Camping in the city

Tents on Northerly Island, Chicago / Darker than Green

We stuffed our packs and rolled up sleeping pads borrowed from gearhead friends. We took a train to a bus and then walked ten minutes past crowded museum steps and beach front hot dog stands. We signed waivers and scoped out spots for our tents alongside a thick row of wiry green stems. We caught glimpses of choppy Lake Michigan through openings in the brush. The glowing gray buildings of downtown Chicago stood sentinel to the west, hugged and held by the hot afternoon sun.

Lake Michigan lagoon, Northerly Island / Darker than Green

Northerly Island / Darker than Green

Kayaks on Northerly Island / Darker than Green

We kayaked in a shallow lagoon bordered by bog-loving plants, learning proper paddle technique and racing each other from end to end. The breeze off the lake and the droplets of water that inevitably found their way into our boats kept us cool. We hiked slowly back to camp where we drank beers and ate perfect, plump plátanos around a well-tended firepit. The sun dipped down behind the city and we watched the bright moon rise red over the lake. We shared jokes and ghost stories and turned our fingers sticky with melted marshmallow.

Campers at Northerly Island, Chicago / Darker than Green

Smores on Northerly Island, Chicago / Darker than Green

That night we heard the cars rush down Lake Shore Drive, and the wind whip rhythmically at our tent walls, and the crickets chirp out loud, to each other, to themselves. We heard the distant hiss of a neighbor’s tent zipper, and the ringing of an ambulance floating deep through downtown.

The morning brought squishy walks through dewy lawns, a climb along the rocky lakefront, and a race to catch the quickly changing light of the sunrise. The sky and clouds churned an infinite number of colors, and we watched the waves creep over the hard concrete dock. People in pairs sat below the planetarium, clicking photos of the neon pink sun, or just watching the day open up.

Sunrise at Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

Sunrise at Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

Sunrise at Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the cloud cover thickened and the threat of storms rolled in. We broke down camp, warmed our bagels over the bonfire, and made our way back to the bus. Sitting on the elevated subway, clutching our transit cards and cellphones, still clipped into our giant packs with sand between our toes, the distance between nature and the city quietly collapsed.

I thought back to our hikes to the lagoon, to floating through marsh plants in a bright red kayak, to spotting glowing planets in the hazy pink sky. I thought back to the crackle of the early morning fire, and the sound of hot coffee being poured into a stainless steel thermos, and the patterns of clouds passing over a warming sun.

I remembered the early morning conversation we had with one of the campout guides, about the places he’d lived and how each of them are entirely unique and can’t be replicated. About how Chicago is it’s own amazing thing, and so is Oregon, and so is Tennessee, and everywhere else. I thought about the times I’d wished Chicago could be different, more, something else, something better. And I felt something shift in my mind where a frustration had once been. I felt full and excited and grateful. And I looked forward to another night, some time in the future, spent out under the stars.

Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

We spent a night camping on Northerly Island with REI. Camping within the city of Chicago is essentially non-existent, so this experience was incredibly special. I’ve gone out before on an excursion with REI and can’t recommend them more highly. They are experts who are fun to be around and take care of everything. But even if you can’t make it to the next campout, a hike around Northerly Island Park is still time very well spent. The park can be accessed on public transit using the #146 bus to Museum Campus.

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Lights out

Sunset in Chicago / Darker than Green

Last weekend we had two straight days of giant, loud, destructive storms. Rain poured in buckets from the sky, and deep cracks of thunder shook the neighborhood, waking up a chorus of angry car alarms. Giant hail shot holes straight through my nasturtium leaves. Shoes got soaked, plans got canceled, and somewhere in a dusty corner of the grid, the switch for all the streetlights on our block got turned off. At first I figured they’d come back on the following night, but it’s now been six days and we’re still in the dark. And I love it.

For the past week, it feels like we’ve been living in the country. Yeah, there’s still noisy traffic and from the sidewalk you can still see a pair of glowing gas station logos in the distance. But in our living room, every night at dusk, we watch the sky gradiate from blue to pink, and the crowns of honey locust trees turn black with the setting sun.

I never thought about just how omnipresent streetlights are, how loud and invasive they can be. How easily their withered orange light paints every nighttime memory and experience. I revel in the times spent away from the city because I’m often closer to wide open green spaces, but also because I’m farther away from buzzing street lamps and light pollution.

