Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland

Last weekend, I went down to Maryland to celebrate the wedding of two friends. The ceremony took place outside of Baltimore, fairly close to the airport, in a state park that felt worlds away. Between vows and white wine spritzers, rounds of cornhole and grilled veggie burgers, tears hidden behind sunglasses and bold belly laughs, we were able to sneak away and do a little exploring.

Lone tree in the shade, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

The overcast heat felt like summer, but the signs of early fall were creeping in. Crisped up bits of brown lined the walkways, and flutters of yellow drifted down from the tallest branches. Despite the passing of the autumn equinox, the entire park surged with energy. Giant slate boulders pushed through the earth. The Patapsco River churned slowly, feeding a bevy of lush, creekside plants. Unknown bird calls and freight train whistles echoed between the trees. We almost mistook a still, black snake for a petrified tree branch.

Picnic area among the trees, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Green groundcover, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Inside the forest, along the Ridge Trail, the late afternoon light pooled in the thinning leaves. Fungus sprouted on fallen logs stretched out over pathways studded with rocks and roots. The elevation slowly began to rise, and being from the flat midwest, our unaccustomed feet struggled to maintain balance. Our special occasion footwear certainly didn’t help matters. But we pushed on.

Dappled sunlight in the trees, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Fern frond, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Sunlight through the branches, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Fungus on a fallen log, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

At the farthest end of the Ridge Trail, we found Cascade Falls. The soft roar of rushing water reached our ears even in the parking lot, and after a short hike, we spotted the source. Beyond the rocky crag camouflaged with moss, behind the crowd of sun-shade trees, the white water splashed down into a shallow, gravely pool. Small groups of families climbed across the rocks to get a closer view of the falls, shutters clicked, voices carried clear through the soft, green valley.

Moss on stone, turning leaves, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Tiny mushrooms and moss, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Cascade Falls, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Swinging bridge, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

As the sun began its descent below the tree line, we retraced our steps back to the trailhead and shuffled across the Swinging Bridge. A child’s heavy, joyful steps shook the bridge in its entirety – and I held onto the thick wound-wire railing to keep myself steady. At the center of the bridge, the valley dropped out below us and the view stopped us in our tracks. The wide river shimmered, mirroring the valley’s early evening light. Small groups of friends, families, fathers and sons, waded through the current below, their calls and shrieks lifting through the gaps in our wooden walkway.

Outside the park, reminders rang loud to make the most of the end of summer, to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of fall, to pull on those sweaters and dust off those boots. But here inside the park, time stood still. We all breathed the cooling air, and simply enjoyed what was.

View from the swinging bridge, Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Stone bridge at the entrance to Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland / Darker than Green

Patapsco Valley State Park is one of the largest parks in Maryland, and sits about a 20 minute drive from downtown Baltimore. Driving is probably the easiest way to go, but you can definitely get there on public transportation, too. The 320 bus and the MARC Camden line both drop off close to the entrance to the park. No doubt that there are wonderful parks closer to the center of the city,
but if you’re in the mood for a getaway or camp-out, this may be your best, most beautiful bet.



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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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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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Adjustments, transitions

McDonald Woods, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Back on Labor Day, surrounded by all that loud, vivid green, I was almost able to drown out the “last day of summer” whispers. Summer was alive and present. The sun was still out. The day was hot and muggy and the cicadas were screaming. People still strolled sleeveless, sockless.

As we wandered through deep woods, the first step on our journey back to the city, I saw it on the edge of a row of bright green oaks and alders. Fall. It was a little spindly thing with lime-veined pink vellum for leaves. It grabbed the early evening light, and radiated a nostalgic warmth. It stuck out, a lone blast of color and crunch against a soft green backdrop. I wondered about this little tree. About the accelerated calendar it must have been using. About the singular forces that made it begin to turn so much earlier than the others.

Early fall in the McDonald Woods, Highland Park IL / Darker than Green

I kept walking, leaving fall behind, thinking it was an anomaly of the far northern suburb we had ventured into, something to deal with later. I reentered the city, blindly expecting summer to blaze on. But, sitting in my living room staring out at the treetops I’d grown so used to these past few months, I saw it again. Fall. I noticed the leaves of the honey locust across the street. A canopy of the brightest, boldest green whose uppermost leaves had now begun to yellow. Its bits of confetti gently released their hold on the branch, almost indiscernible for those not paying attention. And I realized, I hadn’t been paying attention.

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For all the walking and wandering and gazing and thoughtful considering I’d been doing this summer, my eyes had been closed. I saw what I wanted to and ignored what I didn’t. I’d quietly trained myself to take in the good, the green, the growing — and avoid the signs of change and transition. The fading color, the curling edges, the going-to-seed. Summer is on its way out, and fall is humming its arrival.

Turning maple leaves in early fall / Darker than Green

Change is something I’ve never been good at accepting. I resist it, averting my eyes and ignoring the inevitable. I crave stability but rarely attain it. Out of control, hovering just shy of the unknown, the anticipation of the changes to come tighten in my stomach.

