Jackson Park and the south side

View toward Wooded Island, Jackson Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

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.

Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

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

Purple Japanese Maple in the Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

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.

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

Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Raindrops on the lagoon, Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

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.

Native plants in Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Jackson Park / Darker than Green

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.

The Statue of the Republic, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Native plants in Jackson Park / Darker than Green

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!


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In print, on paper

The past few weeks – months, really – I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing to revisit an old love. Drawing was always my first outlet, the one that stayed and morphed with me as I got older and eventually developed a career. When I’m not writing here or wandering with my camera outside, I’m making art, drawing for clients, and more recently, for myself.

Earlier this month I got a selection of my personal illustrations hand-screenprinted – the prints are now up for sale. If you want to bring a bit of the outdoors in, or have a blank wall begging for some artwork, I hope one of my pieces catch your eye.


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On She Goes

The view toward Pelican Bay from Cayo Costa, Florida / Darker than Green

A new website has recently launched, aiming to support and connect female travel writers of color through personal essays, city guides, travel tips, videos, podcasts, and forums. It’s called On She Goes, and I’m thrilled to have a piece live on the site. I wrote about the camping trip I took in February in Florida, to beautiful and remote Cayo Costa State Park. I’ll be posting more photos from the trip, but in the meantime, here’s the story: Reconnecting with Nature on Cayo Costa.


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Essay published in Waxwing

Big cactus on Hayworth Ave, Los Angeles / Darker than Green

Many months in the making, I’m proud to announce that an expanded version of my essay about Los Angeles is now live in the Spring 2017 issue of Waxwing Literary Journal. If you’ve ever asked me about the place where I grew up, or if you keep an eye on my instagram, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with L.A. I try to unpack some of that in this essay. If you’re into southern California and rich plant-based imagery, read on.


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Speaking about diversity

Simone Martin-Newberry in the McDonald Woods, IL / Darker than Green

My voice and story were included in a recent episode of the She Explores podcast. In the first of two episodes tackling the huge subject of diversity in the outdoors, I talk about how difficult it can be to be a black person in the outdoors, how the interactions with other people on the trail can be uncomfortable and unwelcoming, but how important it is to go outside and connect with what truly matters to me: nature itself.

I’m proud to have lent my voice to this topic, and I’m grateful that there are people out there 1) acknowledging the barriers to access underrepresented communities face in the outdoors, and 2) working to dismantle them via discourse and action. Thanks to Gale from She Explores and Liz from Snowqueen & Scout for putting this podcast episode together. Have a listen and let me know what you think.


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Fear, discomfort, and dreams

Burning bush in fall / Darker than Green

Looking for a way forward, I’ve been reading. So much reading. Some of it typed up by shaky, fearful hands. Some of it brassy and strident.

I’ve been trudging through digital collections of hate crimes, most performed under the name of our new President-Elect. Of course, these things were happening before Tuesday’s election results rolled in, but the difference is: now it’s being done in broad daylight, by people who are sick of being overlooked, people who are proud to take action under the name of their new leader. Also, now, the media is paying more attention. A lot of us are paying more attention, I guess.

I’ve read inspiring captions on Instagram, and impassioned longform essays, and transcripts of podcasts and interviews. I hoped the words would come, I hoped the reading would help put my own thoughts in some sort of coherent order. But they didn’t. I stayed silent. I hid in my home. I fretted. I called my family.

This morning I read Heather Wells Peterson’s piece on the purpose of art in our current moment of unrest. I think my mind was too clouded to fully absorb the stoically motivational thesis, but a short paragraph did jump out at me:

A friend of mine, a black poet living in Florida, hasn’t been able to write a poem in months. He’s worried they’ve stopped. And I understand that — sometimes art isn’t enough, or everything else is too much.

This moment, this feeling that the world has knocked itself off course, has left us rushing to catch up and drag it all back into equilibrium. But I’ve been pushing myself to consider that this is the way the political right has been feeling for the past eight years. As so many of us have been hazily going through our days, quietly proud and bolstered by the existence of that beautiful black family in the white house, the other half of the country has been angry, fearful, frustrated that their voices and values have gone ignored.