But this week, the vacation came to us. Our top floor apartment became a cabin in the woods. Stars have been shining just a little brighter. Sleep has come more easily. When I walk through the door, I pull on relaxation like a cozy winter coat. And all we had to do was turn off the lights.

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Talking about weather

Summer storm in Chicago / Darker than Green

We’re at the tail end of a long stretch of warm weather storms. Just like spring, summer came early — the hot, muggy days expected of July went ahead and showed up in late May. Fans are set up in every room. Beds have been stripped of their comforters. Ice cubes clink in sweaty glasses of water. And every day brings a rain shower of varying intensity. Today, the thick white cloud cover overhead is slowly shifting to gray. Sharp gusts of cool wind burst through dense canopies as if to say, “Get ready.”

Before I moved to Chicago, my understanding of summer storms was sorely limited and essentially flawed. The “rainy season” in Southern California mostly comprised of a few weeks in November when the ground goes damp and everyone forgets how to drive. Here in the Midwest, I’ve learned the extreme weather season lasts all year.

Darker than Green

My first big warm weather storm happened during my first summer in Chicago. I was in college at the time and paid $270 a month to live two blocks from campus in a sunroom with white-framed windows on three walls. The subsequent winter would see me huddled by a space heater, attempting to ignore the frost growing on both sides of my single paned glass. But in the warm season, windows and curtains stayed open to let the breeze flow through. The room was my refuge in the trees. I spent much of that first summer sitting in the window sill, watching the lazy handful of neighborhood kids and graduate students jaywalk three floors below.

One afternoon in my bedroom, I noticed the light change. The buttery yellow walls had begun to glow a hazy orange. I leaned closer to the window screen and struggled to focus my eyes on the sky, sidewalk, brick buildings across the street. Everything was bathed in the eerie orange light, deepening rapidly. The air hummed with electricity. The cloud cover thickened and before long, the sky let loose an angry spew of hail that turned green lawns white and rattled violently against our cement facade. As quickly as it came, the hail slowed and then stalled, melting away and taking the thick orange sky with it. Hot, wet asphalt and leaves fat with the weight of water were left behind as the only evidence of the storm.

Callery Pear tree in the rain / Darker than Green

In the years since, there have been many more hailstorms, some worse than others. We’ve had thunderstorms that blew out power for entire neighborhoods, powerful stabs of wind that felled the oldest trees, curbside flooding that turned intersections into lakes. There was even that year when we were first introduced to the legendary derecho. A this point, I’ve had a lot of experience with this city’s intense weather. But every time the sky darkens and the winds ripple through wildly swaying trees, I’m still surprised.

I suppose it’s the city’s brush with untamed nature. We don’t have craggy mountains to arch our necks at, or vast oceans to dive, or deep forests to wander. Chicago’s natural beauty has been largely leveled to make way for historic feats of architecture, temples of culture and academia, and a few hundred lovingly tended urban parks. But the weather is our great equalizer. We’re all cold on the hundredth straight day of freezing temperatures in April, and we’re all in awe of the uncontrollable power of a wild summer storm. It doesn’t matter how much we try to insulate ourselves with society and technology. One way or another, nature always overpowers, stuns, delays, distracts, reroutes, impresses, terrifies, and drenches us.

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The breeze outside picks up speed and the windchimes on our back porch sing louder and more often. A distant rumble of thunder echoes, and the skies churn from bright white to a swirling gray. When today’s storm breaks, I have my face pressed hard to the glass. I watch in awe as the army of droplets fall, and as the wind blows unknowable patterns in the soaked and shining streets.

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Clark Park

Foliage in Clark Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

I’ve started taking the California bus in the mornings, which has dramatically improved my commute time as well as my morning mental wellbeing. The bus is rarely crowded, the drivers are always at ease, and I’m able to completely avoid the traffic madness on Western Ave.

On one of last week’s bus rides, I noticed a Chicago Park District sign at a clearing in a dense mass of woodland trees. Turns out, everyday I’ve been riding past a park that I didn’t even know existed. Just by slightly shuffling my morning routine, I happened across a new green spot in my city to explore. So this weekend, this long last weekend in May, we took a trip to explore this new park. We hopped on the California bus, got off at the second to last stop, wandered through the clearing in the trees and right into Clark Park.

Chicago River in Clark Park / Darker than Green

The park is nestled between Belmont on the South, Addison on the North, Lane Tech high school on the East, and the Chicago River on the West. There are a few different zones, each catering to a slightly different slice of the North Center neighborhood constituency. The bike baths, hidden by tall trees and thick foliage, feature jumps and ramps for the budding X Games hopeful. The long paved sidewalk snakes along the river, providing glimpses of the glittering gray water from above and between clumps of leafy green. A wide open grassy field just south of Addison allows for solo yoga stretching, duos of footballers, and packs of picnickers.

