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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Totality

We awoke before sunrise, eyes dreary and stomachs flipping. Night hadn’t brought me more than a handful of minutes of sleep — my conscious and subconscious juggling the unfamiliar sounds and smells, eyes registering, even from behind closed lids, the bright red numbers on an alarm clock that did not belong to me. We had already driven south from Illinois to Indiana, and now we were up early, our new destination farther south still: a small piece of public land just over the border to Kentucky. A sandstone bluff hovering above an old growth pine forest. A place to lay our blankets down, gulp trail-warmed water, and peel off our eclipse glasses at the precise moment of peak totality.

Before this year, I had never even heard the word. But in the months and weeks leading up to what was branded The Great American Eclipse, totality was on everybody’s tongue. We gobbled up every bit of content – lists, how-tos, longform essays, pinhole tutorials, super-spliced videos edited to perfection – all meant to clue us in to what we were about to experience. Day turning to night. A brilliant ring of sunlight in a suddenly dark sky. Bats flying, crickets chirping. Something weird, and wild, and beautiful.

Sunrise from the back window of the car, southern Indiana / Darker than Green

The day of the eclipse, we packed the car under early morning’s damp blue haze, and then took off. Driveways turned to old state roads, parkways merged with interstate highways. Low-lying patches of fog were slowly burned away as the sun made its hot, red arrival. I wondered if the birds swirling in the sky, the small herds of grazing cattle, the sun itself, had any hint at what was coming, any hint at the cosmic display scheduled for later in the day. We spotted other rugged hatchbacks, roof racks packed tight, bumpers sprinkled with clever stickers, and interior cabins filled with eager-looking faces. The rest of the natural world might have been none the wiser, but we humans were beside ourselves. The road ran below our wheels as we traveled south over hill and bridge. Morning’s wispy clouds dissolved above us, opening the door for a perfect summer day. The viewing conditions were ideal. Anticipation grew.

Gravel road near Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area, Princeton KY / Darker than Green

On the way down, we passed a handful of open fields filling with SUVs and campers, other adventuresome folks staking out their spots, but when we made it to our destination, only a few clusters of cars sat huddled along the side of the gravel road. We stretched our legs and grabbed what provisions our arms could carry. After our densely wooded half mile hike to the edge of the bluff, the sky opened up above us. We stood at the edge of the sandstone outcrop, where sixty feet below, the tops of trees ran out for miles in every direction. We found ourselves a spot, pulled on our eyewear, and peered up at the sun. The eclipse had started. The sun was being eaten, a small chunk missing from its edge. A timid arc, almost unnoticeable, but we all saw. Camera phones were held behind protective plastic lenses. Photographers perched on cliff’s edge readied their setups, and soon enough the light began to change.

View from Hunter's Bluff, Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area, Kentucky / Darker than Green

Simone Martin-Newberry / Darker than Green

Trees during partial solar eclipse / Darker than Green

Plant during partial solar eclipse / Darker than Green

As we moved closer to totality, shadows deepened, colors grew more saturated. The world looked like an underexposed photograph whose details were hazy and indiscernible. I squinted to try and sharpen my gaze, reached to remove my sunglasses before I remembered I wasn’t wearing any. I felt my heartbeat speed up. The sun, which I had just seen with my own eyes, looked right at it for the first time in my life, was disappearing. A man nearby spotted Venus, bright as an airplane’s blinking lights in a moonless night sky. And then we were in it. The small crowd, all of us instinctively, cheered aloud as totality pulled into view. We briskly removed our glasses and gazed directly up at the sun’s glowing white corona. Cicadas began to scream, the colors of sunset brightened on the horizon, turning giant cumulus clouds pink, orange, and blue, even as the sun itself continued hiding directly above our heads.