I’m wrestling with my fear of what a population of emboldened xenophobes are capable of. And I’m wrestling with the knowledge that matching their fear with my own won’t push this country closer to mutual understanding and an equitable distribution of opportunity and justice. While I cannot sympathize with their violence and hostility, I do acknowledge that rejecting dialogue is what brought us to this moment. This is an uncomfortable place to be, where my thoughts scare me as much as what I see happening in real time in the news. But change doesn’t happen accidentally, you have to want it. Change isn’t engendered by hope alone, we all have to fight for it. The events of the past week have radicalized us all. Whether we like it or not, whether we understood what we were wading into, we’re all in the water now.

Earlier this year, I watched a wave of acknowledgment ripple through my online community as the national police force waged a one-sided war against unarmed black people. I watched people showcase their temporary solidarity and then quickly return to their travel tips and gardening tutorials. It all felt hollow, rootless, convenient. The current anger I see in protesters’ eyes, the hand holding and cries for reform, I hope it sticks around. I know that what we’re facing is a lot, but I hope we all keep eyes trained on the long road we have ahead of us instead of turning back toward acceptance and unearned ease.

I look forward to the day when my poetry returns to me, when the beauty of the earth is what I see first, not the exponential terror its human inhabitants can spawn. This planet and its beautiful diversity of life is still my first priority, and I still think time spent outdoors can be deeply healing (an excellent, timely example). But I also want my art to inspire action, not just provide escapism or soothe readers into complacency. So the posts will continue, and I’ll continue to look for ways to imbue them with politics, and real talk, and meaning.

A web outlet recently dubbed me ‘The Green Dreamer’. Well, I’m awake now. I hope you are too.


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Interviewed on the REI blog

Simone Martin-Newberry, REI member / Photo courtesy of REI

When I went on the campout at Northerly Island back in August, an REI staff photographer asked if I’d be comfortable with him shooting some photos of me for a possible member portrait on their website. Lo and behold, a few months later, the portrait is finished and published! Check out my feature, posted along with some of my photographs from the past year. Let me know what you think!


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Weeds

Wild plantain / Darker than Green

These days the hard asphalt feels miles thick. Solid. Impenetrable. The endless sidewalk unrolls for blocks, dirtied bubblegum dotting the peeling curb, crumbling and worn by the hot summer sun.

My eyes, magnets for green, spot the plants squeezing through cracks in the street. Many like to call these plants weeds. Nuisances, pests. So-called invasive or foreign species, identified as outsiders. Aggressors gobbling up space and resources. Taking hold in soil never meant for them.

Weeds / Darker than Green

In this country, black people are weeds. Brought over from a foreign land, we were cultivated, domesticated, beat back, and disposed of when deemed too wild or unprofitable. We’re seen as opportunistic and greedy. Our features are considered vulgar and undesirable. Experts gather to discuss methods of blocking the spread of our blight. And we’re deliberately eliminated — razed when we take up too much space, destroyed when we simply try to exist somewhere we’re not welcome.

There are things I know how to talk about because I know them so well. And then there are things I struggle to talk about because I know them so well. The helplessness of seeing people that look just like me be systematically overlooked, held back, locked away, and murdered. The hopelessness that comes with learning our history, discovering that the oppression may have shifted gears, but that it’s never really gone away. The frustration of witnessing people continuously deny and belittle experiences they have never had and could never have. The resentment from watching those people speak for me and down to me. The confusion and anger from knowing that some minds can never be changed, that some people will never recognize their privileges, that some truths will never be acknowledged. The emptiness I feel when the dizzying thought crowds my mind: what if justice is an impossible, unattainable dream?

Weeds / Darker than Green

I’ve been keeping an eye out lately for construction zones, not for the buildings in progress, but for the plants that often take advantage of the newly open space. It seems that the rigid asphalt can actually be broken away quite easily — like the shell on a hardboiled egg — revealing the loose, damp earth below. In some emptied lots, the prairie has already rushed in, that grassland that develops after the humans have gone and the earth is left to settle and heal itself. The place where weeds and wildflowers sprout freely, plants differentiated only by context and perspective.

