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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The longest night

Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Uplit ferns in the Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fern fronds in the Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

The other night, I met a good friend at the Garfield Park Conservatory. What is usually a mid-winter daytime pilgrimage turned into a late night walk through the deep forest, just a few miles away from our homes. The Conservatory is open every day of the year until 5pm, but on Wednesdays, they turn on the lights and let wanderers stroll until 8.

Fern fronds in the Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fern fronds in the Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fern fronds in the Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

A part of me worried that the rooms of the conservatory, glorious to behold in the daytime, would look stark and unwelcoming at night, with bright fluorescents beating down from overhead. But it was quite the opposite. Bold spotlights gelled in brilliant colors lit up the undersides of ferns, bounced off the bark of tropical trees, dribbled down rocky waterfalls and into rippling, bottomless pools. The sounds of rushing water mixed with the echoes of children laughing in the Sugar from the Sun room. Our footsteps fell on damp stone and shuffled beside leaves rustling in the fan-fed breeze.

Cactus in the Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

The desert room, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

In the desert room, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

There, that night, the air somehow felt more humid. Our ears perked at the chorus of crickets, our noses caught wind of the peat and loam stuffed in crevices at our toes. Some walkways sat in total darkness, and our brains rushed to fill the gaps. In the Desert room, tall columns of cactus masqueraded as men standing perfectly still. Neon colors got caught on succulent leaves and sharp spines, throwing strange shadows on the walls and windows surrounding us. All our senses sharpened to make up for what we couldn’t see in the dark.

Cactus in the desert room, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Giant agave, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Wild desert plants in the Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

I love the sun, and crave the light. Here, on the winter solstice, the precipice of the coldest season, I feel myself falling deeper into the darkness. On the other side of today, the days begin the get longer, minute by minute, but what might I learn by sitting in these shadows, unbothered, unmoved?

As I wandered through the Conservatory that night, I walked past a young woman sitting on a wooden bench in a barely lit room. Her face was calm, her eyes closed, breathing even. I can’t know what she was thinking about, if she was meditating or considering some hidden train of thought, but the sight of her reminded me of what’s special about this season. Now is the time to sit in the shadows, to explore the darkness, wade in it, and get lost in what could be. These dark days hold lessons for us all. And what more perfect place than this to open our eyes wide and wait for them to adjust.

Maidenhair fern, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Papyrus, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Papaya plant backlit, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green

Dracaena branches, Garfield Park Conservatory at night, Chicago / Darker than Green


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Fall in the Miami Woods

Fall foliage in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Fall isn’t an easy season to love. I suppose for people that love fall, that statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. So I’ll restate and say fall hasn’t been an easy season for me to love. It’s beautiful on the surface, but fall embodies a mortal challenge, an essential question — can we acknowledge and appreciate what we have before it inevitably disappears?

Fall foliage in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

A warm-colored fall vista in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Standing on shed bark, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

I love spring and summer because they’re warm, full of life, full of promise. Fall’s promise is a brilliant star, bursting violently before petering out. A final flash. A timed test. Fall isn’t easy like spring and summer. Loving fall has been a trial. Some years I lose, some years I win. With age, acceptance has begun to come easier to me, but I still struggle. I still want the warmth and color to last always.

Fall foliage in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Fall foliage in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Fall foliage in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Autumn trees in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

There’s something about fall that makes you want to reach out for it. Fall feels like a love you know has changed, you feel it slipping away from you, but all you can do is watch it disappear. Fall feels soft and cruel at the same time. It’s a feathery seedpod, most inviting, but quickly disintegrating even within your lightest grasp.

Feathery autumn grasses in the late afternoon light, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Shed bark of an ash tree, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Large tree without leaves silhouetted against the late afternoon light, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Fall is alive, but you know it won’t be for long. The squirrels hurry, hawks swoop with urgency, late summer wildflowers rush to spread seeds and tuck in for the long night to come. Logic knows the end is right around the corner, but our eyes gobble up the warm prism reflected through every brightly hued leaf. The forest feels alive, more than ever — its gestures wide, its angles active.

Mossy log, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Bent and broken trees in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

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

And in fall, we can’t help but see ourselves in the mirror all around us. We can’t help but wonder where we fit into all this change. The seasons are the simplest and most enduring metaphor for our own mortality, and fall is a beautiful, tragic reminder that none of this can last forever.

Man silhouetted against fall foliage in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Boots in a patch of creeping charlie, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Along the bank of the Chicago River, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

So loving fall isn’t easy. Loving fall is accepting the fear, accepting what happens next — the all-consuming cold, the complete drought of color, the sharp and brutal winter. Maybe sleep, maybe death. I still feel myself stiffen as summer comes to a close, my instinct to resist the shift in seasons and run. But with each leaf, turning from green to bright red to brown and done, I remember that loving fall is loving change. It might not be an easy season, but with each passing year, the transition feels a little less impossible.

Wildflowers going to seed in the autumn light, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Deer in the forest, Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

Fall foliage in Miami Woods, Morton Grove Illinois / Darker than Green

These photos were taken during a perfect fall day in the Miami Woods, a forest preserve along the north branch of the Chicago River in Morton Grove, Illinois. The woods can be reached via Metra or the Skokie Swift. It’s a spectacular place to walk slowly, get off the trail, and soak in the change happening all around you.