Clark Park / Darker than Green

In the middle of the park rises a dark gray angular structure, sided with smooth slate and perforated with giant river-facing windows. This is the WMS Boathouse, a year-round training facility for rowers and storage space for many of the kayaks you see floating down the river from May to October. When we wandered by, we saw a small handful of bright eyed weekenders outfitted with neon life vests, tugging their boats down the dock and into the water. A beautiful and serene spot to launch an afternoon’s paddle.

WMS Boathouse in Clark Park / Darker than Green

We wandered for a while through dappled light and wide open sun, listening to the whir of bike gears from deep within the brush. Plans were built to return later in the summer for a double kayak trip followed by a picnic on the field. An errand in nearby Roscoe Village pulled us east, where we passed a lush prairie, a symbol of what all the land in Chicago once looked like. The tall reeds and grasses bent in the breeze. Native leaves and stems soaked up hot midday sun, growing longer and greener with each passing day.

Clark Park is located in the North Center neighborhood. It’s easily accessible by CTA bus, both the #152 Addison and the #52 California pass right by. Rowing lessons are run through the Chicago Rowing Foundation and kayak rentals can be arranged through Chicago River Canoe and Kayak.

Midwest prairie, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

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City noises

Flowering Callery Pear tree / Darker than Green

We live on a busy street in Chicago. These two lanes cut through most of the north and south sides, and are often used a backup for drivers routing around the city’s endless construction. There’s usually a steady flow of traffic, pedestrian revelry, ambulance sirens, window-shaking bass, and reggaetón. In short, it can get loud.

When I first moved into the apartment, I didn’t know how I was going to handle all the noise. Even with the windows closed, the sounds aren’t muted completely, just muffled. My first few months of opening the front door was enough to routinely startle and distress. Five years have since passed. And though the noise is still there, now I’m pretty used to it. Wooden floor squeaks and blender rumbles mix with the constant din of the city beyond.

Ming Aralia in front of a window / Darker than Green

Mornings mean breakfast in the east-facing kitchen, where we turn sleepy faces toward the hot sun and watch, swaying in the breeze, a quarter mile of treetops. The loud concrete crackle in front of our apartment becomes a quiet green echo in back, the sounds softening through the filter of wind and leaves. Occasionally we can hear the distant roar of the El train and the hefty puff of a passing bus, but what we hear most is birds.

The birds were here as soon as the word ‘spring’ shivered on the city’s tongue. The giant tree next door was brought down last fall, so now our towering callery pear tree serves as the avian highrise for so many pairs of tiny wings. The tree’s leaves fill in more with every warm day. Hidden by foliage, we rarely see the birds, but by our ears we know they’re there.

Flowering Purple Plum tree / Darker than Green

There’s one we hear so clearly. Her plaintive song rebounds against our brick building and pierces through the chirping clamor. It’s loud and unmistakeable. Three minor notes, descending in order, held long until they warble. I haven’t heard her before this year. Maybe the extended cold spring keeps her here longer than nature would have wanted. Some furious internet research led me to believe she’s a golden-crowned sparrow, a western bird that typically flies north and south along the Pacific coast, but whose habitat appears to be expanding east. An expansion, I assume, motivated by the extreme fluctuations of our new weather norms.

Along with the rattle of a faulty engine and the soaring sweep of an airplane overhead, I keep an ear out. For the sparrow. For her three long notes. For the shuffle of a warm breeze through green coin leaves. For the trickle of a hose, feeding budding sprouts in the raised bed nextdoor. For the clink-sigh of a beer can opening on a nearby patio, and the sizzle of a steak on a neighbor’s dusty grill. For the cement crack and hard wood drill of construction machinery across the street. For the car horns and the geese honks, drifting through an open window on a cool pink evening.

Sunset in Chicago / Darker than Green


Forty-five minutes before night

Back porch lights after sunset / Darker than Green

The great reward at the end of a long flat gray rainy day is the cool neon blue the sky turns after the sun goes down. For a brief while it glows, like an idled desktop monitor, and every wet surface reflects default blue and streetlight amber. Some days the cover breaks and you can see the wispy remains of the storm’s slate gray clouds, drifting left into darkness.

