Three walks in the woods | Essay | Chicago Reader

Three walks in the woods 

The Forest Preserves of Cook County, which cover 70,000 acres, are an inexhaustible source of social-distance-compliant space.

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click to enlarge ZACH MORTICE
  • Zach Mortice

There's an overpass hill that arches Lake Shore Drive over Foster Avenue where we could make camp and inflate the beach ball and spread out our snacks. It's a space I've walked and driven by hundreds of times without a glance or a thought, but my four-year-old daughter Lena and I settle in. She runs for miles across the hill, spending hours picking through pinecones and leaves, and generally, blessedly, having no idea what is going on in the world. She does ask about the tent on the hill opposite the road, a small homeless encampment, and a reminder (never far away in Chicago) that there are new and terrible worlds of deprivation and precarity this pandemic is unleashing on those least able to deal with it. Police drive by in loops.

Yesterday, the mayor saw too many people at the beaches downtown and on the 606, tempted by a whisper of spring, and closed the lakefront trail and beaches. We were shooed away by police stationed on Foster Beach on the far north side, a few blocks from our apartment, a walk-up I've lately taken to calling "The Seven Rooms." So getting outside during a time like this is as critical as groceries or our decontamination checklists.

From birth, I've taught my daughter that Lake Michigan is her lake, literally and figuratively, just as her home is her home. All our basic and material and safety needs are met while so many are losing theirs. But our world has been upended nonetheless, so being severed from the lake gives us both permission to express how terrible we feel, and by the time we set up camp on the overpass hill we're both crying. My attention is so shredded from being a person with professional responsibilities, a parent, and a human being all at the same time, all of the time, that the only thing I can focus on is the pooling ocean of dread that rushed under the door when I was told it was a threshold I shouldn't cross.

During the day, it's screen time for everyone—video conferences for me and my wife, Disney+ for Lena. We have the kinds of jobs that allow us distance from people and proximity to leisurely experiences of nature, so we marinate in guilty sympathy for those without these privileges, especially when we have a moment of quiet reflection outdoors. In the evenings I'm a committed lakeshore jogger, so I'm in need of new rituals here as well. I numbly jog to a friend's apartment, hoping to get a wave from the window. But I find I like the change of scenery. There's a wider variety of textures and forms for my quarantined mind to grab onto than along the hypnotic expanse of Lake Michigan. I can track Chicago architecture house by house and apartment by apartment: four-square, bungalow, Craftsman, courtyard apartment, and a few faded Prairie-style photocopies. Through the inland edge between Edgewater and Uptown, it's mostly small apartment buildings and too-large houses, stately and comfortable, and seemingly a world away from my corner of Uptown, near the Argyle strip of businesses founded by Southeast Asian immigrants that I fully expect to be decimated by the oncoming recession. This route is soothing, like a birder returning to their favorite marsh, a hobby I think I'll eventually be forced to take up. I also keep seeing otherworldly pinkish and purple lights from attic windows and English basement apertures, which I guess to be cannabis grow lights. The smell of marijuana, apparent through a face mask, pops up on most runs.

I'm trying to build an entire subgenre of parenting I explain as "forest adventures," and that brings us to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which cover 70,000 acres, good for 11 percent of Cook County's total area; an inexhaustible source of social-distance-compliant space. It all seems mandatory, given how terrible we feel and treat each other when we don't get outside.

On a Sunday, we go to LaBagh Woods, a spot along the Chicago River deep in the bungalow belt, where the water meanders and the illusion of wildness persists. Trails run along the river, near enough for Lena to chuck a rock into the water and squeal at the resounding victory when it splashes down, and through a marsh, on the lookout for ducks paddling in ponds. (We find a few.) It's crowded, but people are meticulous about social distancing, orbiting each other like planets, always smiling, whether they're wearing face masks or not, warm eyes and well-wishes. I wonder if there are more people here than at the Chicago Riverwalk downtown (which will eventually be closed by mayoral fiat), the river's concrete-entombed terminus into the lake. It's brutal trying to get Lena engaged—she's crying, whining, and looking to make deal. I offer some fruit snacks so that she'll allow me to put on her socks. (Part of the deal was riding in the car sockless.) Then she sees the water. It's hypnotic and magnetic and seizes her attention, becoming a forum for imagination, somewhere far from here. The layers of graffiti on concrete retaining walls don't break the illusion. We hide from monsters and she splashes in mud. She goes first. I follow behind.

