterward, queue up your next listen: She Explores podcast


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Pirates Cove, Tennessee Valley

Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

I don’t often have the opportunity to go back to California, the state where I grew up and lived my first eighteen years. Flights are expensive, time off is scarce, and my wandering eye is always scanning the list of places I haven’t yet been. But my imagination and subconscious pull me back to the golden state often. Remembering the exact shade of firey orange I see from behind eyelids when my head is turned up to the wide, hot sun. Remembering the soft, rolling mountain ranges – cloaked in straw yellow in the fall, scrubby green in spring.

Grey skies above mountain beside Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

I had never been to the Marin Headlands before, but the sound of my shoes scuffing across gold gravel paths told a different story. The wide trail undulated beneath my legs, legs long retrained for the flat midwest, legs now unaccustomed to even minimal change in elevation. As the trail stretched out ahead of me, a long, winding ramp, it reminded me of what these legs are capable of. Of where these legs belong.

Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean along the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Flora along the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

When we started our hike at the Tennessee Valley trailhead, it was late morning and the gray sky felt heavy. But by the time we caught our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the sun had broken through the cloudcover, reflecting scattered white waves across the bay. The vast ocean, almost unbelievable in scale, unfolded indefinitely toward the horizon. It’s taut shimmer was only broken by the hard diagonals of the headlands. The ridges of land inhaled and exhaled, the chaparral growing in surges of green, the sun pulsing in the veins of the plants’ thin, waxy leaves.

Stairs down toward Pirates Cove, Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Scramble back up from Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Detritus at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Bird perched on a boulder at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Rocks at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

The plunge to Pirates Cove began as stairs etched into the mountainside, and then quickly dissolved into a jumble of broken crag. Scrambling down to the beach, I held tight to each boulder, steadying myself against the earth before shuffling deeper toward the rocky surf. My legs shook involuntarily, already exhausted from the slow steady climb they’d endured, and now being thoroughly tested on the swift descent. But they carried me: past a trickling waterfall, spring runoff on its way to reuniting with the ocean; past native plants and opportunistic newcomers flowering just out of reach; past a mishmash of organic detritus, wooden bits washed up from a tumble in the sea; and finally, over the colony of smooth black stones that lined the curved, sandless cove.

Contrail in the sky behind the cliff at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Dudleya succulents at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Scrubby brush along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean from Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Rocky mountainside, Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean from the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Climbing back up to the trail, back to the sandy path that flexed against the hillside and down into the main valley, I felt held in place. Like the roots of the coastal shrubs holding together the headlands’ rocky soil, like the heavy mountains of earth hugging and holding the edges of the sea, I felt the elements that make up this familiar ecosystem pull me back into it’s tight grasp. The native sedges reached out and tickled my ankles. The giant windswept cypress trees sheltered the trail, catching the first few drops of rain before they could even think to reach my head. I poured myself into the bowl of the Tennessee Valley and felt welcomed, at ease, like I had rediscovered a place that felt like home.

Tennessee Valley Trail marker, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean peeking through mountains along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Wild weeds along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Tiny people atop mountain along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Group hiking Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Getting to the Tennessee Valley trailhead isn’t easy if you don’t have a car, but if you’re able to find a ride or carpool, you’ll enjoy a scenic trip over either the Richmond Bridge (coming from the East Bay) or the Golden Gate Bridge (coming from San Francisco). It’s a good idea to plan your arrival for earlier in the day, as the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly. Once on the trail, you can choose from a few different hikes. The main trail that leads to the lovely Tennessee Valley Beach is flat and family-friendly. The trail for Pirates Cove is less so, but was a rewarding challenge. If the tide is low and you’ve planned wisely and packed a lunch, you’ll be able to find a quiet spot to eat overlooking the crashing waves. If you didn’t bring a meal and feel ravenous when your hike is finished, head to Tamalpie in Mill Valley for delicious thin crust pizza.



