Nature Encounter

Posted: October 15, 2011 in Environment, Health, Idle Nonsense

I visited The River Trail Nature Center and grounds recently in Glenview, Illinois, which is part of the larger Forest Preserve District of Cook County serving the City of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. A similar forest preserve district is located in Lake County just to the north. Cook County maintains an impressive network of public parks and forest preserves, many situated along Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the Des Plaines River, though I only infrequently venture into a forest preserve except when I’m driving somewhere in my car and must traverse one. Another recent day, I rode my bike on a path through the Caldwell Woods, which follows alongside the Des Plaines River. I used to ride the lake shore bike path (along Lake Michigan) quite a bit, but it’s in some ways a victim of its own success and now too crowded with people and traffic. Now I ride mostly city streets. Both of these recent experiences made curious impressions on me.

The first felt strangely artificial, as though the woods had been emptied out and sanitized for suburbanites with delicate sensibilities — people who want to be out in nature without truly encountering it. Signage warned (among other things) not to stray off the gravel paths, not to jog, and not to stay out after sunset. Sounds of passing traffic (from just beyond the grounds) intruded into the otherwise serene landscape. The Nature Center itself was a little like a radically abbreviated zoo, with its educational services thrust, child friendliness, and gawker’s sensibility: signs and pictures identified flora and fauna with clinical accuracy but only questionable relevance or intrinsic interest.

The second was a joy. The leaves had changed and begun to fall, which provided welcome sights and smells of the season. It still being Indian summer in Chicago, I raced and sweated through about 16 miles of trail, pausing at street and train crossings. Although the Caldwell Woods are situated within Chicago proper (at the southern end) and have mown grass and asphalt paths, they felt somehow less empty, less artificial than the Glenview forest preserve. I even rode past (a family of?) four deer, who were entirely unperturbed by the bicyclists speeding by.

I have commented to family and friends that Chicago is a concrete city (and brick, glass, and steel). There is precious little lawn space other than in the parks, and whenever I drive beyond the city and suburbs, I always appreciate the sense of leaving behind the city’s population density, self-conscious architecture, and clogged urban transportation infrastructure. So venturing into the woods, even those set aside specifically for our use, felt worthwhile. Still, walking and riding the paths was a far cry from tramping truly wild woods as I did when I was a Boy Scout many years ago.

Estrangement and alienation from nature are frequent themes discussed in many of the books, articles, and blogs I read. Like more than 90% of Americans, I’m an urban dweller. Only 110 years ago, more than 90% of Americans resided outside of cities and were agrarian. Connections to nature and its processes were automatic and inevitable; almost no one would have thought to “visit nature” because they already lived there. Similarly, almost no one would have gone to a gym for a workout because their lives were already full of physical activity and labor that kept them fit and active. Combining them (as with trail riding or golfing in tamed and coiffed versions of nature) is even better. That we now do both and consider it normal and desirable as a retreat from the difficulty of our modern lives is not a marker of healthy adaptation to our environment — for me no less than others. The fact that I could even have such curious impressions in encounters with nature demonstrates, however, how adapted I am to urban life despite being aware of a different sort of world beckoning.

  1. halsmith says:

    When I grew up in rural Illinois we considered Chicago a den of iniquity – and no doubt Chicago worked at living up to its reputation. We had no interest in the culture available to urban dwellers, and were as ignorant as cave-men.

    Later, when I had an airplane, I used to fly over Chicago and marvel at the mess down there – from horizon to horizon.

    What we did to our vast forests and prairies anywhere east of the Rockies, was a national disgrace. And we are now paying for it.

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