Some people look at a big city and bemoan what is absent: wide open spaces, lush greenery, uninterrupted expanses of trees, spacious sky views.
I see the city for what it is—the bustling people, the huddled edifices, the constant hum of traffic punctuated by jets descending toward O’Hare, the dirty snow—but I take notice of the beauty and peacefulness it also contains.
Last week I spotted a new squirrel’s nest, a clutch of brown leaves nestled in the crook of a small elm tree in my back yard. Behind it is the back of a four-story building, the common brick dingy with age. Below it, there’s a chain-link fence and blacktop; just above it, utility wires. But from its nest, the squirrel can also see a mulberry tree, a maple, and many more small elms. In November, one of the elms still had green leaves; one bore yellow leaves; the others were bare. Above them all, framed by the neighboring buildings, we can see the blue sky, the clouds, the dark night sky—once, a lunar eclipse.
The bird species seen most commonly in my neighborhood would impress no birder: mostly sparrows and starlings, a few raucous crows, the occasional cardinal. But last month, I saw a robin (they don’t all hide out until spring). A broken water pipe seeps water, forming a streaming puddle oasis on a snowy hill. The robin was loitering beside the water, borrowing its relative warmth.
In warmer weather, even the most routine walk with a child becomes an impromptu nature trek. Here’s an anthill in the sidewalk crack, teeming with life. Over there, bees and butterflies paying their social calls to the flowers awaiting their pollinators. Squat down to pull a few weeds in the front yard’s groundcover and discover daddy longlegs, small spiders, earthworms, slugs. Pass under a fruiting mulberry tree, pull down a branch, and share some richly sweet, sun-warmed berries with your child.
Nearby, Lake Michigan offers rhythmic waves, swooping gulls and swifts, dragonflies, and deep green, swooshing algae. We seldom spy fish swimming by unless we linger at the harbor’s edge; sometimes the smell of dead fish wafts by, and that too is nature. The sound of the lapping waves, the coolness of the breezes, the endless blue horizon.
The nearness of the lake gives regular lessons in microclimate. When a warm day mingles with the cool water, it’s often a good 15 degrees cooler within a few blocks of the lake; every few years, the extremely localized weather conditions consist of dense, cool fog along the lakeshore when it’s warm and sunny less than a mile west. During the winter, the nights are warmer close to the lake.
Today, it’s uncharacteristically warm (near 40 degrees) and rainy for January. Low clouds or high fog obscured my view of a nearby highrise. Forty miles away, without a 50-story building as a backdrop, would I be able to see the dramatically low clouds and understand how close to the ground they wafted?
I love nature. But I feel so at home in my urban environment that I can’t imagine living where the mountains were designed by orogeny rather than architects and engineers. Nature will always insist on cracking the civilized façade, however, and even the most densely populated neighborhood must make room for the birds, the bugs, the sky, the breeze.