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.
My voice and story were included in a recent episode of the She Explores podcast. In the first of two episodes tackling the huge subject of diversity in the outdoors, I talk about how difficult it can be to be a black person in the outdoors, how the interactions with other people on the trail can be uncomfortable and unwelcoming, but how important it is to go outside and connect with what truly matters to me: nature itself.
I’m proud to have lent my voice to this topic, and I’m grateful that there are people out there 1) acknowledging the barriers to access underrepresented communities face in the outdoors, and 2) working to dismantle them via discourse and action. Thanks to Gale from She Explores and Liz from Snowqueen & Scout for putting this podcast episode together. Have a listen and let me know what you think.
Looking for a way forward, I’ve been reading. So much reading. Some of it typed up by shaky, fearful hands. Some of it brassy and strident.
I’ve been trudging through digital collections of hate crimes, most performed under the name of our new President-Elect. Of course, these things were happening before Tuesday’s election results rolled in, but the difference is: now it’s being done in broad daylight, by people who are sick of being overlooked, people who are proud to take action under the name of their new leader. Also, now, the media is paying more attention. A lot of us are paying more attention, I guess.
I’ve read inspiring captions on Instagram, and impassioned longform essays, and transcripts of podcasts and interviews. I hoped the words would come, I hoped the reading would help put my own thoughts in some sort of coherent order. But they didn’t. I stayed silent. I hid in my home. I fretted. I called my family.
This morning I read Heather Wells Peterson’s piece on the purpose of art in our current moment of unrest. I think my mind was too clouded to fully absorb the stoically motivational thesis, but a short paragraph did jump out at me:
A friend of mine, a black poet living in Florida, hasn’t been able to write a poem in months. He’s worried they’ve stopped. And I understand that — sometimes art isn’t enough, or everything else is too much.
This moment, this feeling that the world has knocked itself off course, has left us rushing to catch up and drag it all back into equilibrium. But I’ve been pushing myself to consider that this is the way the political right has been feeling for the past eight years. As so many of us have been hazily going through our days, quietly proud and bolstered by the existence of that beautiful black family in the white house, the other half of the country has been angry, fearful, frustrated that their voices and values have gone ignored.
I’m wrestling with my fear of what a population of emboldened xenophobes are capable of. And I’m wrestling with the knowledge that matching their fear with my own won’t push this country closer to mutual understanding and an equitable distribution of opportunity and justice. While I cannot sympathize with their violence and hostility, I do acknowledge that rejecting dialogue is what brought us to this moment. This is an uncomfortable place to be, where my thoughts scare me as much as what I see happening in real time in the news. But change doesn’t happen accidentally, you have to want it. Change isn’t engendered by hope alone, we all have to fight for it. The events of the past week have radicalized us all. Whether we like it or not, whether we understood what we were wading into, we’re all in the water now.
Earlier this year, I watched a wave of acknowledgment ripple through my online community as the national police force waged a one-sided war against unarmed black people. I watched people showcase their temporary solidarity and then quickly return to their travel tips and gardening tutorials. It all felt hollow, rootless, convenient. The current anger I see in protesters’ eyes, the hand holding and cries for reform, I hope it sticks around. I know that what we’re facing is a lot, but I hope we all keep eyes trained on the long road we have ahead of us instead of turning back toward acceptance and unearned ease.
I look forward to the day when my poetry returns to me, when the beauty of the earth is what I see first, not the exponential terror its human inhabitants can spawn. This planet and its beautiful diversity of life is still my first priority, and I still think time spent outdoors can be deeply healing (an excellent, timely example). But I also want my art to inspire action, not just provide escapism or soothe readers into complacency. So the posts will continue, and I’ll continue to look for ways to imbue them with politics, and real talk, and meaning.
When I went on the campout at Northerly Island back in August, an REI staff photographer asked if I’d be comfortable with him shooting some photos of me for a possible member portrait on their website. Lo and behold, a few months later, the portrait is finished and published! Check out my feature, posted along with some of my photographs from the past year. Let me know what you think!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
These days the hard asphalt feels miles thick. Solid. Impenetrable. The endless sidewalk unrolls for blocks, dirtied bubblegum dotting the peeling curb, crumbling and worn by the hot summer sun.
My eyes, magnets for green, spot the plants squeezing through cracks in the street. Many like to call these plants weeds. Nuisances, pests. So-called invasive or foreign species, identified as outsiders. Aggressors gobbling up space and resources. Taking hold in soil never meant for them.
In this country, black people are weeds. Brought over from a foreign land, we were cultivated, domesticated, beat back, and disposed of when deemed too wild or unprofitable. We’re seen as opportunistic and greedy. Our features are considered vulgar and undesirable. Experts gather to discuss methods of blocking the spread of our blight. And we’re deliberately eliminated — razed when we take up too much space, destroyed when we simply try to exist somewhere we’re not welcome.