Clouds just after totality / Darker than Green

From our vantage point in Western Kentucky, totality lasted two minutes and 36 seconds. The time felt longer, and infinitely shorter. To say it was a beautiful thing to witness is a vast understatement. As the tops of the farthest clouds began to turn back to fluffy white, the signal that daylight was on its way back, I felt full of wonder, joy, gratitude. To see a total eclipse is to see something equal parts extraordinary and completely ordinary. The sun and the moon cross each others’ paths multiple times a year, it’s not rare or remarkable. What’s remarkable about it is that we stop to take notice. There are billions of natural events happening around us every day — flowers blooming, clouds shifting, tides rising, winds eroding. It’s a total improbability that we’re here at all, that we have this planet to call home, that we can experience the very real cosmic activity happening around our planet. It’s incredible, and it’s something to be aware of and grateful for everyday, not just during a total solar eclipse.

Pine needles just before totality / Darker than Green

Sunset off the highway, southern Indiana / Darker than Green

It took us a while to muster the motivation to pack up and head back down the trail. I hesitated leaving behind the experience we’d just had, and the beautiful place we had it in. But the sun, which had followed us throughout the day, stuck by our side the entire return trip north. In the evening, the tops of cotton ball trees ignited in rosy pastel hues, their branches and trunks glowing bright orange against the dimming skies. The morning’s fog turned to evening mist and the sun finally dipped below the hills, throwing the silhouetted trees into perfect contrast against a sky streaked with early evening color. At moments, the sky looked almost identical to how it appeared hours earlier, at 2:35pm, during peak totality. The main difference was how I perceived it, and the entire world around me.

We drove south to Princeton, Kentucky to view the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area has a beautiful lookout point called Hunter’s Bluff, which is about a half mile hike up from the gravel parking lot. The trail is not very well maintained, with lots of overgrown plants and fallen logs. Wear sturdy shoes. And if you make the trip, make sure you bring ample water and food, and a trowel – the WMA has no public restrooms or running water. The basic amenities, however, are easy to deal with when your view is so incredible.



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Perseid Meteors, and the Moon

Chicago skyline out of focus, Darker than Green

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.


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Winter as memory

Fresh snow / Darker than Green

Winter’s first layer is white glitter. The thinnest sheen of barely solidified water. The flecks of snow are just visible, silhouetted against the nearest streetlight. The dots dust the sidewalk, echoing in a cold breeze like scattered grains of sand.

The first layer usually comes and goes a few times before making the decision to really stick. That first real snowfall is magic. The kind of snow that feels almost imaginary, the kind that only exists in fiction, or theater, or in our memories. Accumulation comes next. It raises car roofs several inches and expands the girth of spindly bare tree branches. The individual particles float to the ground and collect in soft mounds, drifts, miniature mountains.

Bare tree at night after a snowstorm / Darker than Green

The days pass and the snow accumulation eventually turns to ice. The dream of that first flurry dulls and hardens. The layers of winter grow, burying the concrete sidewalk under months of city dirt and ragged black crystal. Psychedelic bursts of neon rock salt encircle doorways and slippery porch steps. Dried and dirty dust puddles stay splashed up on the sides of buses, caking the windows and obscuring views of steel building skeletons half-dressed in wind-ripped tyvek.

The months pass and the layers of winter become so thick, so unmoving, that nothing seems possible but ice cold. The memories of spring, or warmth, or soft grass underfoot, or hot red sun glowing through closed eyelids become sandwiched between the crust of slush and sleet. But not this winter.

Winter tree in bloom / Darker than Green

This winter, snow last fell and stuck in early December, ice was last seen on the ground the day after Christmas, and since then, the weather’s been tolerable, mild, at times legitimately warm. Despite the groundhog’s best guess, spring appears to have come early. Last weekend I saw trees beginning to bud and bloom. Yesterday I noticed my tulip bulbs and strawberry plants sprouting on the back porch. Birds chirp and chatter from every old tree. Neighbors run slow errands in track shorts. Friends ride bikes for leisure, not necessity.

It’s a strange feeling — the pull to enjoy the weather, take a long stroll, drink lemonade on a park bench — all while the date on the calendar still appears to suggest that it’s February. I feel the familiar Warm Weather Impulse, the now premature push to go outside and take advantage of the high temperatures. But meanwhile, my body still feels sluggish and tired, still in need of a long winter’s rest, despite the fact that winter may already passed.