Last night I missed my connecting bus, and so walked the ten minutes to my house in the cold spring rain. When the initial anger of tail-light syndrome passed, I turned my attention to the sound of car tires sizzling against wet pavement, and how dark black the bare tree branches looked after a full day’s soak. It’s holding on tight, that part of spring when the trees are still sleeping. There are a few high achievers, but most haven’t changed since the last leaf dropped in fall. I kept an eye out for blooming bulbs, most hanging heavy heads and nodding under rhythmic droplets. I lingered alongside the low strip of land next to the local park fieldhouse — already covered in weeds that wasted no time making their eager return above ground.

My eyes caught the last of the blue glow after climbing the stairs to my apartment. It quickly deepened, then settled into the matte graybrown of an urban night sky. The brick buildings across the street pulled on their muddy orange bedclothes, reflecting the streetlights’ shadowed shine, and the hiss of commuting cars one story below echoed again to the north and to the south.

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Indoors vs. Outdoors

I’m trying to take my outdoor garden space more seriously this year. I always take time spent outdoors seriously. When there are only about 170 days in the growing season, you make the most of it. Even when you’re not actively growing anything.

Ginger leaves / Darker than Green

Euphorbia flanaganii / Darker than Green

But this year I want to be an outdoor gardener. I want to walk out on our back porch and be surrounded by green, by sprouts that root deeply and grow to spill over the sides of our rickety deck railing. I want it to be lush. I want herbs and perennials and native grasses. So I’m amassing prairie seeds from local seed savers, and hoarding large volume outdoor pots, and learning the ins and outs of artificial cold stratification. The farmer’s almanac says I still have some time before last frost, so I’m trying to soak up all the information I can before heading outdoors.

Spring plants / Darker than Green

Philodendron leaves / Darker than Green

Of course, I’m not starting from scratch. I’ve grown plants indoors for years, decades now. I’ve had some trial and error. I’ve killed some plants and helped others thrive. I have experience. But something about this transition feels daunting. I feel a bit like I’m staring into the deep green unknown where a million septuagenarians are holding tight their best kept secrets for getting a second flush of tall thimbleweed blooms. I’ve only successfully overwintered plants once. I know nothing about making compost. Suddenly, it feels like I’ve got a lot to learn.

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Umbrella plant / Darker than Green

The nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my indoor plant collection was that it was a garden. I’d never heard anyone describe my overachiever’s hobby in quite those words. It was said by a friend of ours to his two year old son. He encouraged his boy to look at all the plants. That weren’t they nice? That they were a garden, just like ones they’ve seen outside. I saw recognition flutter over the boy’s eyes and if someone had been looking at me, they probably would have seen the same flutter in mine.

It was the first time I’d considered my collection of houseplants as anything more than a haphazard assortment, slowly and accidentally pieced together over thirteen years of living in a manic urban tundra. I’ve since looked around at the crowd of aging terra cotta pots and the greenery they hold and I realize I have indeed built a garden. The varied sizes and textures of the foliage, the drifts of color and contrasting variegation in the leaves, the transitions of growth and the seasonal interest — it’s all happening indoors too.

Carrion plant, kalanchoe, maidenhair fern, asparagus fern / Darker than Green

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What makes us add the qualifier in front when we call ourselves “indoor gardeners”? Yes, it’s helpful to add some detail as to location and general point of view. I know a container garden has different needs from one that’s sown directly into the ground. But I hope our insistence on specifying where the gardening is happening isn’t indicating that what we’re doing is somehow less involved, less skilled. The care and monitoring and pruning that my inside plants require is real. Just as real as any deadheading or hardening off or N-P-Ks needed by the ones outside.

So, come last frost, I’ll be heading outdoors. I’ll be trying out some new species, expanding my glossary of terms, firming up my maintenance schedule, and building on my existing store of knowledge. I’m anticipating some growth. And some heartbreak. I’m ready for the challenge. And if all else fails, I know I can always come back inside, where I first set roots long ago.

Monstera deliciosa in the wild / Darker than Green

Darker than Green

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Sensing Spring

New branch growth / Darker than Green

I smelled Spring today.

It’s incredible the things you forget you’re missing during the long pause of winter. The things you learn to live without when you have no other choice.

I smelled Spring today during my walk through the park. It smelled of damp dirt.

It wasn’t a spectacular smell. Not bad. Just normal. But noteworthy in its ordinariness. It hinted at possibility, at the changes to come. At the tiny sprouts preparing to emerge from newly thawed ground. Waiting, like tiny toddler dancers. Jittering in the wings, poised to take the stage at their spring showcase.

