There’s a little patch of wild nature in Chicago, I recently discovered.
The plants are allowed to grow as they had for years and years before we began to pave and farm and coax green from the ground and each others’ pockets.
The trees are allowed to reach far into the sky, and crack and break, falling to the ground to be reclaimed by the soil.
The grasses are allowed to sway in the strong breeze, hiding vast numbers of bugs, clicking and buzzing deep in the brush.
The water that collects is allowed to dry and swell with the patchy storms and dusty droughts that punctuate this city’s long summer.
Even the areas built for humans are meant to observe and support life.
This was a green place, this bit of nature that I found. But it won’t be for long. It will change with the seasons, turning brown in October, and white in December. But it will change only on its terms.
There’s a certain energy to a plot of land that is left to grow and shrink as it wants. It makes a specific sound, smells a certain way, feels different under foot. When you slow down, sit, watch, listen, you can pick up on the cues being sent back and forth. Your eyes readjust to the lights and darks and the shades in between, finding the life that slips along in the shadows, usually right beneath our noses.
North Park Village Nature Center is a breath of fresh air on the far north side of the city, near the intersection of Pulaski and Peterson. It’s a beautiful place to wander through multiple ecosystems, including forests, prairies, and wetlands. They offer a full schedule of classes and programming for kids and adults and are open seven days a week, 10am-4pm. The Nature Center is easily accessed by public transportation using the #84 Peterson bus or the #53 Pulaski bus. There is no cost for entrance.
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 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.
We’re at the tail end of a long stretch of warm weather storms. Just like spring, summer came early — the hot, muggy days expected of July went ahead and showed up in late May. Fans are set up in every room. Beds have been stripped of their comforters. Ice cubes clink in sweaty glasses of water. And every day brings a rain shower of varying intensity. Today, the thick white cloud cover overhead is slowly shifting to gray. Sharp gusts of cool wind burst through dense canopies as if to say, “Get ready.”
Before I moved to Chicago, my understanding of summer storms was sorely limited and essentially flawed. The “rainy season” in Southern California mostly comprised of a few weeks in November when the ground goes damp and everyone forgets how to drive. Here in the Midwest, I’ve learned the extreme weather season lasts all year.
My first big warm weather storm happened during my first summer in Chicago. I was in college at the time and paid $270 a month to live two blocks from campus in a sunroom with white-framed windows on three walls. The subsequent winter would see me huddled by a space heater, attempting to ignore the frost growing on both sides of my single paned glass. But in the warm season, windows and curtains stayed open to let the breeze flow through. The room was my refuge in the trees. I spent much of that first summer sitting in the window sill, watching the lazy handful of neighborhood kids and graduate students jaywalk three floors below.
One afternoon in my bedroom, I noticed the light change. The buttery yellow walls had begun to glow a hazy orange. I leaned closer to the window screen and struggled to focus my eyes on the sky, sidewalk, brick buildings across the street. Everything was bathed in the eerie orange light, deepening rapidly. The air hummed with electricity. The cloud cover thickened and before long, the sky let loose an angry spew of hail that turned green lawns white and rattled violently against our cement facade. As quickly as it came, the hail slowed and then stalled, melting away and taking the thick orange sky with it. Hot, wet asphalt and leaves fat with the weight of water were left behind as the only evidence of the storm.
In the years since, there have been many more hailstorms, some worse than others. We’ve had thunderstorms that blew out power for entire neighborhoods, powerful stabs of wind that felled the oldest trees, curbside flooding that turned intersections into lakes. There was even that year when we were first introduced to the legendary derecho. A this point, I’ve had a lot of experience with this city’s intense weather. But every time the sky darkens and the winds ripple through wildly swaying trees, I’m still surprised.
I suppose it’s the city’s brush with untamed nature. We don’t have craggy mountains to arch our necks at, or vast oceans to dive, or deep forests to wander. Chicago’s natural beauty has been largely leveled to make way for historic feats of architecture, temples of culture and academia, and a few hundred lovingly tended urban parks. But the weather is our great equalizer. We’re all cold on the hundredth straight day of freezing temperatures in April, and we’re all in awe of the uncontrollable power of a wild summer storm. It doesn’t matter how much we try to insulate ourselves with society and technology. One way or another, nature always overpowers, stuns, delays, distracts, reroutes, impresses, terrifies, and drenches us.