Having lived here in Chicago for as long as I have, I thought I understood the cycles of winter, its shades and layers. I could anticipate the turns and stalls of the weather, I had memorized the patterns of steps drawn in fresh snow fields, and could envision how they’d sully over time. This winter, the layers have all melted away, and my memory alone is what gives the season its shape.


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Blues and greens

The day after Christmas, we heard it was going to be 50 degrees outside, a continuation of the extreme weather swings of the past few weeks. So we put on our fall boots and rode a bus all the way out East. We walked to Lake Michigan, and through Lincoln Park, and into the Conservatory. The wind along the lakefront threatened to push us over, but we bristled ourselves against the gusts and set our eyes out over the horizon.

We joined the steady flow of folks from out of town, folks visiting family, folks venturing out of their homes and pajamas for the first time in days. It was busy, the walkways were stuffed edge to edge with selfie-takers and cousins and new couples meeting parents for the first time. Children pointed out scavenger hunt finds and captured holiday trains on their tiny cellphones.

For the day, we had spring, a momentary break from the hostile weather of early December. At the end of the month, we were welcome outside again. We knew it wouldn’t last, but it felt good to get out, to get some fresh air, to walk along well worn paths and see some color.

Lake Michigan, Chicago / Darker than Green

Lake Michigan, Chicago / Darker than Green

Lake Michigan, Chicago / Darker than Green

Chicago clouds reflected in Alex's glasses / Darker than Green

Steps at Lake Michigan, Chicago / Darker than Green

Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Palms in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Vines in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Sweat Plant, Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Ferns in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Ferns in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fern roots in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Orchid in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Palms in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Palms in the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green

Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago / Darker than Green


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Humboldt Park

Humboldt Park fieldhouse, Chicago / Darker than Green

When I walked through Humboldt Park during the famous snowpocalypse of 2011, the drifts came up to my waist. When we all lived in nearby Ukrainian Village, two friends and I bundled up in several layers and stumbled through uncleared sidewalks and alleyways. Parked cars were buried in snow up to their rooftops. We crossed Western Ave and into the Humboldt Park neighborhood, usually electric with action and conversation. That day, it fell silent, as silent as the Park itself. Everyone was still inside, huddling beneath blankets and beside space heaters. In the Park, a lone figure trudged through the snow off in the horizon. We wandered through quiet, covered fields — in awe of the overwhelming whiteness, ice falling into our high boots, fingers frozen and balled inside our pockets.

Family at Humboldt Park lagoon, Chicago / Darker than Green

Prairie plants in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

View of Sears Tower from Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Last week, on an unexpectedly warm fall day, I walked through Humboldt Park again. I wore a short sleeved shirt. No socks. The sun beat down on the top of my head, fingers fell lazily at my sides, not balled up like they instinctively do in cold weather. It was me and a crowd of other west siders, strolling, sitting, fishing, bartering, and jamming with their dueling salsa bands, speaker volume turned all the way up.

I’ll never get tired of the sights and sounds of people loving being outside. That day, as I walked through Humboldt Park, I fell in love over and over. With families watching the ducks float in the lagoon. With weekend warriors stringing up portable hammocks between the trees. With grillers, runners, strollers, and salsa dancers, shoes off, feet twirling in flattened crabgrass. And all around us, the angled sun pierced through gaps in the turning leaves, tinting the crowd in swatches of orange and warm yellow.

Fall plants in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Prairie plants in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fall plants in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fall in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

In fall, as in summer, the pace can be frantic, there’s an impulse to take advantage of the weather “while it’s still nice.” And it can all feel very rushed, if we let it. We push ourselves to go outside so at the end of the season we can say, I was there, and I didn’t let it pass me by. But pressure and pleasure make bad bedfellows. I’ve realized the secret to enjoying fall is in refusing to take heed of the clock. It’s in recognizing each day for what it brings, releasing expectations on ourselves and on the world around us. The secret is in loving each leaf when it’s there, and accepting when its time to fall has come.