In a few weeks, the parking lot at LaBagh Woods will be closed on weekends, to limit use after forest preserve staff saw levels of crowding that made them nervous. Since the crisis began, the Forest Preserves have been forced into a paradox: the need to close some of their most used and beloved places when they're needed most. Carl Vogel, the director of communications for the Forest Preserves, says they've tried to be as judicious as possible, deputizing much of their office staff (including himself) in addition to added patrols from forest preserve police to look for levels of congestion in violation of social distancing. They've closed nature centers, a half-dozen parking lots on weekends, and signature spots like the Swallow Cliff Fitness Stairs. "We're trying to tailor our closures and limitations based on what we're seeing, rather than some kind of blanket way of going." They've canceled trout stocking for anglers at five lakes ("People line up on the first day or two," Vogel says) and essentially all programming.

As the weather warms, it's hard to imagine we've seen the last of the closures. Vogel says they're seeing "unprecedented" numbers of people in the preserves for this time of year; another staffer compared it to peak summer season, like the fourth of July weekend. Week after week, the number of hits on their website breaks records. The forest preserves have become a place for freaked-out Chicagoans to put themselves back together. There's an old landscape architecture maxim by a progenitor of the discipline, Frederick Law Olmsted, who called urban parks "the lungs of the city." Right now, these places might be something a bit less dignified and forthright, but no less critical. These shaggy woods are more like a liver, a filter organ for purging toxic anxiety.

A week later, we drive further to Eggers Grove along the Indiana border, a patch of swampy forest and trails bordering a pond. We don't see another soul, and the weather is terrible—a flat, grey early spring haze, mid-40s, ceaseless wind, ground soaked from rain. But in the forest, the wind is buffered, and you can hear the waterfowl: gulls, herons, ducks, and Canada Geese. I get the sense that it's a place that shines best in the early morning with the birds' dawn chorus, or late at night, judging from all the discarded Modelo cans and the swamp's potential for Gothic intrigue. I flip over logs to reveal worms and pillbugs and talk about how wood becomes dirt. My feigned interest becomes real, and plugs me back into my own childhood. We've brought a decent picnic snack spread and get to work. Lena, who has never been cold in her life, picks through Goldfish crackers without mittens, wrapping herself in a blanket as a superhero cape and reveling in the elemental enclosure of the woods. My wife comes along, but it's not her thing. Forest adventures are going to be a dad and daughter thing. That's fine.

On another Sunday, we drive even further south, to Calumet Woods and to the Little Calumet River. The drive there is warehouses and railyards and otherwise anonymous (to me) stretches of green, like much of the far south side and Calumet River corridor. It's a section of Chicago that's the most essential (and still enigmatic) to what the city is, or was: lakes connected to rivers connected to industry. We pad through mud and sticks down to the water. The river's banks are covered in bright velvety green, punctuated by miniature daffodils. You can hear the grinding and squealing of freight trains servicing the warehouse district we drove through to get here, but it's all absurdly beautiful. I realize it's ten degrees warmer than it was in the parking lot. Lena wants to make camp immediately, and it's Huck Finn vibes from here on out. The river has a vital and steady current that she's drawn to. She's talking to ants crawling over flowers and picking out magic wands. "This is the best place ever," she tells me as she takes off her shoes. "I'm just living my life."

As the weeks crawl along, knowledge of these places seems like an act of self-preservation. It's not so much to indulge my doomer survivalist excesses (I'm useless without a smartphone anyway), but these are venues to gather restorative experiences of nature, with the knowledge that they will change over time even as the pandemic drags on, keeping us in our homes, in stasis. I want to come back to see how many more miniature daffodils will bloom come June. I want to see what emerges from the red buds on the tree I don't recognize. I want to hear what a river breeze sounds like when it rustles through summer foliage on this exact spot on Earth, near where so many people and things I love are. When we're not having our concentration shattered by the loss of routine and, I fear, the future, our thoughts have to slow down, so much so that they match the kaleidoscope of the seasons and of the land.   v

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