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Garden of the Gods Observation Trail, Shawnee National Forest

Juniper trunk in Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Rainy path along Observation Trail, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

We drove west from Kentucky for a day trip to Shawnee National Forest. We’d been building plans to camp in the forest, but watched as the forecast turned colder and rainier. The drive down twisting state roads and up and over the hulking Shawneetown Bridge spit us out deep inside the forest. On either side of the car, canyon walls made of second growth pine were replaced with giant elbows and knees of rippling gray rock, pushing up higher and higher from the damp ground. We’d heard Garden of the Gods was the most popular place in the forest, but upon approaching the parking lot, there was only a smattering of cars. We started clockwise on the Observation Trail, the light rhythm of spring rain darkening the way. A bright opening in the trees beckoned us to come closer to the cliff’s edge, where we caught our first glimpse of the hoodoos.

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Devil's Smokestack in Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

The beauty of Garden of the Gods is undeniable, even during a gloomy early spring afternoon. For many years, I remember thinking that beyond Chicago, Illinois was nothing but flat farmland. Then I visited Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Park, and I thought I’d seen the geologic limits of our state. To put it simply, I was wrong. My home, the place I’d lived for fifteen years, had surprised me again.

Fungus growing on downed tree trunk, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Flowering tree in spring with Garden of the Gods in background, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Juniper roots, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Walking among this timeworn wonder, it’s easy to imagine the Shawnee people who once lived here being acutely aware of the spirit of this area. The sandstone bluffs vibrate with history. The vast wilderness area just beyond the cliffs echo with memory. Even the forest’s smallest inhabitants — pebbles, mosses, and the twisting roots of elder junipers and cedars — radiate with life and awareness.

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Liesegang bands on rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Liesegang bands on rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

As we walked along the trail, leaning close to the jagged, jutting walls, we learned to read the stories written in stone. A rainbow of mosses and lichens clung to the light gray sandstone surfaces that escaped glacial wipeout 300 million years ago. Some stones wore sharp iron-based ridges known as liesegang bands, lending them the look of the grandest of canyons, only on an infinitesimal scale. Even the flagstone pathways, snaking around and through the mountains of rock, reverberated with their own history, whispering the names of the men who built these trailways in the forest’s nascent days.

Liesegang bands on rock formation, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Rainy path along Observation Trail, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Rainy trees in Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

The longer we spent on the trail, the easier spotting faces in the stones became. Sleepy eyes, pointed noses, long lips shut tight. Were these the gods for whom the rock formations had been named? Or were the gods the invisible forces that once roamed this prehistoric playground? The name of the lookout suddenly took on multiple meanings. On the Observation Trail, our eyes aren’t the only pairs searching, peering. We, too, are being watched. Silently. Closely. Faithfully.

Rainy trees in Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Standing on wet rock slabs, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, IL / Darker than Green

Despite the interpretive plaques placed along the trail, at the end of the hike we left wanting more. We felt enchanted by all we’d experienced — the pastel palette, the twisting ancient evergreens, the distant hills receding into the soft haze. Over packed lunches, we imagined ourselves returning and camping in Shawnee, as we’d originally planned, and quietly looked ahead toward that misty future. While we careened out of the forest, back toward Kentucky, a giant bird of prey swooped across a break in the trees.

The gods had spoken. We’d be back.

Large bird of prey flying through canyon of pines on Garden of the Gods Rd, Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Garden of the Gods Recreation Area is the most popular section of Shawnee National Forest, located at the very southern tip of Illinois. The Observation Trail is relatively short, but you can easily spend hours marveling at all the unique rock formations, sights you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the state. Because we visited on a rainy day, the trail was mostly quiet. If you’re in the area during peak months and you get nervous watching people hover dangerously close to the cliff edges, you might want to consider a different hike.



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Gompers Park

Twisted tree trunk in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

There was snow, and there was ice, and there were days where the icicles hung from every surface, growing longer hour after hour. And then it all disappeared. Slowly, at first, and then in a rush. The freeze unfrozen, puddles thawed, ground damp.