Fall in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fall grasses in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Prairie plants in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

So on the warm fall day when I walked through Humboldt Park, I didn’t think once about the chill I felt in my bones during my snowpocalypse wander five years before. I didn’t dread the inevitable day when the trees would all lose their color, when the lagoon would freeze over, and the sky would turn soft and gray. I didn’t preemptively mourn the retreat of the autumn revelers, imagining the pull of itchy wool against their arms and the track of salted footsteps up their wooden front stairs.

I just watched, and walked, and enjoyed the day for what it was.

Humboldt Park lagoon and fieldhouse in the distance, Chicago / Darker than Green

Humboldt Park lagoon, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fall in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Fallen leaves in fall in Humboldt Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

Humboldt Park is a gorgeous 200 acre park on the near west side of Chicago. It holds a nature sanctuary and bird/butterfly habitat, as well as many areas for protected native prairie plants. This isn’t generally a park to visit if you don’t want to interact with other people, but I think that’s part of its beauty. Come here to people watch, to joke with the fishermen, to help a wayward toddler back onto the trail, to gobble down a picnic of jibaritos that you bought down the street, and to enjoy the sights and sounds of a well-loved public park. Humboldt Park is easily accessed via public transit: the #72 North bus, #52 Kedzie/California bus, and #70 Division bus all drive right by.



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North Park Village Nature Center

Path to the Nature Center, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

There’s a little patch of wild nature in Chicago, I recently discovered.

North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

The plants are allowed to grow as they had for years and years before we began to pave and farm and coax green from the ground and each others’ pockets.

Black locust leaves, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

Wildflowers, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

The trees are allowed to reach far into the sky, and crack and break, falling to the ground to be reclaimed by the soil.

Tall trees, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

Mossy fallen tree, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

The grasses are allowed to sway in the strong breeze, hiding vast numbers of bugs, clicking and buzzing deep in the brush.

North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

Wild grasses, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

Bee on flowers, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

The water that collects is allowed to dry and swell with the patchy storms and dusty droughts that punctuate this city’s long summer.

north-park-village-nature-center-1223

Cloud reflecting in the pond, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

Even the areas built for humans are meant to observe and support life.

Birding hut, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

Indoor plants, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

This was a green place, this bit of nature that I found. But it won’t be for long. It will change with the seasons, turning brown in October, and white in December. But it will change only on its terms.

There’s a certain energy to a plot of land that is left to grow and shrink as it wants. It makes a specific sound, smells a certain way, feels different under foot. When you slow down, sit, watch, listen, you can pick up on the cues being sent back and forth. Your eyes readjust to the lights and darks and the shades in between, finding the life that slips along in the shadows, usually right beneath our noses.

Deer eating, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

Tall trees, North Park Village Nature Center / Darker than Green

North Park Village Nature Center is a breath of fresh air on the far north side of the city, near the intersection of Pulaski and Peterson. It’s a beautiful place to wander through multiple ecosystems, including forests, prairies, and wetlands. They offer a full schedule of classes and programming for kids and adults and are open seven days a week, 10am-4pm. The Nature Center is easily accessed by public transportation using the #84 Peterson bus or the #53 Pulaski bus. There is no cost for entrance.



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Chicago Botanic Garden

Grasses at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

We’ve been taking an annual trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden for a few years now. The Garden’s hundreds of acres unfurl into an infinite number layered views, gushing with color and texture. I’ve spent many, many hours exploring the individual themed gardens, walking as many of the crushed gravel paths as I could, maximizing my time in this planted oasis. But every year, I find more. More hidden corners of the grounds, more plant combinations, more sights for these sore city eyes.

