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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Urban Nature: Not An Oxymoron

I’ve been teaching nature writing for close to 30 years now, with most of the classes and workshops focused on our experience of nature in deeply urban areas, including Chicago. This is in direct contrast to how the form came to be, especially as the persistent and central theme in most nature writing has been nature as antidote to civilization—i.e., city living.

In fact, the nature essay historically has inveighed against the city, describing instead those places where man is minimally resident or absent altogether.  Though the tradition can be traced back to Plato, American nature writing found its voice with Thoreau and his lone excursions into the New England woods. 

And for the next 100 years or so, the genre continued to steer clear of dense human habitations.  John Muir had his mountains, Ed Abbey his deserts, and Sigurd Olson the stark beauty of Northern Minnesota.  Annie Dillard brought us a bit closer to home with her award-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974. 

But urban nature writing—essays and poems that capture the experience of wildness in the city—has finally found its way into the canon.  And not everyone is happy about that.  For some, this newcomer is an obnoxious invader that has jumped the fence and threatens native species. 

Those of us who welcome its arrival, however, see urban nature writing more like Coyote, the wily opportunist who follows his human hosts into their encampments and finds sustenance. And we know that Coyote must work hard for his efforts—harder than he might out in the vast emptiness, where the pickins may be greater and in full view. 

So it is with those who write about nature through the din and thrum of cities.  They grow keener eyed, sharper eared, and more grateful for the quick glimpses of blue herons, graveyard fox families, the prairie flowers along the commuter rail tracks.  They find meaning in nature with a small “N”:  tales of wild animals scurrying through their backyards; wounded geese rescued from rush hour traffic; migrating birds negotiating downtown high-rises. 

Mostly though, urban nature writers reveal the rich complexity of the nature/culture intersection, helping us to see both ourselves and nature with new eyes. If that possibility interests you, please consider joining my latest Newberry Library workshop The City in Nature: Tales from the Urban Wild that meets on Saturday, June 3.

Click here for more info: https://www.newberry.org/S17CityNature



Friday, May 12, 2017

The Lure of the Real

I’m writing this post—longhand and on yellow lined paper—sitting on a bench just feet from the Indian Boundary Park Lagoon in West Ridge. It’s 2:30 pm on a sunny, 60-degree Thursday and I’ve just watched eight fluffy ducklings follow their mother under the wrought iron fence surrounding the lagoon and into the water. Hesitating at first, the eight finally screwed up their duckling courage and, one by one, made the leap.

My own recent leap—not quite as dramatic—has been of a more technological nature. Since moving in with my friend HJ three weeks ago—what she describes as my “staycation between leases”—I’m no longer online at home, opting not to continue with my previous Internet provider in this new place.

For the past three weeks now, I leave the house, usually in the afternoon or early evening, and haul my Mac over to the local Starbucks or library, both within easy walking or biking distance. There, I sit, mostly sending and responding to emails and, of course, writing.

But something in this daily routine changed this past week: on Sunday, I didn’t go online at all. And today it’s looking like I’ll be doing the same. Instead, I’m sitting outside in a park watching baby ducks and writing with a blue pen on yellow paper. A bit old school, I’d venture, perhaps even old, old school.

I start out my mornings at Indian Boundary, and I’m not alone. As I walk the many paths that wind through the park, I see my fellow regulars, mostly adults, some my age, and we smile and wave as we pass each other. Blessedly there are no earnest joggers or cyclists to take refuge from, to break the rhythm of an easy ramble among the park’s more natural areas: the Neighbors Garden, the Native Landscape Restoration Project, and my personal fave, the Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary. It’s in these particular places that my five senses are overwhelmed with the sweet sight, smell and sound of spring: those bird calls and flowers—especially the purple and yellow ones—that announce this annual re-birth.

This leap—from less of the virtual to more of the real—has been seamless, surprising even me, let alone all of my colleagues and friends, each rather shocked that I’ve made it. Gradually I’ve been telling each of them to text or call me on my old lady flip phone if they need to reach me right away. To a person, they’re all smart-phoned, which of course expands their virtual universe well into the 21st century, causing exasperation that I’ve opted to lag behind in the 20th. Maybe even in the mid-20th.


But truth is I kind of like it back here. Not being bound so constantly, so utterly to the virtual makes my experience of this world—especially the sensual world of Indian Boundary Park—seem all the more miraculous.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Gratitude List

For anyone planning to move soon, especially if you are of a certain age, before making your multi-page to-do list, may I suggest starting instead with a gratitude list? Trust me, you’ll need it to get you through the thornier and more tedious parts of the process.

I moved last Thursday and literally counted down the days, then hours, before the movers arrived. There were many reasons for this, most having to do with the actual apartment I was living in.

In fact, the landlord had early on acknowledged the problems therein, enough to reduce my rent for almost half of the seven months I lived there. So, my gratitude list would certainly include that. Plus these:

--The places I could escape to work while living in that apartment, starting back in January: Starbucks, public libraries, the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, Whole Foods in Edgewater;

--Jeff at Bookends & Beginnings Bookstore in Evanston who came and picked up my eight cartons of donated books back in March;

--The small tap room in the back of Cardinal Wine & Spirits in Lincoln Square, including Bob & Herman, the evening bartenders, and all the regulars who were welcoming to me, a relative newbie;

--Gene’s Sausage Shop & Deli in Lincoln Square where I got the great sandwiches to go with my beers on those nights I hung at Cardinal;

--those neighbors from my former neighborhood in West Rogers Park—to where I was returning—enthusiastically welcoming me back even before I officially arrived last week;

--those sunny, warm days in early April when I sat in Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square and watched all the little kids run around, laughing, chasing each other, falling down and getting up with smiles still on their faces;

--St. Gert’s church in Edgewater, which kept me relatively grounded as I made my way through the sorting/recycling/packing process that began in March;

--and, of course, Valencia and Ramiro, my movers who arrived two hours early last Thursday to move me.

There’s much more to be added to the list, of course, including that I am blessedly back where I belong.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Those Irish Eyes Really Did Smile

A former landlord died recently—at 89, in his sleep, while on a cruise. Some might say this is the winning trifecta of how we’d all like to go. But for those who mourn him—his wife of 66 years; his five children, 17 grand- and 7 great-grandchildren; the many friends, workmates, neighbors, fellow parishioners; and me, his one-time tenant—one very bright light has been dimmed.

John—born in County Mayo, his brogue still prominent—and his wife, Noreen, first generation Irish—owned a lovely two flat with a garden apartment in West Rogers Park. It was a family occupied building and I felt like an extended part of that family not long after moving into the downstairs apartment in 2012.

John, with his easy friendliness and perpetually smiling face—a good word for everyone he met on his long walks around the neighborhood—certainly had something to do with that. As did Noreen and their kids and grands and various tail-wagging dogs. I was invited to their holiday parties and back porch summer parties and given vegetables they’d grown in their backyard garden.

But I grew restless in my slightly subterranean apartment, my outside views—except for the front room bay windows—narrowing as I moved through to the bedroom, to the kitchen, to the bathroom. And I wasn’t crazy that my back door led directly into their basement. Or that I wasn’t welcomed to use their basement washer and drier, instead having to schlep my dirty laundry up the street to the nearby Laundromat.

But, from the distance of these past five years, these are mere quibbles, especially given all that was good and worthy about my landlords, the building, the many neighbors I grew to know while living there.

Truth is, I was driven to move by my hopes of returning to a parallel universe, one where I could still afford to rent a place in Chicago that was near the “L,” especially the Red or Brown lines. I hadn’t yet accepted that those days were gone and not likely to return.

At John’s wake and funeral last week, while deeply embracing his grieving family and neighbors, I was again reminded of the real sense of community I felt while living in that the West Rogers Park neighborhood, truly regretful that I’d ever left.


But sometimes we’re given second chances, can even go home again—which is what I’ll be doing next week, when I move back to the neighborhood. And while it saddens me to know that I won’t be seeing John’s radiant smile as I walk past his house, he will forever live in my memory, including those moments of the many ways he made me feel so welcome there.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Acting Locally

Like many people after The Odious Orange One was elected, I took to the streets, marching in the Chicago Women’s March, joining thousands of like-minded spirits on a gloriously spring-like day in January.

I knew there’d be more of these marches—and for a range of causes—and anticipated I’d be joining those as well. For starters, there’s plenty of information about these gatherings on my Facebook page: dates/times/places/themes.

But though I’ve put several of the marches on my calendar, I’ve yet to make it to any of them. I keep getting diverted by several local issues and causes, including the one nearest and dearest to my aging heart: affordable housing, including for seniors.

And so it was that I found myself at a meeting last Friday hosted by the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, one specifically focused on affordable housing. I was so inspired by the presentation that I signed on to volunteer for two of their current campaigns, including “Keeping the Promise.”

But first, from their website, by way of introduction, here is the organization’s Mission Statement:

Jane Addams Senior Caucus is a multiracial, grassroots organization led by concerned seniors in the Chicago metropolitan area. We cross neighborhood, racial, religious and socio-economic lines to find common ground upon which to act on our values. Through leadership development, organizing and popular education, we use the power of our collective voice to work for economic, social and racial justice for all seniors and our communities.

Jane Addams Senior Caucus has over 500 members from diverse backgrounds fighting for social justice. We know that seniors are valuable to our community and that seniors coming together can improve their lives and be active in civic life.

The issues we work on come from the concerns of our members. Presently, we are working on a wide range of issues, including affordable housing creation and preservation, retirement security, voter registration and Get Out The Vote, and progressive state revenue.

Now anyone who’s followed this blog knows that one particular sentence in the Statement (which I’ve italicized) resonates with me, particularly as it speaks against ageism and for continued involvement in public life as we age.

As for that campaign I joined? Click on the link below to learn more about it. Then click on Campaigns and Housing. And maybe consider joining me on it, ok?