In my mind, February is gray, flat, shallow. The clouds impossibly thick, light and contrast muzzled for 28 straight days. But on this February day , I was proven wrong. The sun twinkled on islands of ice floating in murky ponds. Twin tree skeletons swayed overhead and deep in the underworld reflected in every sidewalk puddle.

The angles were sharp, the shapes were bold, and the colors crash-banged in winter’s quiet, gray echo chamber. Orange marcescent leaves, gold witch hazel blooms, bright green moss in tree trunk crevices, cranberry and chartreuse dogwood stems. The catkins rattled, and dead leaves rustled in the wind. The slosh of boot soles settled in fresh, wet mud. Hiding among the tangle of twigs, a mob of bright red cardinals perched and pecked at abandoned clusters of seeds.

By the end of our wander, my socks were soaked. My disdain for February, however, was drained and dry. And in its place, the hopeful smile recognized by spring only.

Tree reflections in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Marcescent tree in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Moss growing on bark in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Deciduous tree against the sky in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Leaf in ice in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Catkins in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Tree reflections in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Leaves in the pond in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Witch Hazel in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Yellow twig dogwood in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Mossy tree trunk in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Winter interest reflected in the pond in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Mossy tree trunks against a fence in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

The pond in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Winter tree in Gompers Park, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

I’ve had my eye on Gompers Park for a while now, but finally had time to take a long walk around it.
The park is absolutely lovely in winter, and I can only imagine it getting better as the seasons change. The 39-acre park butts right up against the LaBagh Woods, and is a pathway for the north branch of the Chicago River. It’s very easy to get to on public transportation – the #92 Foster bus runs right through it.



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A forest bath

It being January, those familiar with Chicago, even very casually, know what the weather is like on the other side of the window. Winter’s got its gnarled grip on the city, and most likely will not let go until May. In an attempt to refresh and rehydrate, I scheduled my first trip of the new year – a week in northern California visiting friends and family.

Even in January, Oakland’s river of parks and outdoor spaces run green, a deeply saturated green. The trails are alive with plants at all stages of the growth process, fern fronds drip with dew and moss and fungus squeeze through cracks in centuries old bark. Midway through my trip, I convinced a good friend to join me on a morning hike around Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, which is essentially a living native plant museum. My dream come true.

The species of flora in Huckleberry can’t be found anywhere else in the East Bay. Throughout the loop, interpretive plaques lean toward passersby from the surrounding brush, describing plants of interest with an unmatched lyricism. The morning I set out, parents pointed at the illustrated berries and trunk burls, cross referencing their maps. Children dashed down muddy paths, a flurry of energy beneath the serene bay tree forest. I breathed in deep at every turn in the trail, noticing the sounds, the smells, the particular quality of light filtering through even the thickest leaves.

One of my favorite writers, Rahawa Haile, recently reported on a forest bathing excursion she took in the East Bay, not far from Huckleberry. She wrote of focusing on the little things, heightening her awareness of her surroundings, letting her mind fall quiet. Back home in Chicago, I’d never thought of going out specifically in search of a place to forest bathe, but reading Haile’s description, I realized it’s what I do every time I spend time in nature. I get intentional. I walk slowly, probably deeply frustrating those I wrangle into hiking with me. I consider every plant, every color, and shade, and tint, every texture, every level of contrast from brightest white to deep, dark black.

The breadth of plant life at Huckleberry is dizzying, but walking the trail there, experiencing this unique ecological community, is the most soothing experience I’ve had outdoors in a long while. I know for sure that coming from Chicago’s deep winter, the Bay Area’s greens looked greener, the humidity in the air felt more moisturizing, the magic of turning the corner from a deeply shaded chunk of trail into the bright, warm sun – unspeakably stronger.

Maybe it’s warm and pleasant where you live, but if it’s real winter – deep winter, the kind of winter that burrows under your skin and refuses to let go – maybe these memories of a morning under the live canyon oak canopy will transport you. Breathe deep. Let’s take a walk.

