“…[A]s to scenery (giving my own thought and feeling), while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and the Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape…Indeed through the whole of this journey, with all its shows and varieties, what most impress’d me, and will longest remain with me, are these same prairies. Day after day, and night after night, to my eyes, to all my senses—the esthetic one most of all—they silently and broadly unfolded. Even their simplest statistics are sublime.”
– Walt Whitman, “America’s Characteristic Landscape,” from Specimen Days
When nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman observed the prairies that cover Illinois and the West, he understood their true beauty after seeing their mountainous opposite. Growing up in the Prairie State, I never even realized Illinois was flat. Grasslands and sheets of corn were not anomalies, but the quilt on which my life had stretched its arms. Only when I moved to hilly Connecticut did I begin to realize, appreciate, and miss the flatness of Illinois and her open fields, where the sky threatens to swallow the land. Like a Whitman fresh from Yellowstone, I returned to the prairie with a recharged love for the fields that unfolded around me and re-folded to tuck me in.
Chicago’s skyscrapers are not flat, but the wonder of the city is its proximity to nature. I’ve had to travel home several times this summer—for appointments, weddings—and all I need to do is board a bus to Rockford that runs seven days a week, once every hour at peak times. As we head West on I-90, some invisible palm must come from the sky and slowly pat the playdough of buildings until there are no longer lumps, but a continuing smoothness in all directions. Even before the landscape opens up, the bus passes a herons’ rookery, and deer bounce beside the highway. Then, fields.
This past weekend alone, I saw two young toads, a pair of lemon-yellow goldfinches, and a bald eagle in my wooded backyard. It can be a welcome relief to hear cardinals’ chirps replace the whir of sirens. Come nighttime, we often sit on the deck and hear twigs crack under the weight of some unknown creature: A raccoon? A fox? The illusory mountain lion?
My nature respites at home sometimes seem a world apart from my urban summer residence. But there’s a danger in thinking of nature as only some remote, separate getaway, for it can be found within a city as well. Metallic Millennium Park paradoxically evokes the prairie with the expanse of its Great Lawn and the pockets of sky visible through the criss-cross ceiling. Millennium Park literally evokes the prairie if you visit Lurie Garden behind it, where over 5 acres of grasslands create a plains oasis in the heart of the city. It’s a world of contrast, in which the height of the skyscrapers does not diminish, but rather, magnifies the beauty of the Meadow Sage beneath it.
The Chicago Park District lists a number of Nature Areas on its website, including gardens for the eyes and nose, wetlands and lagoons, and bird sanctuaries for the inner ornithologist in everyone. The Chicago Wilderness alliance devotes itself to protecting the area’s natural treasures, all the while connecting people with nature and working toward correcting climate change. And, if you can reach a high enough vantage point, you’ll learn of all the green roofs throughout Chicago. In this city, nature doesn’t disappear; it’s right here.
Interested in reading more? Check out William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, or Of Prairie, Woods, & Water, edited by Joel Greenberg.
Thanks to juggernautco for the photograph.
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