Earlier this month, Gale Straub, the wonderful woman behind She Explores, interviewed me for an episode of her podcast. The episode is now live and I’m so proud of it. Gale and I chat about all sorts of topics that are close to my heart: plants, seeking out nature in and outside of the city, my relationship with my master gardener mom, the importance of public land and acknowledging the history of the land, growth and discomfort, and moving through the world with eyes open.
Because I’m a practitioner of radical honesty, I’ll admit here that I was wildly nervous before the interview, terrified that I wouldn’t make sense, or wouldn’t sound smart enough. It took a couple gentle nudges from Gale before I even agreed to do it. But the lesson here is clear – fear isn’t a good enough reason to say no. Sharing my perspective via this podcast episode has been revelatory. And being able to connect with others based on our shared experiences has been tremendous.
It being January, those familiar with Chicago, even very casually, know what the weather is like on the other side of the window. Winter’s got its gnarled grip on the city, and most likely will not let go until May. In an attempt to refresh and rehydrate, I scheduled my first trip of the new year – a week in northern California visiting friends and family.
Even in January, Oakland’s river of parks and outdoor spaces run green, a deeply saturated green. The trails are alive with plants at all stages of the growth process, fern fronds drip with dew and moss and fungus squeeze through cracks in centuries old bark. Midway through my trip, I convinced a good friend to join me on a morning hike around Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, which is essentially a living native plant museum. My dream come true.
The species of flora in Huckleberry can’t be found anywhere else in the East Bay. Throughout the loop, interpretive plaques lean toward passersby from the surrounding brush, describing plants of interest with an unmatched lyricism. The morning I set out, parents pointed at the illustrated berries and trunk burls, cross referencing their maps. Children dashed down muddy paths, a flurry of energy beneath the serene bay tree forest. I breathed in deep at every turn in the trail, noticing the sounds, the smells, the particular quality of light filtering through even the thickest leaves.
One of my favorite writers, Rahawa Haile, recently reported on a forest bathing excursion she took in the East Bay, not far from Huckleberry. She wrote of focusing on the little things, heightening her awareness of her surroundings, letting her mind fall quiet. Back home in Chicago, I’d never thought of going out specifically in search of a place to forest bathe, but reading Haile’s description, I realized it’s what I do every time I spend time in nature. I get intentional. I walk slowly, probably deeply frustrating those I wrangle into hiking with me. I consider every plant, every color, and shade, and tint, every texture, every level of contrast from brightest white to deep, dark black.
The breadth of plant life at Huckleberry is dizzying, but walking the trail there, experiencing this unique ecological community, is the most soothing experience I’ve had outdoors in a long while. I know for sure that coming from Chicago’s deep winter, the Bay Area’s greens looked greener, the humidity in the air felt more moisturizing, the magic of turning the corner from a deeply shaded chunk of trail into the bright, warm sun – unspeakably stronger.
Maybe it’s warm and pleasant where you live, but if it’s real winter – deep winter, the kind of winter that burrows under your skin and refuses to let go – maybe these memories of a morning under the live canyon oak canopy will transport you. Breathe deep. Let’s take a walk.
Oakland CA’sHuckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve is a glorious place to visit in winter. The loop trail is moderate, though it does include some semi-steep elevation changes. There were a few bugs buzzing about, which I imagine would become more of a nuisance as the weather gets warmer. Getting to Huckleberry is easiest in a car (I carpooled with a friend), but the East Bay bus service, AC Transit, will get you within a 10 minute walk of the trailhead on Bus 642.
The other night, I met a good friend at the Garfield Park Conservatory. What is usually a mid-winter daytime pilgrimage turned into a late night walk through the deep forest, just a few miles away from our homes. The Conservatory is open every day of the year until 5pm, but on Wednesdays, they turn on the lights and let wanderers stroll until 8.
A part of me worried that the rooms of the conservatory, glorious to behold in the daytime, would look stark and unwelcoming at night, with bright fluorescents beating down from overhead. But it was quite the opposite. Bold spotlights gelled in brilliant colors lit up the undersides of ferns, bounced off the bark of tropical trees, dribbled down rocky waterfalls and into rippling, bottomless pools. The sounds of rushing water mixed with the echoes of children laughing in the Sugar from the Sun room. Our footsteps fell on damp stone and shuffled beside leaves rustling in the fan-fed breeze.
There, that night, the air somehow felt more humid. Our ears perked at the chorus of crickets, our noses caught wind of the peat and loam stuffed in crevices at our toes. Some walkways sat in total darkness, and our brains rushed to fill the gaps. In the Desert room, tall columns of cactus masqueraded as men standing perfectly still. Neon colors got caught on succulent leaves and sharp spines, throwing strange shadows on the walls and windows surrounding us. All our senses sharpened to make up for what we couldn’t see in the dark.