Leaves turning yellow / Darker than Green

For the gardener and greenhunter, these last days of summer feel a bit bewildering. Just as I had settled into summer, I now feel its warmth waning: an embrace that always ends too soon. Outside, things are changing everyday, usually signaling the end of something that had been beautiful to behold. But this year I heard a ringing in my ear. The echo of something I had already, somewhere in me, known to be true:

Don’t think of it as the end of summer, think of it as a season of new beginnings.

Green leaves at sunset / Darker than Green

It’s a lofty task for someone who generally resists change by any means necessary. But in the spirit of new beginnings, I’ve started to look for signs of fall like I do with spring, spotting and uncovering the hints the living world has left around me. It’s still a slow shift — a flutter of yellow, pointed tips turning red, crisp brown wedged within curb — but I see it now, everywhere.

I don’t avert my eyes. I don’t avoid the signs. The exact shape and color and sound and smell of it is still unknown, but fall is coming. It’s ok to not know exactly what’s on the other side of all this change. And I’m working hard to welcome it.

Late summer in the McDonald Woods, Highland Park IL / Darker than Green


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Matthiessen State Park & Starved Rock

About halfway between Chicago and the Iowa state line, the reliably flat topography of Illinois makes a dramatic shift. Here you’ll find the dells. These great canyons formed when glacial pressure overpowered the surrounding limestone and sandstone, piercing through the earth to make way for flora, fauna, and eventually watersport enthusiasts. Nestled beneath the broad, blue Illinois River, the geology of Matthiessen State Park rolls and juts and spikes and pools before arching clear overhead, its basic elements proudly on display. Wood, water, earth. Calcium, iron, carbon.

The hike into the park offers your typical Illinois vegetation: hackberry and pin oak trees, clumps of goldenrod and ironweed. When the winding path stops short, you’ll see the gap. From the canyon rim, your eyes will trick you. You’ll think the floor below is close, a reasonable, respectful, Midwestern distance. You’ll think the felled trees are thin, new growth and the scattered rocks, stepping stones.

But then you’ll see people down below, humans made minuscule by distance and perspective. Bodies dwarfed by the rock walls, their voices carrying through the cavern, amplified by bowed basalt. In the valley, the stone changes color from gorge to gorge, sandy beige and deep umber at Cedar Point give way to silver and scarlet in the Devil’s Paint Box. Liverworts, mosses, and bracken ferns cling to the shady side of the canyon while the crisp fall sun pushes slender tree trunk shadows against the rough ridge.

Just across Route 71 is the more popular Starved Rock State Park. Familiar and foreign in the lay of its land, wooded forests line steep yellow cliffs while shallow creeks wind through stark gray gulches. At the top of a long bluff stands Council Overhang, a geological outcropping that looks to have more in common with the moon than with the nearby prairie. Its great mouth yawns and hovers wide around us, the sandstone threatening to chomp closed in a few thousand years.

Curve around the bend and forge a few more stream crossings until you hear rushing water. At Ottawa Falls, the last of spring’s runoff cascades into a deep pool, mushrooms cling to dormant tree trunks, and names of wayward hikers are etched deep into sandy crag. The late afternoon light glows yellow in these hidden corridors, catching in thin-veined leaves, and reflecting off the grooved walls above.

These parks are magical in their incongruity, in their perfect strangeness within the greater context of the local landscape. This is an otherworldly place where farmland brushes right up against rocky ledge and canyon. An area that forces you to imagine its tense and fitful creation when ravines were violently carved from glacial rock and cliffs were blasted free from bluff.

After dinner at the lodge paired with pints of Starved Rock Signature Ale, our group began the two hour journey back to Chicago. We watched the hot, orange sun dip and then drop below the treeline, taking our day at the dells with it. The van pushed forward, back to flat land, back to the city.

Matthiessen State Park and Starved Rock State Park are located a few minutes from each other in North Central Illinois. Instead of renting a car for the journey, I traveled to and through the parks with the REI Outdoor School. They provided transportation, food, and trail guidance for the full day. This post was not sponsored, I just loved the trip and would gladly recommend it to others.



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West Ridge Nature Preserve / Park #568

A new park recently opened on the far north side of Chicago. Park #568 lies in a previously unused corner of Rosehill Cemetery. They claim no bodies have ever been buried here, though from certain corners of the site, you can see straight through the chain link fence toward the westernmost headstones. There’s a strange feeling in the air. Felled trees criss-cross throughout the park, some half buried in the central fishing pond, strangled limbs reaching upward from a watery grave.

A few boardwalks snake through newly planted prairie grasses. The native woodland trees stand tall and thin, shooting fifty, sixty feet into the air before multiplying and dividing into thousands of tiny twigs. Most woody plantings have already lost their leaves — the forest floor, a multicolored carpet of maroons and purples, decomposing crab apples, and cleverly disguised wildlife. We spot a Giant Walkingstick, thin and brown, legs tipped in lime green. Body bouncing as he takes uncertain steps, slowly approaching the asphalt path.