The breeze outside picks up speed and the windchimes on our back porch sing louder and more often. A distant rumble of thunder echoes, and the skies churn from bright white to a swirling gray. When today’s storm breaks, I have my face pressed hard to the glass. I watch in awe as the army of droplets fall, and as the wind blows unknowable patterns in the soaked and shining streets.
Last month I launched a newsletter, a monthly missive recapping past blog posts and compiling some of my favorite articles/posts/images from the vast, bottomless web.
Among the political muck, endless digital advertisements, and sponsored posts, there remain a few people who choose to garden, to observe the natural world around them and share their perspectives online. My newsletter features their stories as well as my own, putting writers and artists from vastly different areas and backgrounds in conversation with each other. This is the green internet; a growing, fluid place where we can share and plan and think about nature during the times when, for whatever reason, we’re not able to just go be in it. Here’s a glimpse of last month’s inaugural memo.
If you like what happens here on Darker than Green, then you may very well enjoy this bonus slice of internet I’ve been working on. A new newsletter goes out this week. And I promise it will be filled with plants, poetry, activism, awareness, and all the other things that keep us going.
We live on a busy street in Chicago. These two lanes cut through most of the north and south sides, and are often used a backup for drivers routing around the city’s endless construction. There’s usually a steady flow of traffic, pedestrian revelry, ambulance sirens, window-shaking bass, and reggaetón. In short, it can get loud.
When I first moved into the apartment, I didn’t know how I was going to handle all the noise. Even with the windows closed, the sounds aren’t muted completely, just muffled. My first few months of opening the front door was enough to routinely startle and distress. Five years have since passed. And though the noise is still there, now I’m pretty used to it. Wooden floor squeaks and blender rumbles mix with the constant din of the city beyond.
Mornings mean breakfast in the east-facing kitchen, where we turn sleepy faces toward the hot sun and watch, swaying in the breeze, a quarter mile of treetops. The loud concrete crackle in front of our apartment becomes a quiet green echo in back, the sounds softening through the filter of wind and leaves. Occasionally we can hear the distant roar of the El train and the hefty puff of a passing bus, but what we hear most is birds.
The birds were here as soon as the word ‘spring’ shivered on the city’s tongue. The giant tree next door was brought down last fall, so now our towering callery pear tree serves as the avian highrise for so many pairs of tiny wings. The tree’s leaves fill in more with every warm day. Hidden by foliage, we rarely see the birds, but by our ears we know they’re there.
There’s one we hear so clearly. Her plaintive song rebounds against our brick building and pierces through the chirping clamor. It’s loud and unmistakeable. Three minor notes, descending in order, held long until they warble. I haven’t heard her before this year. Maybe the extended cold spring keeps her here longer than nature would have wanted. Some furious internet research led me to believe she’s a golden-crowned sparrow, a western bird that typically flies north and south along the Pacific coast, but whose habitat appears to be expanding east. An expansion, I assume, motivated by the extreme fluctuations of our new weather norms.
Along with the rattle of a faulty engine and the soaring sweep of an airplane overhead, I keep an ear out. For the sparrow. For her three long notes. For the shuffle of a warm breeze through green coin leaves. For the trickle of a hose, feeding budding sprouts in the raised bed nextdoor. For the clink-sigh of a beer can opening on a nearby patio, and the sizzle of a steak on a neighbor’s dusty grill. For the cement crack and hard wood drill of construction machinery across the street. For the car horns and the geese honks, drifting through an open window on a cool pink evening.
The great reward at the end of a long flat gray rainy day is the cool neon blue the sky turns after the sun goes down. For a brief while it glows, like an idled desktop monitor, and every wet surface reflects default blue and streetlight amber. Some days the cover breaks and you can see the wispy remains of the storm’s slate gray clouds, drifting left into darkness.
Last night I missed my connecting bus, and so walked the ten minutes to my house in the cold spring rain. When the initial anger of tail-light syndrome passed, I turned my attention to the sound of car tires sizzling against wet pavement, and how dark black the bare tree branches looked after a full day’s soak. It’s holding on tight, that part of spring when the trees are still sleeping. There are a few high achievers, but most haven’t changed since the last leaf dropped in fall. I kept an eye out for blooming bulbs, most hanging heavy heads and nodding under rhythmic droplets. I lingered alongside the low strip of land next to the local park fieldhouse — already covered in weeds that wasted no time making their eager return above ground.