Oakland CA’sHuckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve is a glorious place to visit in winter. The loop trail is moderate, though it does include some semi-steep elevation changes. There were a few bugs buzzing about, which I imagine would become more of a nuisance as the weather gets warmer. Getting to Huckleberry is easiest in a car (I carpooled with a friend), but the East Bay bus service, AC Transit, will get you within a 10 minute walk of the trailhead on Bus 642.



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LaBagh Woods

The day before Christmas, the sideways snow beckoned me. We rushed to pull on our thickest boots and layers of wool. People were out on the streets, no doubt in search of last minute gifts. We, however, were on the hunt for something different, quieter.

The forest was silent, save for the shifting snow beneath our feet, and the howl of the late December wind. We spotted a few pairs of footsteps, both human and non. All hardy pioneers who must have walked these paths just before us, curving the trails slowly, in wonder.

Snowy path in the LaBagh Woods, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

The snow made a new home of every surface, on ridges in the tiniest leaves, deep in creases in desiccated inflorescence, nestled in the elbows of stems and branches. Each a perfect container for the icy white flecks. The whole world, a bowl, filling slowly, steadily.

We shuffled across an old concrete bridge, sprayed with decades of graffiti, and peered over the edge. The Chicago River below, weaving between wedged white rocks, holding afloat a family of ducks unfazed by the cold. The morning’s accumulation on my coat’s hood and shoulders had begun to melt, and my hands were icy and hard. But I was mesmerized by the slow swirl of the water, the endless fall of the tiniest snowflakes, the arches and shapes left behind in winter’s wake. My feet held firm to the spot.

The cold, and the ache of hunger, eventually shook us awake from our forest dream. Before heading home, we ambled east to the lakefront. We weren’t alone. A bulk of families, careening down and trudging back up the sledding hill. A handful of men, heavy with gear, photographing a flock of stubborn seabirds. And us, steeling ourselves against the beach’s swift winds, hoods pulled tight, eyes wide open to the perfect beauty of a snowy day.

The LaBagh Woods is an incredible forest preserve right in Chicago. When you’re in the middle of the park, you’ll barely have any recollection that you’re still in the city. It’s easy to get to on bus, either the 54A Cicero, or the 92 Foster. For some winter beach time, we went to Montrose Beach and swung past Cricket Hill, a great place to sled or just feed your yearning for a change in elevation. In the winter, where you go outside doesn’t really matter. It’s going outside at all that makes the difference. So even though it’s freezing, I promise you’ll be happy you went.



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Thinking about 2017

Maybe it’s my negativity bias, the little voice inside my head that’s always nagging and needling, but when December pulled in, I worried that I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t seen enough, been enough places, written enough, put myself out there enough. The list goes on. What is it that holds so many of us hostage? That internal fear that who we are and what we’ve accomplished isn’t adequate – Where does it come from?

When I set out to start working on this year’s little review post, I wondered what I would find in my notes. Somehow, everything starts to get cloudy come year’s end, and when I squinted back toward my 2017, all I could see was soggy weather and unpleasant news headlines. Of course, that’s not all this year was. Actually, that’s not what this year was at all.

What we pay attention to becomes our reality. The more we focus on the negative, the more negative things will seem and the more negative we’ll feel about everything. The inverse, as you know, is also true. So thank goodness for my copious notes. Thank goodness for my robust calendar events that remind me what I did, where I went, who I spent time with, and what I made possible. A lot happened in 2017. Some of it was bad. But a great deal of it was wonderful. So because my life is built from the things I pay attention to, here’s where I choose to put my focus in these last days of the year. These are a few of my favorites from 2017.

