The Leave No Trace principles are the gold standard for how to behave in the backcountry. Adhering to them when we’re outdoors is a must, a non-negotiable, as the responsibility for maintaining public lands is our own. But what about when we’re not in the backcountry? What about when we’re on our own street, in our own neighborhood, in the cities and towns we actually call home?
I wrote about my experience incorporating the LNT principles into my daily life in Chicago for Issue 9 of RANGE Magazine: Leaving No Trace in the City: Seven Principles for Considered Living in any Environment. If you’ve read my work before, you know that I care as deeply for urban environments as I do for epic postcard vistas and national parks. This essay shares some reminders for how to treat our cities with the same kindness and reverence that we give to those wild natural spaces.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We shook up our Labor Day tradition, choosing not to travel out to the suburbs to browse the Botanic Garden, and opting instead for a walk in the woods, right in the middle of the city.
Jackson Park sparkles. It’s the kind of park that astounds you with its sheer size, its diversity of plant life, the variety and depth of its tints and shades. You can watch your reflection in the slow-moving lagoons, the green-gray water swirling below weeping willows and mature pin oaks. You can travel through multiple ecosystems in a matter of minutes — tallgrass prairie at Bobolink Meadow, dense forest on Wooded Island — and end your wander among the traditional Japanese plantings and meandering paths of the Garden of the Phoenix.
It’s an exquisite park. But Jackson Park is on the south side of Chicago, which means that if you don’t also live on the south side, you might not even know the place exists.
People like to talk about the south side, everyone has an opinion, even people who’ve never actually been there. So many of these conversations are haunted by the specter of crime and dark terror, the area’s violent reputation hovering on their tongues. Rarely, if ever, do they mention the beauty of the south side, the pervasive greenness, the regular people who live, work, learn, picnic, or walk garden paths there.
“But, isn’t it unsafe?” Unsafe — a blanket term deployed to describe any area inhabited largely by people of color. When I first moved to Chicago, I lived a fifteen minute walk from Jackson Park. I strolled through its large drifts of yellow coneflowers, wild onion blossoms catching my ankles as I crunched along on freshly mulched trails. I lingered below the giant gnarled tree limbs, heavy with thick-veined leaves and quaking cottonwood pods. I walked the streets alone, at night. I was fine. Still am. The south side isn’t perfect (which neighborhood is?), but it’s where I first began to fall in love with Chicago. It’s where I first began to actively learn about this new city where I’d chosen to set roots.
Maybe you know some of the history. Our textbooks show us the south side of centuries ago gleaming bright white, the perfect neoclassical buildings of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition beckoning curious visitors from near and far. Popular historical fiction introduces us to unimaginable devils carrying out unconscionable murders, the crisp pages memorializing both victims and perpetrator. But today’s killings we hold at arm’s length, the circumstances too real, too dark, too ugly. Yesterday’s south side stands still in romantic sepia tones, while today’s south side pulsates, fully saturated in blacks and browns, fiscally ignored and harshly patrolled, misunderstood and antagonized on the global stage.
It is possible to appreciate a space without knowing its history. In many instances, it’s easier that way, easier to enjoy the uncomplicated beauty of nature, blinders up to the violence and injustice. But to ignore the truth, to ignore the context of Jackson Park and the area it inhabits, is careless. So I choose to see it all, the artifacts and lessons of the past, the challenges and solutions of the present, as well as the physical charm and natural grace.
Near the end of our day in Jackson Park, the clouds gathered above and summer’s last raindrops began to fall. Inside the tangle of Wooded Island, late season blooms shuddered beneath the rhythmic shower, coaxing out the thick scent of fallen leaves, perfumed seed pods, and deep, dark loam. As we walked, the sounds of the south side found our ears – the slow roar of car engines on Cornell Drive, the airy hiss of the double-long #6 bus, laughter and 70s soul drifting from an unshakable family’s holiday cookout. We trudged through spongy grass to get a closer look at the huge gold figure beckoning from the median, a relic from when the White City hugged the southern end of the park. 24 feet of gilded bronze, dripping with rain, boldly wearing the wounds of a century of exposure to the harshest elements. She stood, drenched and weathered, but still mesmerizing and triumphant. A magnetic force, impossible to ignore, beautiful, strange, perfect. Just like the south side of Chicago.
Jackson Park is located on the south side of Chicago, right along the shore of Lake Michigan. Despite what might feel like a great distance, it’s actually very easy to get there, even on public transportation. Leave from downtown on the scenic #6 bus, which runs express along the lake, or take the Metra Electric line, which is a little more expensive, but a smoother, quicker ride. Packing a picnic to enjoy in the park is always a great idea, but if you want to explore more of the Hyde Park area, Plein Air Cafe is a close walk away with multiple vegetarian and vegan options and great coffee. Plus it’s right next door to the world’s best bookstore. Go south!