My eyes caught the last of the blue glow after climbing the stairs to my apartment. It quickly deepened, then settled into the matte graybrown of an urban night sky. The brick buildings across the street pulled on their muddy orange bedclothes, reflecting the streetlights’ shadowed shine, and the hiss of commuting cars one story below echoed again to the north and to the south.
It’s incredible the things you forget you’re missing during the long pause of winter. The things you learn to live without when you have no other choice.
I smelled Spring today during my walk through the park. It smelled of damp dirt.
It wasn’t a spectacular smell. Not bad. Just normal. But noteworthy in its ordinariness. It hinted at possibility, at the changes to come. At the tiny sprouts preparing to emerge from newly thawed ground. Waiting, like tiny toddler dancers. Jittering in the wings, poised to take the stage at their spring showcase.
I saw Spring on the branches of the Purple Leaf Plum tree behind our apartment. Its bare, dusty branches bejeweled with tiny round buds, sitting quietly on forked arms reaching up toward the warming sun. The tips of the nearby Callery Pear are likewise adorned and will soon burst into musky white blooms.
I saw Spring reflected in the curb puddles and the snowmelt and the stillwater collected in last Summer’s plastic planters. I saw it in the return of gardening displays in brightly lit retail spaces. Lime green gloss varnish cover stock and double walled cardboard seedpack towers. Mass-produced eyecatchers reminding us it’s almost time to put our hands back in the ground.
I heard Spring this morning in the chirps of the sideyard sparrows and singing wrens. In the sweet call of the bright red cardinal that’s made its way back to our tree. Or maybe it never flew south at all, just huddled in the cracks between roof shingles on the coachhouse, waiting out winter’s loose handful of flurries.
I heard Spring in the sounds of waking up, sounds drifting up from one floor down. A deadbolt’s loud clunk and the squeal of a back door creaking open: hopeful neighbors testing the air to see if it’s warm enough for the season’s first porch-bound beer.
I felt Spring in the sliver of warm light that slipped through the gap in my bedroom curtains. Resting on my face, incrementally earlier and stronger than the morning before. In the mild dash of wind that slid through my jacket zipper while waiting on the train platform high above Fullerton Avenue. In the marked increase of humidity in the air, and the unfamiliar touch of dew that leaped from greening grass and soaked through unsealed boot gussets.
The way it usually goes in Chicago is: Spring feels very far away for a long time. You walk through the entirety of winter, nose buried behind scarf and collar, eyes locked to the space directly in front of you. You whine for warmth, but you don’t dare look for it on the ground and in the trees. Until one day, it’s suddenly just there. A green leaf poking up from beneath withered mulch. A spray of purple growth on an old yellow lawn. A pop of color where there once was none. An open door.
Soon there will be bright green tree flowers hovering high overhead, creamy magnolia blossoms, and long legged tulips. We’ll bask in the sudden abundance with feasts of snow peas garlic scapes asparagus fava beans ramps. Leaves of every shape and size and texture will push through hardened bark and twist and turn toward the sun. Bulky raindrops will announce their arrival with heavy taps at double-paned glass, searching wildly for roots to wet.
But for now, we’re just at the beginning. And I’m enjoying our early Spring with as many senses as I can.
If we hurried, I could see it
before it closed to contemplate
Hand in hand, we entered
the light-spattered morning-dark woods.
Where he pointed was only a white flower
until I saw him seeing it.
from “Ruellia Noctiflora” by Marilyn Nelson
Poems can be tough. I remember in grade school we all thrilled when our teachers introduced a unit on poetry, expecting the work to be quick and the homework painless. But we quickly discovered poems to be self-sustaining universes; each line its own world, each word a city block with millions of possible meanings.
In “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry” editor Camille T. Dungy has invited readers to reconsider the anatomy of the nature poem, and to reconsider the cultural and ethnic makeup of that poem’s author. Since being brought to the new world, Africans and African Americans have cultivated a unique, complex, and often fraught relationship with the land. These poems shed light on the pain and the reality of that history. And they also celebrate it, observing the beauty of the Earth, and our own beauty within it. Even works written from the city dweller’s perspective sound and feel different when read through nature’s lens.
The collection is organized into ten thematic cycles, each introduced with an essay written by one of the anthology’s represented poets. Themes include observation (the elements of the Earth, the beauty of living beings, finding ourselves in nature), confrontation (what happens when the land turns its back on you, natural disasters, and violence bestowed on us in this place), and reconciliation (largely embodied in the gorgeous-from-start-to-finish section titled “Comes Always Spring”).