Spring city lawn with flowers / Darker than Green

Callery Pear tree in bud / Darker than Green

I saw Spring on the branches of the Purple Leaf Plum tree behind our apartment. Its bare, dusty branches bejeweled with tiny round buds, sitting quietly on forked arms reaching up toward the warming sun. The tips of the nearby Callery Pear are likewise adorned and will soon burst into musky white blooms.

I saw Spring reflected in the curb puddles and the snowmelt and the stillwater collected in last Summer’s plastic planters. I saw it in the return of gardening displays in brightly lit retail spaces. Lime green gloss varnish cover stock and double walled cardboard seedpack towers. Mass-produced eyecatchers reminding us it’s almost time to put our hands back in the ground.

New spring plants / Darker than Green

Crocuses in bloom / Darker than Green

I heard Spring this morning in the chirps of the sideyard sparrows and singing wrens. In the sweet call of the bright red cardinal that’s made its way back to our tree. Or maybe it never flew south at all, just huddled in the cracks between roof shingles on the coachhouse, waiting out winter’s loose handful of flurries.

I heard Spring in the sounds of waking up, sounds drifting up from one floor down. A deadbolt’s loud clunk and the squeal of a back door creaking open: hopeful neighbors testing the air to see if it’s warm enough for the season’s first porch-bound beer.

Spring sky / Darker than Green

I felt Spring in the sliver of warm light that slipped through the gap in my bedroom curtains. Resting on my face, incrementally earlier and stronger than the morning before. In the mild dash of wind that slid through my jacket zipper while waiting on the train platform high above Fullerton Avenue. In the marked increase of humidity in the air, and the unfamiliar touch of dew that leaped from greening grass and soaked through unsealed boot gussets.

Spring growth / Darker than Green

Winter flowers in Chicago / Darker than Green

The way it usually goes in Chicago is: Spring feels very far away for a long time. You walk through the entirety of winter, nose buried behind scarf and collar, eyes locked to the space directly in front of you. You whine for warmth, but you don’t dare look for it on the ground and in the trees. Until one day, it’s suddenly just there. A green leaf poking up from beneath withered mulch. A spray of purple growth on an old yellow lawn. A pop of color where there once was none. An open door.

Soon there will be bright green tree flowers hovering high overhead, creamy magnolia blossoms, and long legged tulips. We’ll bask in the sudden abundance with feasts of snow peas garlic scapes asparagus fava beans ramps. Leaves of every shape and size and texture will push through hardened bark and twist and turn toward the sun. Bulky raindrops will announce their arrival with heavy taps at double-paned glass, searching wildly for roots to wet.

But for now, we’re just at the beginning. And I’m enjoying our early Spring with as many senses as I can.

New growth in the community garden / Darker than Green

Callery Pear tree in Chicago / Darker than Green

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Walking through Welles Park

Tree in Welles Park, Chicago Illinois

At one of my previous jobs, when I needed to escape I would cross the street and go to the bookstore. My boss and I would sometimes claim we went there to do research, or tell each other we were going to refresh and be inspired. More often than not, we were just going there to get away. When the cubicle walls felt too close, the fluorescent lights too harsh, the coworkers too demanding or out of touch, there was the bookstore.

I eventually left that job and, soon after, that bookstore went out of business. But the need to escape remains. So I walk through the park. I usually do it in the morning, when I’m feeling hopeful and there’s still some brightness in the sky. Some days I do it in the late afternoon when the minutes are moving at half their usual speed and the sun, hidden behind thick cloud cover, speeds toward the horizon. I do the walk everyday, and I let the shadows and colors and textures distract me. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always there, and it’s always changing.

The ground in Welles Park, Chicago Illinois / Darker than Green

On the coldest days, the ground is as hard as pavement, indistinguishable from sidewalk or igneous rock. It’s a quiet trek, occasionally sprinkled with the darting eyes and hurried hellos of passing strangers. The abrasive rhythm of snow crunching underfoot crowds out the motorized whizz of cars and the hiss of the kneeling Montrose bus. Cloudy rings of bright blue ice gleam, surrounded by thinned patches of yellowing grass.

When a thaw moves in, solid ground that’s pitched and angled from last week’s frozen footsteps starts to give again. Tiny chunks of dirt and slush clump and creak beneath heavy steps. Bunches of shredded leaves huddle near wide tree trunks, the weak brown shards crushed flat under the speckled sun. The great green gazebo spreads wide its shadow over broad drifts of snow.

