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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last weekend we had two straight days of giant, loud, destructive storms. Rain poured in buckets from the sky, and deep cracks of thunder shook the neighborhood, waking up a chorus of angry car alarms. Giant hail shot holes straight through my nasturtium leaves. Shoes got soaked, plans got canceled, and somewhere in a dusty corner of the grid, the switch for all the streetlights on our block got turned off. At first I figured they’d come back on the following night, but it’s now been six days and we’re still in the dark. And I love it.
For the past week, it feels like we’ve been living in the country. Yeah, there’s still noisy traffic and from the sidewalk you can still see a pair of glowing gas station logos in the distance. But in our living room, every night at dusk, we watch the sky gradiate from blue to pink, and the crowns of honey locust trees turn black with the setting sun.
I never thought about just how omnipresent streetlights are, how loud and invasive they can be. How easily their withered orange light paints every nighttime memory and experience. I revel in the times spent away from the city because I’m often closer to wide open green spaces, but also because I’m farther away from buzzing street lamps and light pollution.
But this week, the vacation came to us. Our top floor apartment became a cabin in the woods. Stars have been shining just a little brighter. Sleep has come more easily. When I walk through the door, I pull on relaxation like a cozy winter coat. And all we had to do was turn off the lights.
It’s no surprise that I love trips to the plant store. A friend of mine once described the sense of unbridled joy and limitless opportunity for self-healing she felt whenever she went to the grocery store. This is how I feel at the plant store.
Plant stores sell more than just plants. They sell beauty, and oxygen, and therapy. They sell commitment, a connection to the natural world, and a renewed understanding of time. All for relatively cheap. If it’s a good garden store, you can walk out of there with something special, a combination of colors and scents and textures that is completely unique to you. And then you can bring it all home and enjoy it everyday.
I’ve been spending time (and money) at garden centers for decades. I wouldn’t call myself a gardening expert, but I might be an expert on plant stores. Here are some of the tips I’ve collected over the years.
1. Check out your space
If you’re planning on some cleaning and greening — whether outside or inside — enjoy the space for a while before spending any money. The urge to improve can be pressing, but it’s worth it to pump the brakes get a sense for what you’re working with. Grab a chair and a cool drink. Watch the light, watch where it goes and when. Look for spots where the sun is strongest and observe where it’s weakest. Watch for wind or high traffic areas, knowing these are the spots where delicate stems could be bent and broken. Figure out what you want, what will grow well in your space, and take notes.
2. Set a budget for yourself before you get to the plant store
We all want a lush, verdant garden today, right now, immediately. These days we expect convenience and speed in all things, and our desires for a perfect green space is no different. However, when planning a garden, you can have it fast or you can have it cheap, but you can’t have both. The most magical gardens you’ve seen have been built slowly, and almost certainly didn’t look perfect in their first year. Likewise, if you’re not starting plants from seed, you’ve got to be willing to put some money into it. Consider what that number looks like before you get to the plant store. This will help you avoid both a busted wallet and a broken heart.
3. Bring a bag, or a box, or both
If you’re driving, you don’t need to worry about this because you can just put everything into your car. If you’re like me and you’re walking or taking public transportation, bring something to help you transport your finds back home. Canvas bags work well if they’re gusseted and made from sturdy fabric. The straps will help you carry more, though if you carry the bag over your shoulder, delicates leaves and stems can get damaged in transport. Cardboard boxes work well too as they keep everything upright and are relatively easy to carry. But you can’t just throw them over your shoulder. Unless you have incredible upper body strength, there’s a limited amount of weight you can bear with just your hands. I’ve found the bag/box combo to be the best, providing a flat bottom and straps for easy carrying. Grab a cardboard box, place it inside your canvas bag, and plan to fill that thing with plants.
4. Ask for help
We’re all still learning, even the master gardeners among us. When at the plant store, don’t be too proud to seek guidance. Look for an employee or the owner and ask questions. If you’re looking for something special, they’ll know if it’s in stock. If you’re looking for something for a specific area of your garden, they’ll be able to help narrow down the options. They may have direct experience with the tricky plant on your wish list and can give you advice on how to make it work. These people are an excellent source of free plant advice. Take advantage.
5. Inspect your picks
Don’t get a plant home and then realize that it’s overrun by pests. Don’t just assume every plant in the store is equal in health and quality. If you’re at a good, independently owned plant store, chances are high that most picks will be good picks. But give your plants a thorough once over anyway. Look for infestations: weird bugs or strange substances on the leaves. Look for new growth. Healthy plants grow. Some species grow slowly, but there should almost always be some sign of growth. Look at the roots. Some guides will tell you to avoid plants that are rootbound (ie, you can see roots growing out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot). It get can extreme, but it’s not always as much of an issue, especially if you’re planning to repot or put the plant in the ground as soon as you get home. If you’re a plant doctor and feel confident in your rehabilitation skills, by all means, buy away. Otherwise, zero in on the healthiest specimens.
6. Look for smaller versions of the plants you like
This is a quick one. Smaller plants are cheaper and easier to carry. If you’ve chosen a plant that will thrive in the space you picked out for it, it will quickly grow to be as big as the version that would have cost you $16 (or more).
7. Treat yourself
And on the other side of the coin, if you find a plant that’s kind of expensive, but just thrills you, do yourself a favor and get the plant. Splurge. On a plant. If buying the plant and all the others in your basket blows your budget, maybe leave the others behind. Like money spent on experiences, money spent on plants will come back to you many times over.
8. Only pick up what you love
I don’t believe in filler plants. Everything in your garden should make you happy when you look at it. Extend Marie Kondo’s life-changing edict to the garden. Every plant you own should spark joy. If you want a vegetable and herb garden, get veggies and herbs. If you want a container garden of all perennials, get them. If you love bright color and refreshing your garden every spring, load up on annuals. Don’t pick up a plant just because you need “something.” Leave a space bare until you come across the right plant for the space.
9. Don’t take it too seriously
We’ve all killed plants. We’ve all forgotten to water, or watered too much, or picked a plant that needed way more sun than we have in our apartments. The only way to learn about plants and get better at taking care of them is to make those mistakes. So the next time you’re at the plant store, challenge yourself and buy something you’ve never seen before. Buy something you’re not sure you’ll be able to keep alive. You just might surprise yourself.