The poems are beautiful. Some are angry and difficult. Most demand multiple reads — if not for comprehension, then for wanting to be enveloped just one more time. Each poem opens up its writer’s world, just a little, inviting you in to find yourself and your own experience between the line breaks and punctuation. As poems, they are evocative and insightful. As nature poems, they are gloriously visual and sensual. As black nature poems, they are all of the above, as well as indicative of our particular experiences as keepers, stewards, and inhabitants of this land.
My favorite aspect of the collection was the conversation each cycle of poems opened up between the pages and generations. The sections aren’t organized chronologically, so words written in the 18th and 19th centuries, by men and women born into slavery, share space with pieces written just in the past decade. As the book unfolds, the reader can’t help but gain a clearer understanding of the depth and history of our relationship to the Earth, discovering that even as time may pass, many things have stayed the same for us. Fascination with the world’s wild species. Fear of nature’s wrath, and the wrath of those we may encounter within it. Pride in the land, and pride in our own resilience. And joy and delight in the inevitable return of Spring.
This is a wonderful collection, one that I devoured during my daily commutes, saving me from myself during so many furious, traffic-bound bus rides. It introduced me to writers I hadn’t heard of, and reminded me of writers I’ve been wanting to return to. It also introduced me to myself, to a tradition that I’m clearly part of, to a legacy of listening to and learning from the Earth. A legacy that stretches far beyond me in both directions.
At one of my previous jobs, when I needed to escape I would cross the street and go to the bookstore. My boss and I would sometimes claim we went there to do research, or tell each other we were going to refresh and be inspired. More often than not, we were just going there to get away. When the cubicle walls felt too close, the fluorescent lights too harsh, the coworkers too demanding or out of touch, there was the bookstore.
I eventually left that job and, soon after, that bookstore went out of business. But the need to escape remains. So I walk through the park. I usually do it in the morning, when I’m feeling hopeful and there’s still some brightness in the sky. Some days I do it in the late afternoon when the minutes are moving at half their usual speed and the sun, hidden behind thick cloud cover, speeds toward the horizon. I do the walk everyday, and I let the shadows and colors and textures distract me. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always there, and it’s always changing.
On the coldest days, the ground is as hard as pavement, indistinguishable from sidewalk or igneous rock. It’s a quiet trek, occasionally sprinkled with the darting eyes and hurried hellos of passing strangers. The abrasive rhythm of snow crunching underfoot crowds out the motorized whizz of cars and the hiss of the kneeling Montrose bus. Cloudy rings of bright blue ice gleam, surrounded by thinned patches of yellowing grass.
When a thaw moves in, solid ground that’s pitched and angled from last week’s frozen footsteps starts to give again. Tiny chunks of dirt and slush clump and creak beneath heavy steps. Bunches of shredded leaves huddle near wide tree trunks, the weak brown shards crushed flat under the speckled sun. The great green gazebo spreads wide its shadow over broad drifts of snow.
As the weather turns briefly, blindly toward spring, the field becomes an obstacle course. The rain comes, the ground swells with water, and the dirt puffs up into mud. Animals return to drink, and search for food. I tread lightly over rooted sod, careful not to step too hard and twist it clean from the earth. Floor-bound nests of fallen twigs support my weight and keep me from sinking ankle deep into black sludge, my rubber soles sucking against the wet earth with each step.
And the next day, the freeze returns. The melt, once again, hardened into solid crystal.
Instead of thinking about the cubicle walls or the fluorescent lights, these walks keep me in real time, reacting with and against the landscape. I’m learning why some people hike the same trails year after year, this small stretch of public park as my teacher. Even near a tangle of busy intersections, among the roar of traffic and constant construction, I can hear the earth breathe. I can see it sigh.
One day soon, we’ll turn toward the sun and the land will open up to welcome a new season. It will push up new sprouts and nurture them on their way to becoming great trees. It will embrace the eager picnickers who rest in new grass and pull corks from chilled green bottles of white. But the park, even in winter, shows me something new. It shows me that change doesn’t have to wait until spring. I walk by it everyday.
Welles Park is a big, beautiful park located in Lincoln Square on the northwest side of the city. Summer brings giant, lush fields (often filled with hundreds of summer camp kids). In winter, it’s much emptier and the perfect place for quiet and contemplation. It’s well worth a visit any time of year.