I love the sun, and crave the light. Here, on the winter solstice, the precipice of the coldest season, I feel myself falling deeper into the darkness. On the other side of today, the days begin the get longer, minute by minute, but what might I learn by sitting in these shadows, unbothered, unmoved?
As I wandered through the Conservatory that night, I walked past a young woman sitting on a wooden bench in a barely lit room. Her face was calm, her eyes closed, breathing even. I can’t know what she was thinking about, if she was meditating or considering some hidden train of thought, but the sight of her reminded me of what’s special about this season. Now is the time to sit in the shadows, to explore the darkness, wade in it, and get lost in what could be. These dark days hold lessons for us all. And what more perfect place than this to open our eyes wide and wait for them to adjust.
This small serviceberry was a landmark, and a marker of time. I’d been taking photos of it for the past year, hoping to capture it at its peak in every season. I watched its flowers grow and fade, watched its leaves change color and fall. It wasn’t a big tree, maybe around my same height, which is possibly why I noticed it so easily. I could see it get swept through the seasons as wildly as I felt I did — bright orange disks catching the sun on a warm autumn day, and bare winter branches twirling up toward the darkened sky, reaching for the waning light.
This summer I got busy, too busy to take a minute, too busy to remember to slow down. So I didn’t get around to taking any photos of the tree. I noticed it everyday on my walk to work, but would say that there were still months or summer left, still weeks. And when the leaves started to turn, earlier than usual, Oh well – I said – I can get photos of it next summer when the leaves are green again, when the sun shines bright again, when I have more time.
I watched the for sale sign go up, and the for sale sign come down, and saw the new decorations go out, and the tree’s autumn leaves start to fall one by one. And then one morning, there was a patch of mud, a flurry of men digging and tamping and wrangling mangled branches. The little serviceberry tree sat thrown to the side, a clean, decisive cut at its base. No chance of saving the roots and replanting, no chance of the summer photos I’d been planning on, no chance of a winter hibernation or a new spring.
The lesson here is obvious. Or it should have been obvious, but I counted on time nonetheless, something that simply cannot be counted on. The most finite resource, the one we’re least aware of in our daily drudges. I thought what was there would always be there. I thought time was on my side, and that I could delay without consequence. A small tree being cut down in someone else’s yard isn’t the worst thing to happen. I have enough perspective to realize that. But my experience remains a potent reminder.
Do not wait. Do the thing. Admire and appreciate what’s here now.
Pull out the camera, put the viewfinder to your eye, and press the shutter.
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.
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.
Because of schedules and timetables and prior commitments, I knew I would have one full day in San Francisco to spend on my own. So I got an early start. BART dropped me off at the 16th Street station shy of 8am, where I walked past businesses still sleeping behind graffitied metal shutters. I feasted on a soft red pepper quiche from Tartine and bagged up half of my morning bun before hopping on a MUNI heading west.
I’d read that the San Francisco Botanical Garden was free as long as you arrived before 9am, and that’s exactly what I did. I strolled across Lincoln Way, down the most beautiful Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive I’d ever been on, and walked right through the garden’s open gate.
There are a lot of benefits to getting to the botanical garden early.
Before 9am, you’ll have the place to yourself. You can wander from corner to corner, circling around cloud forests and through redwood trails without hearing so much as another footstep. The only people I encountered were staff: quietly deadheading, pruning, hosing down. And where the staff couldn’t reach, the irrigation system compensated. Hundreds of automatically timed sprinklers shuddered from behind wide leaves and brilliant inflorescence. As I went through the garden, I ran to dodge the great arcs of water. I shielded my camera from the unchecked droplets and watched the sun glitter in the periodic downpour.
Before 9am, you can wander the garden freely. Just up a short hill, beyond the sun-loving succulents, I found backstage. Plants-in-process. There were no elaborate planting schemes, or well-placed interpretive plaques. Back here, in the far corner of the garden, young plants sat tucked into their plastic trays, tagged with their scientific names, staked and tied in white plastic hoop houses. Under the shade of a row of giant eucalyptus trees and below the looming Sutro Tower, I imagined what it would be like to work in the gardens, to care for the greenery, to see the early morning sun touch their leaves every day.
That light, that unique light, is perhaps the best benefit to getting to the garden before 9am. The early morning sun is sly and generous, its angled beams streaming and pooling on the edges of silhouetted fronds. Before the sun reaches its midday high point, shadows are long and deep, pushing the bright colors of the foliage into even starker contrast. There’s a haze in the air, most likely still settling dew, that catches the light and turns it a warming yellow green. That light, like the morning itself, is a quiet secret: curling your lips at the corners; begging to be told; pressing on your lungs until they swiftly inhale and when you open your mouth, the sound that’s released is peppered with birdsong.