There are dozens of signs scattered throughout the park asking visitors to stay on the trails, but many don’t. Or can’t. The adults are generally respectful. Though I imagine asking rambunctious kids to walk quietly along the walkway, observing nature from a safe distance, is a crazy request. Deep woods are where secrets are shared, and inside jokes are born, and the best swords are fashioned out of dead branches. Even for me, the pull to abandon the path is strong. There’s a certain quality of light and shadow you can only experience when you’re surrounded by trees. You can’t hear that familiar cottony squish of leaves and mud when there’s only paved clearing underfoot.

But we stick to the trail. And listen to mothers share news of their most successful nieces. Wander alongside families eating identical PB&Js and miniature explorers hunting wild mushrooms. Watch through the fencing as 49B buses and pickup trucks hurtle down busy Western Avenue, windshields glittering as brightly as ripples on the pond.

Park #568 is located near the intersection of Western and Ardmore, one block south of Peterson Ave. The park is free to the public and open from dawn till dusk.



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Midwest Travels: Apple Holler

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I recently went apple picking for the first time in my life. Four friends and I met up for an early city brunch and then ventured an hour away to Sturtevant, Wisconsin. We sang along to our playlist as the highway took us past corporate campuses and cropland. At our destination, we gorged on donuts and sipped hot, tart, spiced cider while a man wearing a dreamcatcher played Abba on pan pipes. The petting zoos and pig races and corn mazes were all swollen with people drunk on fall. We caught a hayride deep into the orchard.

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I’m clearly not a veteran, but I think the magic of apple picking might lie in the fantasy that everything you see belongs to you. Even if just for a moment. We wandered up and down endless rows of dwarf trees. All ours. The entrance fee bought us the freedom to taste as many pieces of fruit as we wanted. Dozens of varietals growing on dozens of acres — flashes of red and yellow called to us from behind giant patches of green. The fields were quiet and calm. You could hear the crunch of a newly bitten Jonathan or Cortland from beyond the treetops, the sound jumping from row to row.

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We wandered deeper into the property and found our way to the Enchanted Forest, a wild recess from the geometric farm park. The perfectly planted grove gave way to thick backwoods where dappled sunlight squeezed through tiny openings in the canopy. We walked slowly, eyes craning up and around, leaves crunching underfoot.

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Eventually the forest receded, the sky widened, and we were back in the farm. We got serious about filling our half peck bags with as many apples as we could grab, searching for the most perfect specimens and standing on tippy toes to collect them. The light began to lean lower as we wandered back through the orchard, past the dusty pumpkin patch, and back toward the entrance gates. The sound of pan pipes returned. As did the sounds of teenage yelps and car engines and cash registers.

The transition back from nature to civilization is always an awkward one. Even a man-made apple orchard can deliver the feeling of escape that an urbanite craves after one too many cramped subway rides. For a few hours that Saturday, we disappeared. We climbed and stretched and tasted fruit fresh from the tree. We heard new sounds. We heard fewer sounds. We shared stories and laughed. We were quiet. We looked closely. We took a break from worry. We breathed.

And for the next week, we ate delicious apples that reminded us of our fall day in Wisconsin.

Apple Holler is located halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee at 5006 S. Sylvania Avenue in Sturtevant, Wisconsin. The orchard is open everyday from 9am-5pm.



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Fall for real

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My eyes are constantly scanning the streets, staring deeply at every tree. Trying to memorize them exactly as they are during this time of year. Fall is fleeting in Chicago. I imagine many people feel this way in climate zones similar to mine. Every day looks different.

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We don’t get the thick, rich patchwork of New England color. Or Colorado’s yellow Aspen explosion. But fall still comes here. Trees that stood proud and green for months — bold and persistent in their aliveness — suddenly burst into plum, gold, rust. And the next day, the leaves are gone, the trees’ newly bared limbs reaching, silhouetted against a sharp sky. The city is bare again. You can see the siding and the concrete and the power lines and all the crumbling infrastructure that’s been camouflaged since May. As spring is a season of awakening, fall is the season of retreat. Both periods of transition, but in fall, the movement is toward silence, sparseness, rest. Some like to say it’s the time for turning inward. For plant lovers, it’s a bit of a sad goodbye.

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But of course, fall is unmistakably beautiful. Trees turn, in as many different ways as there are trees. Some glow from the crown downward, seemingly warmed by months of strong summer sun. Others begin to yellow from underneath, glittering only for those who remember to look up. A few trees become color; their neon leaves forming a giant mass of a single hue. Throughout Chicago, the colors are a random confetti. Leaf edges burn, the color bleeding inward until the entire thing flashes red. And then falls. The young oak outside of my living room window crisped up around August and went straight from green to ashy brown. The color drained long ago, but even now the leaves are holding on. Shivering in the wind. Just like me.

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This is the time of year when the trees outsmart us. These beautiful giants, usually so slow to change, can’t keep still. Leaves fly and fall and crunch. Shadows stretch. The sun sets. It all feels so quick, and one day you look up and it’s suddenly winter.

But not yet. For now, at least for a little while, we still have color.

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