There are things I know how to talk about because I know them so well. And then there are things I struggle to talk about because I know them so well. The helplessness of seeing people that look just like me be systematically overlooked, held back, locked away, and murdered. The hopelessness that comes with learning our history, discovering that the oppression may have shifted gears, but that it’s never really gone away. The frustration of witnessing people continuously deny and belittle experiences they have never had and could never have. The resentment from watching those people speak for me and down to me. The confusion and anger from knowing that some minds can never be changed, that some people will never recognize their privileges, that some truths will never be acknowledged. The emptiness I feel when the dizzying thought crowds my mind: what if justice is an impossible, unattainable dream?
I’ve been keeping an eye out lately for construction zones, not for the buildings in progress, but for the plants that often take advantage of the newly open space. It seems that the rigid asphalt can actually be broken away quite easily — like the shell on a hardboiled egg — revealing the loose, damp earth below. In some emptied lots, the prairie has already rushed in, that grassland that develops after the humans have gone and the earth is left to settle and heal itself. The place where weeds and wildflowers sprout freely, plants differentiated only by context and perspective.
Many of these pop-up gardens won’t make it past the summer. They’ll be sprayed or chopped or smothered. And many of us won’t make it another year. Black people continue to be murdered, black communities continue to be fragmented, our voices continue to be drowned out. But despite their attempts at mowing us down, we keep rising up. We keep growing. We evolve. We sprout thorns to protect ourselves. We blossom.
I have a soft spot for weeds. Unwanted. Misunderstood. They persevere, finding the will to thrive under less than ideal circumstances. They get cut down, pushed over, uprooted, and they keep coming back, stronger than ever. They are resilient. They are beautiful. And so are we.
The solstice has come and gone, which means it’s officially summer. People are parading to beaches in droves. Gardens are filling in. National parks are being crossed off bucket lists. I don’t have any imminent plans for specifically outdoorsy travel, but it’s always on my mind. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of rivers and canyons and mountains and deserts that I want to experience. My hope is that there’s enough time (and grit and money) to ensure I see them all, and it’s always my hope that having visited these places, I’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the land, myself, and the people who came before me.
I often think about how love of the outdoors is typically represented in the mainstream. Sometimes it’s about getting away and connecting to nature. Often it’s about fitness or extreme adventuring. Very rarely it’s about heritage and cultural sensitivity. Also very rare: depictions of capable, interested people of color spending time outdoors and enjoying it.
I’m a person of color — a woman of color, no less — who loves nature and being in it and learning about it. I don’t usually see a lot of other people who look like me on the trails, or on the catalog pages of outdoor equipment retailers. But I know we exist. Because I exist.
The Code Switch podcast recently did an episode on Being Outdoorsy When You’re Black and Brown, and it was beautiful. They talked to people of color about how and why they get outside. They talked about how many different ways connecting to the outdoors can look and sound and feel, despite the lack of representation and historic barriers of entry. They talked about organizations working to increase access to the outdoors for people of color. It was a dialogue about inclusion, and positivity, and growth. It made me proud to know there were other people out there wanting to have these conversations. And then I looked at the comments.
I’d seen it before, not the exact words, but certainly the anger. “Why is it always about race??” “Can NPR report on something without tying it to skin color??” “How is this a story?? Just go for a hike and relax.” A complete dismissal of the personal accounts, the nuanced reporting, the richness and diversity of experience. I saw this same sort of visceral negativity in the comments in The Guardian’s April feature on Outdoor Afro. I’m consistently amazed at how negative people can be when presented with an idea or experience they’re unfamiliar with. There’s so much I don’t know or understand about the world around me, but I try my best to keep an open mind and acknowledge when I’m coming at something from a position of privilege. It seems like something as earnest and crunchy as talking about building community in nature wouldn’t become a battleground for statistics and claims of race baiting. But now we discover that no topic is safe.
My impulse is to run away. To take a break. To take a hike. To go outside and water my garden. And I suppose, in one way, this may be the best way to combat the history that tells me these spaces aren’t for me and the indignant commenters that tell me my experience has no merit. Do I want to walk into an outdoor store and see adventurous women on full bleed marketing collateral that look like me? Yes. Do I want to purchase a ticket to an outdoor excursion and know that I’ll be around people who value diversity and new experiences as much as I do? Definitely. Do I want to browse the interpretation plaques in a National Park visitors center and see text acknowledging the displacement of indigenous people and the environmental stewardship efforts pledged by the Park Service? Of course. But I also know change is slow, and the people in place to make the change are usually very hesitant to do so.
The answer may just be to venture out, to go camping and kayaking, to climb mountains, to canyoneer the narrows, to tend our gardens, to acknowledge and protect nature, to create beauty where before there was none. But we should also make sure to continue asking questions, and having conversations, regardless of how uncomfortable they make people feel. The answer may be that in nature, like everywhere else, our presence and our voices are equally important.
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.