San Francisco Botanical Garden is 55 acres of walkable garden paradise, located in Golden Gate Park. It’s easily accessible via public transportation, many MUNI buses drive right by. If you’re planning to get there early in the morning, bring a jacket with you. San Francisco is beautiful, but it can get pretty chilly.
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.
The former British poet laureate, Alfred Austin once said: “Show me your garden and I shall tell you who you are.” I agree that the state of one’s curated surroundings says volumes about that person: about what they value and what they don’t; about who they think they are or want to be. My indoor garden is a pretty clear reflection of who I am and what’s important to me. I used to think about opening up a store one day, a place that would be an extension of my home, the public face of my private identity. The dream of a store still flickers sometimes in my mind, often when I’m lingering in someone else’s.
I’m interested in the purpose of a store. I know they’re meant to provide customers with access to goods. But, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, shops are also places that feed the spirit. Have you ever gone into a store and never wanted to leave? Wished you could just live there forever? Remember the statistic that said some Anthropologie shoppers spend up to four hours there? A shopkeeper’s job includes sales, for sure, but also requires creating a space where people will feel comfortable, welcome, at ease. A place where they may be able to be shown, as Alfred Austin put it, who they are.
I recently found myself thinking back on the plant stores I wandered in and out of during my week in New York. On paper they’re pretty similar, but the experiences of pulling open heavy doors and coming inside, wandering aisles, investigating objects and considering purchases — all the tiny actions that amount to “shopping” — those experiences were all so different. These shop visits were an exercise in observation, in being aware of how a space can make me feel, and what it can teach me about myself as well as the person who stocked the shelves and opened the doors.
When you first walk into Sprout, there’s a bright orange wall against which a number of strange and beautifully shaped plants are displayed. I was drawn to it like a moth to the flame. There are colors everywhere you look in this shop, but its white-washed brick walls serve as a perfect backdrop and breathing space. There’s a Sprout location in Chicago, which is dark and sumptuous, but the Brooklyn Sprout is fresh, elegant, and radiant — like a young professional woman in a smart, white wool jumpsuit. The ceiling angles high overhead and is punctuated by cloudy old skylights. The walls are lined with bookcases full of neatly organized textiles, crystals, and gift items. My best friend and I smelled every single candle on display. I got lost in the tangle of plants crowding each wall and overflowing from each table.
Ideal for: fancy people, fine gift givers, event planners, tablescapers
A few years ago when I first heard about Green Fingers Market, I spent the better part of an afternoon doing a deep dive of the shop owner’s entire online portfolio. It was the first time I’d heard of “plant stylist” as a job and I became obsessed. Satoshi Kawamoto has a shop in Japan and this store here in Manhattan, which is nestled into a long, narrow storefront on a small city street. Looking into the store from the front door is like peeking into a lush jungle from the windshield of an off-road trekking vehicle. There’s a feeling that you’ll uncover something here that no one has ever seen before, some perfect display or never before seen species. The place is dripping with plantlife and antique bits and bobs: the result is layered and effortlessly stylish. Keep walking all the way to the back of the store for an embarrassment of vintage menswear and leather bags. If Sprout embodies a savvy young woman, Green Fingers is the perfect mirror of its owner: cool, classy, and masculine.
Ideal for: men who love plants, vintage denim collectors
I had never been to Boerum Hill before this excursion, and the neighborhood fully charmed me. It’s quintessential Brooklyn: tree-lined cobblestone streets, brownstones with front porch gardens, tiny cafes and independent shops nestled within residential blocks. And from strolling around the neighborhood, GRDN is as quaint and wonderful as you would expect. The shop itself is one small room lined with useful gardening tools, gifts, and large bags of potting medium — a great blend of functional and decorative objects. In the middle of the room sits a large table filled with vases of spectacular fresh flowers. But go out through the back door and you’ll enter a secret garden, the nursery area of the shop. It’s almost like time traveling to a backyard garden in London, complete with the antique pots, classic perennials, and gravel crunching under foot. You may find yourself wanting to wrap the whole store up and ship it back to wherever you live. I know I did.
Ideal for: daydreamers, fresh bouquet seekers, classy neighbors who just need a big bag of dirt
When it’s 90+ degrees out and humid, inside a hand-built greenhouse is maybe not the place you want to be. But it’s where we found ourselves the day I learned about Crest Hardware. This place is, as you may have ascertained, an actual hardware store, with rows of hammers and lightbulbs and heavy duty gloves and ceiling fans and all the other things you would expect to find at your local True Value. But if you follow the signs for the garden center, out back you’ll find a glorious green space packed with both flora and fauna. There’s a bird cage tucked in among the philodendrons, rows of succulents, stacks of terra cotta, and a large wooden pen in the open air garden space. This is where Franklin lives, the resident garden keeper, a potbelly pig. Crest is not fancy. It’s not overthought. You won’t feel like you’ll break anything if you turn around too quickly. And that’s where its magic comes from. It’s a space for regular people who want to bring more beauty into their lives. A noble pursuit, and an attainable one, even in the middle of New York City.
Today, here in Chicago, it has started to snow. The first snow of the season is always a bit of a recalibration. It reminds me of where we are within the cycles of growth and decay, of light and dark. I had been finding it hard to believe that it was already December and that the end of the year was only a few short weeks away. But then this morning I woke up to snow, and it made sense again.
I always struggle to remember, when it’s snowing and I’m wrapped in multiple insulating layers and my fingertips are turning blue, that it was once warm. Not just warm, hot. The kind of heat that makes you gasp for air. The kind of heat that seeps into your body and radiates off of you, creating an echoing aura that hums when you get too close to anything or anyone else. The kind of heat that that coaxes your body into producing more sweat than you thought was possible.
This day I spent in Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters was like that.
It was August and my full week in New York City was coming to a close. Despite the intense heatwave and tropical storm system that seemed to be oscillating around the eastern seaboard, I was able to convince my best friend to join me on a sojourn out of Brooklyn and up to Washington Heights.
After riding the cool, stainless steel A train up along the eastern shore of Manhattan, we emerged in a green world. The cicadas were screaming their mechanic song and the heavy air was still in the tallest trees. The rolling Hudson River peeked through a clearing in the leaves and we caught our first glimpse of the giant old fort structures, built and used during the Revolutionary War.
We made our way to the Heather Garden where layers of green folded over and into each other, the landscape punctuated on its edges by tall elm trees. The drunk bees were in wild collection mode, barely visible inside deep flower cups, sucking up the nectar from alliums, irises, black-eyed susans, and all varieties of heaths and heathers. Along the snaking path, we stopped to gape at bright white hibiscus blooms, perfect and unblemished, with diameters bigger than pie pans.
And then we got to the Cloisters Museum, where trefoil arcades created perfect frames for the surrounding greenery. Where potted plants huddled around elaborately sculpted columns. Where low-set walls of marbled gray and pink stone held in serene central gardens: the carefully reconstructed cloisters for which the museum is named.
The indoor galleries at the Cloisters hold a collection of medieval art displaying both the beauty and brutality of the era. Wandering among the intricate tapestries and gold Byzantine jewelry, we caught our breath and soaked in the cool, conditioned air. We dipped in and out of the museum, into the dark galleries and out to the walled gardens. We eased away the goosebumps of the frigid, climate controlled rooms among the scorching hot terraces and beds planted heavily with ancient herbs cultivated in the medieval age.
Watching families wander among the gardens and tiny sparrows spin and flap their wings in a trickling stone fountain, I felt as if I’d stumbled into an alternate universe. One where the traffic and concrete intensity of midtown felt impossible and unknown. Where an interest in history and an avid appreciation for beautiful spaces were shared by everyone in attendance, all ethnicities and age ranges included. Where the immense hand of high summer’s heat touched us all, but couldn’t hold us back from enjoying what the vast city had to offer.
I had a hard time tearing myself away from this place. I’d kept the Cloisters in the back of my mind for years, since learning it held many artworks and artifacts I’d studied years ago in my high school art history classes. My eyes whipped around me, focusing on every leaflet and sprout and piece of delicately carved rock. I watched as the sun blazed mercilessly on everything in its reach, casting hard, sharp shadows through vine and pillar. I breathed in my fill of the thick, fragranced air, held in place by the wide Hudson River and the deep valleys dug out from clay and stone. But then, eventually, we started our trek back to the train and back into the belly of the city. We wandered through the deep brush of Fort Tryon Park and back to 190th Street, past children and adults running through fountains in the nearby playlot, seeking out relief from the profound heat.
Back here at home, in Chicago, remembering this day feels like a distant dream. Here, the sky has turned flat and white, has turned on its faucet producing an endless shower of fat, wet flakes, has lowered to envelop us in its impenetrable opaque globe. I know the sun is still up there, hot and unfiltered, probably warming the skin of park wanderers and lawn picnickers on the opposite side of the globe. But here in Chicago, I watch the fresh snow pile up on the bare oak branches outside my window and reminisce about when the sun, in all its harshness and warmth, was mine.
Fort Tryon Park is located at the far north end of Manhattan in Washington Heights. It’s a nice, relaxing ride on the A train, one made even shorter if you manage to catch an express train. To get to the Cloisters, you have to walk through Fort Tryon Park along a path that leads you through the Heather Garden to the east, or through the dense forest to the west. Gorgeous (and sweltering) in the summer, a walk through these lush areas will definitely impress year-round. Also helpful to note that admission to the Cloisters museum is suggested donation, so you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to enjoy these beautiful spaces.