Many of these pop-up gardens won’t make it past the summer. They’ll be sprayed or chopped or smothered. And many of us won’t make it another year. Black people continue to be murdered, black communities continue to be fragmented, our voices continue to be drowned out. But despite their attempts at mowing us down, we keep rising up. We keep growing. We evolve. We sprout thorns to protect ourselves. We blossom.

I have a soft spot for weeds. Unwanted. Misunderstood. They persevere, finding the will to thrive under less than ideal circumstances. They get cut down, pushed over, uprooted, and they keep coming back, stronger than ever. They are resilient. They are beautiful. And so are we.

Weeds / Darker than Green


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Outdoorsy and black

Darker than Green

The solstice has come and gone, which means it’s officially summer. People are parading to beaches in droves. Gardens are filling in. National parks are being crossed off bucket lists. I don’t have any imminent plans for specifically outdoorsy travel, but it’s always on my mind. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of rivers and canyons and mountains and deserts that I want to experience. My hope is that there’s enough time (and grit and money) to ensure I see them all, and it’s always my hope that having visited these places, I’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the land, myself, and the people who came before me.

I often think about how love of the outdoors is typically represented in the mainstream. Sometimes it’s about getting away and connecting to nature. Often it’s about fitness or extreme adventuring. Very rarely it’s about heritage and cultural sensitivity. Also very rare: depictions of capable, interested people of color spending time outdoors and enjoying it.

I’m a person of color — a woman of color, no less — who loves nature and being in it and learning about it. I don’t usually see a lot of other people who look like me on the trails, or on the catalog pages of outdoor equipment retailers. But I know we exist. Because I exist.

Midwest sunset / Darker than Green

The Code Switch podcast recently did an episode on Being Outdoorsy When You’re Black and Brown, and it was beautiful. They talked to people of color about how and why they get outside. They talked about how many different ways connecting to the outdoors can look and sound and feel, despite the lack of representation and historic barriers of entry. They talked about organizations working to increase access to the outdoors for people of color. It was a dialogue about inclusion, and positivity, and growth. It made me proud to know there were other people out there wanting to have these conversations. And then I looked at the comments.

I’d seen it before, not the exact words, but certainly the anger. “Why is it always about race??” “Can NPR report on something without tying it to skin color??” “How is this a story?? Just go for a hike and relax.” A complete dismissal of the personal accounts, the nuanced reporting, the richness and diversity of experience. I saw this same sort of visceral negativity in the comments in The Guardian’s April feature on Outdoor Afro. I’m consistently amazed at how negative people can be when presented with an idea or experience they’re unfamiliar with. There’s so much I don’t know or understand about the world around me, but I try my best to keep an open mind and acknowledge when I’m coming at something from a position of privilege. It seems like something as earnest and crunchy as talking about building community in nature wouldn’t become a battleground for statistics and claims of race baiting. But now we discover that no topic is safe.

Bug in the prairie garden, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

My impulse is to run away. To take a break. To take a hike. To go outside and water my garden. And I suppose, in one way, this may be the best way to combat the history that tells me these spaces aren’t for me and the indignant commenters that tell me my experience has no merit. Do I want to walk into an outdoor store and see adventurous women on full bleed marketing collateral that look like me? Yes. Do I want to purchase a ticket to an outdoor excursion and know that I’ll be around people who value diversity and new experiences as much as I do? Definitely. Do I want to browse the interpretation plaques in a National Park visitors center and see text acknowledging the displacement of indigenous people and the environmental stewardship efforts pledged by the Park Service? Of course. But I also know change is slow, and the people in place to make the change are usually very hesitant to do so.

The answer may just be to venture out, to go camping and kayaking, to climb mountains, to canyoneer the narrows, to tend our gardens, to acknowledge and protect nature, to create beauty where before there was none. But we should also make sure to continue asking questions, and having conversations, regardless of how uncomfortable they make people feel. The answer may be that in nature, like everywhere else, our presence and our voices are equally important.

Simone Martin-Newberry / Darker than Green


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