Sunday, October 10, 2010

Walking In the Woods With Megan

A rare day. 10-10-10, duly noted. Add to this the idyllic weather. The last week here in Chicago has been poured from a rare vintage of early October. Crayola blue skies, a sun far less steeped in its summer humidity and a sudden storm of dry, crunchy leaves flaming out in burnt oranges, pear-like yellows and occasional rockets of red. Stunning.

There's a lot of green still up in the canopy
, though the last week has seen a riot of new colors making appearances-- and there's no real mistaking Earth's particular tilt right about now and the bummer of a meteorological predicament this inevitably puts the Midwest in. The trees are losing their hair, those bushy green heads are being shed in preparation for winter's hard bargain. It's a tough yoke to hitch up to each autumn, knowing what's coming.

But sometimes when we're lucky, like we have been this year, we get a visit from Indian Summer. A fond farewell to the temperate, to open windows and bare feet. It's bittersweet, sure, but
lovely, too, with summer coming back to visit us in early October. It's almost too much!

Cathy and I took the girls over to the 19th Annual Harvest Festival at the North Park Village Nature Center where we met up with friends and enjoyed lunch in a shady spot packed
with a convenient cluster of picnic benches. It was here I ate too many Lays potato chips with very little regret.

After lunch, I took a walk with Meg. While Cathy, Abby and our friends were busy making scarecrows ("some assembly required"), I trailed my fierce little girl as she burned a path along one of the Nature Center's many kick-ass trails.

(Right): This is Megan launching our adventure. As you can see, she began in this inflated little walk she's been doing of late. She lifts her legs up high and stomps them out wide, taking big lumbering steps. It's a determined little walk and very sure of itself.

(Left): The path's at the Nature Center are well groomed with woodchips and gravel though they've done an amazing job of creating within its 46 acres something that feels completely of itself. Some think of nature preserves like this as havens, respites from the stresses of modern urbanity though I'm less interested in perpetuating the "historic opposition between things urban and things natural" then I am in recognizing that "cities are fundamentally embedded in natural environments." Part of what makes a preserve like this so special, I think, is the urbanity of its context, that such an expanse of protected/managed preserve exists in such close proximity to the urban areas built up around it. In any case, Megan's face here is all business.

(Below): Meg climbed a hill. It was warm (mid 80's), dry and quiet and she was thrilled to be leading the charge. Was this the swell of fatherly pride stirring in my breast? Well, when isn't that being stirred up? My fierce little Meg charging up the hill while I followed, a stupid grin on my face as I cheered her on and compulsively snapped pictures.

(Right): I like the horizon tree tops and blue sky in this picture, how it captures the impressive expanses the North Park preserve contains in its confines. It's definitely a showcase, a well groomed outdoor museum highlighting the ecological diversity that once dominated the landscape of Illinois as recently as a couple hundred years ago, just as it had for thousands of years prior. Then, of course, lots of folks arrived and got the bug to settle throughout the state and either farm the hell out of it or industrialize! The landscape changed. As Joel Greenberg wrote in his fantastic A Natural History of the Chicago Region, the formally "seamless mosaic of waters, wetlands, prairies, shrublands, and woods" were overcome by a new force, "one with the power to impose upon the landscape a uniformity that is now virtually complete." And so we lost our natural heritage.

(Left): The trail Megan took eventually led us to marshlands with lily pads clustering lazily on the pond's surface. According to Greenberg, Illinois has lost roughly 95 percent of its original wetlands to the forces of modernity. Flooding, of which the Chicago region enjoys its unfortunate share, is one unfortunate manifestations of this loss. Greenberg tellingly writes, "it matters not not to water whether the lowest point on the landsccape is a marsh or a basement."

I held Meg's hand and had a Rainbow Connection moment. I imagined a scenario where I contacted the Park District with a proposal for an outdoor soundscape exhibit examining bucolic landscapes like this by offering sonic examples of their place in popular culture. Well, cinema in particular. I liked the challenge of remixing various elements from the sound designs of dozens of films set in similar settings and letting them mingle with the areas actual acoustics for a couple hours over the course of a few nights. A sonic happening with all-weather speakers tactfully hidden throughout the area. Maybe somewhere in mix you'd hear the opening plucks of Kermit's mellow banjo among other cultural signifiers. I'd get a grant to do it, right?

(Right): This was about where Meg ran out of gas. It was hot, she'd been fighting a big wallop of a cold like a champ all week and I think she suddenly concluded being trail leader was no longer all that cool.

(Right): So I took my little Meg up in my left arm. I said the right words to put an end to errant tears and lead her back to Mom because that's what my girl needed. On the way back to Mom we talked about what we were seeing and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the easy serendipity of it all--of Cathy giving her full attention to Abby and the making of a scarecrow while Meg and I drifted off for an amazing half-hour walk through the preserve before joining up with them again. It felt like a well-oiled little family. It felt lucky and on days like this I'm filled with simple familial joys again and again until I'm brimming. Domesticity never felt so right or so close to perfect, both charmed and fragile.