As the weather turns briefly, blindly toward spring, the field becomes an obstacle course. The rain comes, the ground swells with water, and the dirt puffs up into mud. Animals return to drink, and search for food. I tread lightly over rooted sod, careful not to step too hard and twist it clean from the earth. Floor-bound nests of fallen twigs support my weight and keep me from sinking ankle deep into black sludge, my rubber soles sucking against the wet earth with each step.

And the next day, the freeze returns. The melt, once again, hardened into solid crystal.

Instead of thinking about the cubicle walls or the fluorescent lights, these walks keep me in real time, reacting with and against the landscape. I’m learning why some people hike the same trails year after year, this small stretch of public park as my teacher. Even near a tangle of busy intersections, among the roar of traffic and constant construction, I can hear the earth breathe. I can see it sigh.

One day soon, we’ll turn toward the sun and the land will open up to welcome a new season. It will push up new sprouts and nurture them on their way to becoming great trees. It will embrace the eager picnickers who rest in new grass and pull corks from chilled green bottles of white. But the park, even in winter, shows me something new. It shows me that change doesn’t have to wait until spring. I walk by it everyday.

Grass and snow, Welles Park, Chicago Illinois

Welles Park is a big, beautiful park located in Lincoln Square on the northwest side of the city. Summer brings giant, lush fields (often filled with hundreds of summer camp kids). In winter, it’s much emptier and the perfect place for quiet and contemplation. It’s well worth a visit any time of year.

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Garfield Park Conservatory

Palm Room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

There’s a reason why the Garfield Park Conservatory shows up on so many Chicago travel guides (including mine!). Actually, there are about a million reasons why, but all those reasons are really wrapped up in one moment. Distilled down, the concentrated essence of what this place is and does for us is simple.

Mosaic Plant (Fittonia verschaffeltii pearcei), Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Fern Room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Go there in the winter. On a horrendously frigid day, preferably in the middle of hard, gray February, open the door to the Palm House and remember what it feels like like to breathe. Recall that the color green comes in infinite shades and shapes. Slowly peel off your layers of down and wool and let the humidity in the air (remember what that is?) smooth the creases another endless winter has embedded in your face.

Button fern (Pellaea rotundifolia), Fern room, Scheelea Palm

Scheelea Palm (oldest palm in the Conservatory collection, grown from a seed in 1926), Palm room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Fittonia verschaffeltii, Palm room, Pellaea rotundifolia

If you’re lucky, find an open bench to sit on and watch the people, children, couples hand-in-hand, wander down the pathways. Dazzled smiles on parade, each in awe that something so beautiful can really exist, here, now. If you planned ahead, eat your packed lunch of cheese sandwiches and clementines and forget, just for a moment, about the sharp wind waiting for you on the other side of the glass walls. Promise yourself, and anyone within earshot, that you’ll return once a month until the trees bud again. Once a week! Everyday if you know what’s good for you.

Desert Room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Aeoniums, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Variegated Century Plant (agave americana 'Marginata'), Desert Room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

This place is magic any time of year. In the summer, you can wander through acres of outdoor urban plantings, vertical gardens, and working farms. In spring and fall, you can search for narcissus bulbs sprouting from the hard earth, or leaves changing color in the mighty Hawthorn grove. Visiting the Conservatory in winter, however, teeters on brushing up against the divine. That first step into the first climate controlled room restores your faith in life, in the belief that at some point in the future, we’ll have warmth and growth again. That one day, clouds won’t shield the sun for weeks on end, fingertips won’t always be numb and blue, sidewalks won’t always be one boot wide, chiseled down to tiny canyons of icy snow and salt.

Totem pole cactus (Pachycereus schotti var. monstrosa), Desert Room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Desert room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Ferm room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Chicago can be a rough place for a plant lover. The growing season is lush and welcoming and almost makes you forget what the other side of the coin looks like. Once the air goes cold for good, indoor refuge is the name of the game. The Garfield Park Conservatory will grant you sanctuary. Pack that picnic, wear some layers, bring a book, and enjoy.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is located a short walk from the Conservatory-Central Park Drive stop on the CTA Green Line. Open 365 days a year, admission is free.

Ferm room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Spike moss (Selaginella erythropus 'Sanguinea'), Fern room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Carnauba wax palm (Copernicia prunifera), Palm room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Desert room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Luftwerk installation in the Palm room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois

Ferm room, Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois