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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.

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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.