Wet branch dripping with rain, Chicago / Darker than Green

JANUARY
Best way to start the new year: An Indian buffet and a sunny walk past public art
Best investment in myself: Classes to learn how to make make wheel-thrown ceramics
Best way to learn more about your neighborhood: Local alderman meetings (frustrating, but enlightening)

Bare tree at night after a snowstorm / Darker than Green

FEBRUARY
Best wintertime escape: Miami, FL
Best camping in South Florida: Cayo Costa State Park
Best new taco spot: Coyo Taco
Best live band to transport you to warmer climes: Lone Piñon

Our hands, New Orleans / Darker than Green

MARCH
Best new experience: Reiki at Lake Kegonsa, WI with my friends
Best old experience: Time spent with my family in New Orleans
Best vegan sandwich: Fritai in St. Roch Market, New Orleans, LA
Best city park: Crawford Square in Savannah, GA
Best place to trail bike: Skidaway Island State Park
Best dessert: Banana pudding ice cream at the Sugar Shack on Tybee Island, GA

Purpleleaf Plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) in full flower, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

APRIL
Best weekend doing manual labor: Spring planting party at Field + Florist’s Michigan farm
Best conversation I listened in on: Kim Drew and Kyra Kyles for Chicago Humanities Fest
Best early spring wander: South Shore Nature Preserve

View of Lake Michigan from Warren Dunes, Michigan / Darker than Green

MAY
Best birthday hike: Cowles Bog trail at Indiana Dunes State Park, IN
Best breakfast, still: Luisa’s Cafe in Harbert, MI
Best wine tasting: The off-dry riesling at Dablon Winery
Best new web series: The Doula is IN (featuring yours truly in one of the first scenes!)

Wild grasses near Cranberry Slough, IL / Darker than Green

JUNE
Best place to get drunk and yell at people you used to go to college with: Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap
Best live podcast show: Another Round at Thalia Hall
Best summer hammocking: Near Cranberry Slough and the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center
Best summer evening treat: Miko’s Italian Ice

Cup of cranberries I picked in Pembroke Township / Darker than Green

JULY
Best summer weekend: Running my own booth at Square Roots
Best dream realized: Seeing Solange live at Pitchfork
Best place to pick blueberries and connect with the elders: Pembroke Township, IL
Best thing to do with out-of-towners: Chicago Architecture Boat Tour
Best movie I saw twice: Girls Trip

Clouds just after totality / Darker than Green

AUGUST
Best place to have beach-side drinks with your coworkers: The Dock at Montrose Beach
Best thing to happen to me: Witnessing solar eclipse totality in Kentucky
Best Airbnb: Forest Homestead in Bloomington, IN
Best new (to me) falafel spot: Pita Inn

Meandering paths in the Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

SEPTEMBER
Best Labor Day hike: Jackson Park and the Osaka Garden
Best day trip: Milwaukee Art Museum for the Rashid Johnson show
Best waterfall: Cascade Falls, Patapsco Valley State Park, Ellicott City, MD
Best bar: WC Harlan (get the amaro flight!)

Tiny mushrooms and moss, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

OCTOBER
Best drink to sip on a sunny Sunday with friends: Tom Collins
Best live music experience: Moses Sumney
Best wildlife spotting: Thousands and thousands of black birds flying over Margo’s corn field
Best community building event: Boss Bitch Queens New Moon Vision Boarding
Best autumn leaf-peeping: Miami Woods in Morton Grove, IL

Bright yellow oak leaves, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

NOVEMBER
Best jazz series: The Bridge at the Logan Center for the Arts
Best two hours spent wandering a bookstore: Arcana Books In Culver City, CA
Best (unexpectedly gluten-free) breakfast: Honey Hi
Best vegan dinner: Stuff I Eat
Best vegan brioche bun: at the Butcher’s Daughter (for real, this thing changed my life)

Giant agave plant lit up at night, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

DECEMBER
Best holiday bazaar worked with friends: at Lula Cafe
Best winter discovery: Garfield Park Conservatory’s late night hours on Wednesdays
Best digestif sipper to share: Amaro Nonino Quintessentia (special mention: Ebo Lebo Ottoz)
Best place to watch the snow fall on Christmas Eve: LaBagh Woods


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