Desert house at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Desert house at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Crassula arborescens, Silver Jade Plant, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Cacti at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Desert house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Alluadia procera, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Cacti at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

We always take our trip out to the Gardens on Labor Day. The bonus day, third day in a three day weekend nestled well inside the warm weather season. This year, it felt like half the city of Chicago had the same idea. The gardens were full. Multi-generational families lingered on bridges, beers clinked in the grill patio, and rows of strollers lined up outside the butterfly tent.

Tropical house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

In the tropical house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Monstera deliciosa in the Tropical house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

There were thousands of people exploring the gardens, bickering, laughing, sharing seating space on wide, flat rocks. We listened in on friends catching up, a wife telling her husband her cheeseburger-and-red-wine order, mothers and sons giggling about recently made memories. I heard different languages, many of which I couldn’t identify. I saw white linen robes and jewel-toned saris billowing with the wind, and baseball caps shielding eyes from the late day sun.

We all wandered from garden to garden. Inspired by the same call to leave our homes and enjoy a day off together, outside. We all sighed in relief under the shade of a tall tree. We all inhaled deep when we passed the scent throw of a flowering plant.

Tallgrass prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

In the tallgrass prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Grasses in the tallgrass prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

I enjoy spending time in beautiful gardens because I love the plants. The way they look and smell and feel. Their patterns, the way they splay their leaves, the way they catch sun and shade throughout the day. But my favorite part about the CBG might be watching how other people interact with the garden. You don’t have to know everything about horticulture or garden design or biodiversity to be able to enjoy the space. You just have to use your senses.

Russian sage at Council Ring, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Bridge to Evening Island, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Evening Island, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Evening Island, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

From afternoon until evening, I watched the Garden come in and out of focus. It shone as scads of eyes grazed over its hills and ponds, picking out particular plants as singular objects of attention. And then it faded into the background, sparkling like lens blur, behind the faces and stories of all its visitors.

In the desert house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Bridge to Japanese Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Japanese Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

The Chicago Botanic Garden is almost 400 acres of beautifully planted gardens located in Highland Park, a north shore suburb of Chicago. I get there using the Metra Union Pacific North line, which costs about $6 roundtrip. Get off at Braeside and walk 20 minutes to the Visitors Center where you can get your bearings and plan your route. My favorite stops include the Japanese Garden, the Council Ring on Evening Island, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and the Prairie. I’ve only ever been to the CBG in the summer, but it’s open year-round and I imagine it is stunning during any season. Parking costs $25-30, but entrance on foot or by bike is free.



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Gethsemane

Perennials in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

I recently got back to Chicago from a long-awaited vacation to New York City. I spent most of my time in NYC doing all my favorite things: going to parks and plant stores and eating my weight in delicious vegetarian food. Needless to say, it’s taking a while to get back into the swing of things here in the Midwest.

In an effort to bring some of that vacation feeling back with me, some friends and I recently took a long lunch and headed up to Gethsemane. This shop is a gardener’s paradise with a succession of yards and greenhouses showcasing perennials, annuals, indoor plants, trees and shrubs, garden furniture, pots, and tools. The place takes up a whole city block and during weekends in summer, it’s absolutely packed with people. People who love plants, people who buy plants, beginning gardeners, experienced collectors, sellers, experts, and everyone else.

A well-stocked plant store at the height of summer is a beautiful thing. On the day of our visit, Gethsemane was warm and vibrant, but mercifully calm — its typical throng of eager shoppers conspicuously absent. So we got to wander the hallways of this quiet green temple in peace. I wasn’t really in the market for more plants. I’m trying to hold back on spending for a while until my wallet recovers from its time in New York. But I can always browse. And browse I did.

Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Agave in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Succulents in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Cactus in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Cacti in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Orchid in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Asparagus fern in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Perennials in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Annuals in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

A bee's butt in Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago / Darker than Green

Gethsemane is located in the northside neighborhood of Andersonville. It’s fairly easy to reach via public transportation: the #50 bus drops off about a block away. While you’re up north, I’d strongly recommend a stop at the nearby Middle Eastern Bakery where you can buy all the falafel, hummus, and bulk spices your bag can carry.



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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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