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A favorite tree

Serviceberry tree in autumn, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

A favorite tree of mine was cut down this month.

This small serviceberry was a landmark, and a marker of time. I’d been taking photos of it for the past year, hoping to capture it at its peak in every season. I watched its flowers grow and fade, watched its leaves change color and fall. It wasn’t a big tree, maybe around my same height, which is possibly why I noticed it so easily. I could see it get swept through the seasons as wildly as I felt I did — bright orange disks catching the sun on a warm autumn day, and bare winter branches twirling up toward the darkened sky, reaching for the waning light.

Serviceberry tree in winter, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

This summer I got busy, too busy to take a minute, too busy to remember to slow down. So I didn’t get around to taking any photos of the tree. I noticed it everyday on my walk to work, but would say that there were still months or summer left, still weeks. And when the leaves started to turn, earlier than usual, Oh well – I said – I can get photos of it next summer when the leaves are green again, when the sun shines bright again, when I have more time.

Serviceberry tree in winter, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

I watched the for sale sign go up, and the for sale sign come down, and saw the new decorations go out, and the tree’s autumn leaves start to fall one by one. And then one morning, there was a patch of mud, a flurry of men digging and tamping and wrangling mangled branches. The little serviceberry tree sat thrown to the side, a clean, decisive cut at its base. No chance of saving the roots and replanting, no chance of the summer photos I’d been planning on, no chance of a winter hibernation or a new spring.

Serviceberry tree in spring, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Serviceberry tree in spring, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

The lesson here is obvious. Or it should have been obvious, but I counted on time nonetheless, something that simply cannot be counted on. The most finite resource, the one we’re least aware of in our daily drudges. I thought what was there would always be there. I thought time was on my side, and that I could delay without consequence. A small tree being cut down in someone else’s yard isn’t the worst thing to happen. I have enough perspective to realize that. But my experience remains a potent reminder.

Do not wait. Do the thing. Admire and appreciate what’s here now.

Pull out the camera, put the viewfinder to your eye, and press the shutter.

Serviceberry tree in autumn, Chicago IL / Darker than Green


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Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland

Last weekend, I went down to Maryland to celebrate the wedding of two friends. The ceremony took place outside of Baltimore, fairly close to the airport, in a state park that felt worlds away. Between vows and white wine spritzers, rounds of cornhole and grilled veggie burgers, tears hidden behind sunglasses and bold belly laughs, we were able to sneak away and do a little exploring.

Lone tree in the shade, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

The overcast heat felt like summer, but the signs of early fall were creeping in. Crisped up bits of brown lined the walkways, and flutters of yellow drifted down from the tallest branches. Despite the passing of the autumn equinox, the entire park surged with energy. Giant slate boulders pushed through the earth. The Patapsco River churned slowly, feeding a bevy of lush, creekside plants. Unknown bird calls and freight train whistles echoed between the trees. We almost mistook a still, black snake for a petrified tree branch.

Picnic area among the trees, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Green groundcover, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Inside the forest, along the Ridge Trail, the late afternoon light pooled in the thinning leaves. Fungus sprouted on fallen logs stretched out over pathways studded with rocks and roots. The elevation slowly began to rise, and being from the flat midwest, our unaccustomed feet struggled to maintain balance. Our special occasion footwear certainly didn’t help matters. But we pushed on.

Dappled sunlight in the trees, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Fern frond, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Sunlight through the branches, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Fungus on a fallen log, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

At the farthest end of the Ridge Trail, we found Cascade Falls. The soft roar of rushing water reached our ears even in the parking lot, and after a short hike, we spotted the source. Beyond the rocky crag camouflaged with moss, behind the crowd of sun-shade trees, the white water splashed down into a shallow, gravely pool. Small groups of families climbed across the rocks to get a closer view of the falls, shutters clicked, voices carried clear through the soft, green valley.

Moss on stone, turning leaves, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

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

Cascade Falls, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Swinging bridge, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

As the sun began its descent below the tree line, we retraced our steps back to the trailhead and shuffled across the Swinging Bridge. A child’s heavy, joyful steps shook the bridge in its entirety – and I held onto the thick wound-wire railing to keep myself steady. At the center of the bridge, the valley dropped out below us and the view stopped us in our tracks. The wide river shimmered, mirroring the valley’s early evening light. Small groups of friends, families, fathers and sons, waded through the current below, their calls and shrieks lifting through the gaps in our wooden walkway.

Outside the park, reminders rang loud to make the most of the end of summer, to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of fall, to pull on those sweaters and dust off those boots. But here inside the park, time stood still. We all breathed the cooling air, and simply enjoyed what was.

View from the swinging bridge, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Stone bridge at the entrance to Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Patapsco Valley State Park is one of the largest parks in Maryland, and sits about a 20 minute drive from downtown Baltimore. Driving is probably the easiest way to go, but you can definitely get there on public transportation, too. The 320 bus and the MARC Camden line both drop off close to the entrance to the park. No doubt that there are wonderful parks closer to the center of the city,
but if you’re in the mood for a getaway or camp-out, this may be your best, most beautiful bet.



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