My favorite part of any long nighttime car ride is near the end, when you turn off the highway, leave the whirring doppler effect behind, and pull onto a dusty two-lane street. With the windows open, you can hear the clicking and humming, insects and other small bits of life, vibrating in the forest beyond the reach of your headlights. Pulling into Indiana Dunes State Park last night, the orchestra took flight, the sounds of bugs pulsating, shaking like a full band of maracas.
When we parked and walked toward the roaring waves of Lake Michigan, the air turned cool and damp. We pushed through the mist hovering just above the dark sea of dune grass. Cold sand sifted between our toes as we waddled to an open spot on the beach. The loud crash of lakewater slowed and dampened as we laid out blankets and lowered ourselves down.
Getting your bearings in the dark is tough, but our eyes slowly adjusted. An inlet of rippling water to our left, miles of soft, quiet beach to our right. Black masses lay in gathered groups on the sand, couples, families, reclining spectators awaiting the show. In the distance, a group of eager stargazers waved glowsticks below the deep black silhouette of the hulking forest. We pulled on hooded sweatshirts and huddled close. We arched our necks and searched the sky.
Millions, billions, innumerable families of stars gazed down at us, their unwavering eyes gleaming curiously, so many lightyears away. Airplanes and satellites blinked overhead, wading in the unknowable distance. The sky was alight, gorgeous and indifferent to the aura of light pollution radiating from Chicago. We looked up, eyes darting between constellations, and suddenly, quickly, a bright green streak rushed across the blackness. The shrieks and gasps swelled among the crowd, index fingers jutted from balled fists, pointing up toward what just was.
A meteor, sometimes the size of a marble, more often no bigger than a grain of sand. Crashing into our atmosphere, compressing the air around it, heating to an unimaginable degree, and burning away. A scientific explanation for what feels, in the moment, like magic. Like a secret, shared only by those lucky enough to catch the same shooting star. I took no photos, I have no evidence of what I saw, all I have are my memories of staring into the abyss above, asking my questions, and receiving the answers in the form of dust and ice, mass meeting gas.
After the show — meteors bursting every few minutes, the wind whipping from all directions — the clouds began to crowd the sky, obscuring the stars from view. That’s when, from behind the towering tree-topped dunes, an even brighter glow caught our eyes. The three-quarter moon, cratered and luminous, enveloped by a rosy pink halo. She climbed, filling the void, shining a cold heat, dancing slowly to the soundtrack of spindly arthropod legs fluttering in the forest. This is the moon that followed us all the way home; back down the two-lane road; back onto the roaring highway; back to the concrete puzzle of streets where we laid our heads to sleep, dreaming of the magnetic splinters of light we saw spark, stretch, and disappear.
The end of the calendar year has always felt a little awkward to me, a little arbitrary. The line between December and January is so thin, almost indiscernible, save for the dwindling number of round fir wreaths on doors and hazy twinkle lights in windows. We go from love and ritual and celebration to stoic facial expressions and lists written in pen, I-resolve-tos and I-really-mean-it-this-years. I know the new year signifies a fresh start for many people, an opportunity to try each month, week, day over again. But I struggle to find new energy between one cold, snowy day and another.
On the other hand, the door between days in early May swings wide. 24 hours of sleet can be immediately followed by sun-warmed skin and a cloudless sky. Trees that were asleep on Monday can sprout on Wednesday and stretch wide to full leaf by week’s end. Spring was a subtler affair when I was growing up in southern California, but here in Chicago, in early May, it’s a 30-piece brass band: warming up with a rumbling din; a sudden, jarring racket of out-of-tune notes; a swelling, well-known tune played in perfect harmony, uncanny in its effortless perfection.
It’s easy to see this time of year as the time to start over, to brush off old plans and introduce new goals. The endless changes in the natural world almost demand it. “We’re in transition. What about you?” It’s not the beginning of the calendar year, but it is the time to visualize and resolve. As it turns out, it’s also the beginning of my personal new year. My birthday is in early May. The 4th, to be precise. So today, it all starts fresh.
Last night in my living room, as the sun set, I watched the thick gray clouds dissipate and uncover a hot, pink sky. The colors, almost impossibly saturated and strong, didn’t last for long — night draws its flat shade quickly this time of year. But as the afternoon disappeared into evening, the sky sizzled, burning through everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, and in the past 365 days. I saw the sky’s fire consume all I’d done and thought and lost and broken, won and created and accomplished and forgot, ignored, adopted, transformed, destroyed. It all fell away. The colors began to lose their heat, fading to a dustier range of hues, and as the day retreated, I put the old year to rest.
Today, the new year begins. The 30-piece brass band is warming up. Their fingers fiddle nervously at valves and reeds, tightening and polishing the cool metal. When they’re ready, they inhale in unison before letting the first, clear note ring out, familiar and sweet.