Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The beauty within the city

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 fa├žade, however, and even the most densely populated neighborhood must make room for the birds, the bugs, the sky, the breeze.


DoctorMama said...

You know some serious words, woman.

Anonymous said...

You make me yearn for my former city digs...I miss it so much. There's nothing like the energy in the city and finding the nature in it is all the more precious. Thanks Orange!

Mignon said...

Orange, that was beautiful. I love how observant, mindful people find and appreciate nature wherever they look. In Montana, we all take it for granted, of course. My yard is full of deer crap and my husband is outside right now pulling in the garbage cans so the bears don't get into them again. But do I appreciate it? No. I blog about how great malls are. Thanks for snapping me to attention.

Delia Christina said...

wow. i bow to your massive vocabulary.

The Un-Apologetic Atheist said...

Well you know how the professional environmentalist feels about it... our "cities" are paved squares ON TOP OF the former homes of those animals. I do get a kick listening to the Parks & Wildlife guys telling us of complaints they get about how they "failed to keep out" the animals that come into our cities and eat our garbage.

It's enough to break the heart. Thanks for finding the beauty in it, Orange.

thenutfantastic said...

Just this afternoon, when walking to Peanut's school door, I heard chittering overhead in the (maple?) trees and low and behold, 3 squirrels were chasing each other amongst the leafless branches. They make it look so darn easy!

We have magnolia trees all over the place here and there are 2 big ones in front of Peanut's school. We like to pick the fallen blossoms off the ground and carry them home to smell up the house. Nothing else on this earth can match that smell or provide hours of entertainment to a mom and her overly energetic (then) 4 year old. (Maymont has massive magnolia trees everywhere and most of their branches are so low and twisty they are fun to climb on.)

Yesterday I saw our resident pileated woodpecker eating out of the birdfeeder and today I saw a robin.

I feed the squirrels in my backyard, too, and it's so much fun watching them play and just be so happy.

And you may recall the Mother's Day Peanut and I experienced last year. We visited the James River many times this summer and it was great (even got to see a tiny leech). On one of those occassionas, Peanut ended up in only his underwear (look! I spelled it right!)-that's how much he loves the water. He and a puppy played together.

My problem is exactly what UA said: we built our homes on their homes. I can always be heard telling Peanut that he is not to squish anything when we're outside because we're the visitors in their house now and we must respect them. I'm torn because I love the city but I love the country, too, because there is so much more nature out here to see.

Just the other day, I went outside and heard a dog barking somewhere close by. I walked to the top of my driveway (it's appx a 45degree angle) and guess what I saw loping through the woods? A doe. She came less than 5 feet away from me when she crossed the driveway over to the other side. A few years ago when it snowed so much, I drove around the corner and was met by 6 deer (1 buck) standing in the middle of the road just staring at me. No matter how many times I see it, it's still absolutely beautiful. Seriously, my driveway looks like a fakeass Christmas card when it snows.

I see little white tails running around our yard or skittering across the driveway: chipmunks run with their tails straight up and fast.

I finally got to see what a Whip-poor-will looked like after almost running it over.

These and so much more I'd never have been able to see in a city. Once Peanut and I even got to watch a praying mantis eat another bug. Way cool!

(Sorry about the long post. I really really really love nature and am so sad that developers don't.)

Orange said...

Thanks for the lengthy comment, nut.

Most of my neighborhood has been built up for at least 80 years—I hate to see outlying groves of trees, marshes, and prairie patches shredded into subdivisions. Maybe I'm not surrounded by obvious nature, but my community also wasn't recently built on the backs of native organisms.

Much of my local fauna aren't native to this area—were rats always here? I think the sparrows and starlings are European imports from the last century or two. And we had those damned Asian longhorned beetles invade a couple years ago.

But about a mile from here, beside the lake, there are a couple arboreal bird sanctuaries that draw a lot of migratory birds. When Ben's a little older, I'd love to take him over there during the heavy migration seasons.

Jeff Janusch said...

A good place to experience a little nature within the city is Rosehill Cemetery (after a kick-ass breakfast at nearby Pauline's on Ravenswood). If you sit beside the big pond in the middle of the place, you can forget where you are during the short periods where no goddamned sirens can be heard coming from Western or Peterson Av. A nice warm day out there with a good book and a cheap loaf of white bread for the ducks and geese is fucking great.