I’ve lately been visiting a neighborhood pocket park in the early morning, book in hand. An underused triangle of grass, the park contains a bench tucked haphazardly into the far corner like a city planner’s afterthought. I cozy into the bench on cold days, nestled in the lingering warmth of a few layers of clothing and a down jacket. Until the first cup of coffee enters my bloodstream, the cold and lack of caffeine conspire to slow my thoughts, my reading pace consistent with the sap flowing through the limbs of a nearby shagbark hickory. Ideas percolate, bubbling to the surface.
I think on these small patches wedged into neighborhoods. The park’s trees are decades older, and sometimes hundreds of years older, than the unfamiliar newcomers in surrounding yards. Witnesses to so much change: watching the homes go up, the prairie become lawn, the footpaths become sidewalks, the compacted dirt become streets resisting their restless roots. Still, they watch, memory keepers, more valuable now because of their thinned numbers. In summer, the squirrels rejoice in their seed, practicing acrobatics above. I rejoice in their shade, focusing my attention below. In winter, stripped to their bones, they rest from their labors, waiting for the Earth to tilt back toward the sun. Dormant, they still exude presence, still hold the space, still keep memory alive.
Just a little triangle of breath between concrete. But a place where children build snowmen and arrange sticks into imaginary campfires, listen to birdsong and cradle pill bugs in the cups of their hands. A place to reflect on this landscape’s history; a place to expand that history into the future.
I look upward at the lengthy telltale strips peeling away from the trunk that give the shagbark its name. Lean down, pick up a seed husk. Turn the smooth, ovoid wood in my palm. Run my finger along the curve of the pit. I am thinking of the gift of small things—patches of grass between buildings, gardens in vacant lots, even balconies that open up to the sky. I am thinking about the importance, the necessity, of these small encounters for a re-imagined future, of tying the memories of the past to a fuller present. I am thinking of a little African American girl and her fondness for pigeons.
Sherry Williams is now a woman on a mission, a person with an interest in recovering African American history and genealogy in Chicago. She is also an amateur birder. She can trace this interest to a humble balcony from her childhood and to the pigeons she befriended there.
Same as a lot of Chicago residents, Sherry lived in a walk-up apartment without a yard in the front or back. She didn’t have any pets, so her connection to nature came through birds that were present year-round: pigeons. When her mom later moved the family to a house, she became especially concerned over her daughter’s pigeon-feeding compulsion. She issued stern warnings to Sherry that squirrels, attracted by the food bits, were bound to wreak havoc in the attic. Sherry remained undaunted; she chuckles softly when she recalls for me how she kept “sneaking” food to the birds despite her mom’s protests.
Pigeons are the opposite of a conservation concern, innumerable in cities throughout the world. Andreas, a German friend of mine, tells me that disparaging pigeons transcends international boundaries. In Germany, they are known as Luftratten. Air rats. Common, annoying, ordinary, ignored—pigeons may be the bird most taken for granted in urban areas. Despite their numbers, ironically, pigeons are almost invisible.
Not for Sherry. Pigeons brought her peace, she says. When I ask her why she persisted in her bird-feeding rebellion, she responds: “My entire life it’s just something I enjoyed. Of course, it does bring peace, [and] it’s such a joy to hear their calls. That, of course, over the screeching that you would hear when you live on a major street.” Small places, small encounters. We start where we are, with what is available to us. An iridescent bird who has learned to seek bread from human hands is not a bad place to begin.
Which reminds me of the wise words of writer and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle. There’s a moving chapter entitled “The Extinction of Experience” in Pyle’s memoir of childhood exploration, The Thunder Tree. There he notes that when people think of extinction, they often think of rare species—Javan rhinos and Bengal tigers. Animals that are large or furry, or a combination of both, draw the lion’s share of our attention. As important as big, charismatic species are, Pyle sets his sights on something closer to home. He expresses concern over a potentially more devastating loss, “the extinction of experience.” This type of extinction is more subtle, occurring at the scale of the neighborhood, and therefore less appreciated and harder to detect. Rarely is ink wasted on headlines about this type of extinction. One season a copper-colored butterfly flutters by, the next year it is gone, cool concrete substituted for purple coneflower.
These small disappearances could be characterized as lesser losses. After all, in Chicago there are the forest preserves, many miles of lakeshore, innumerable municipal parks. Even if we get to those places only once in a while, the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild allows the exotic to burst into our living rooms. For Pyle, this way of thinking reflects the slow erosion of intimacy with so-called throwaway landscapes.
People who are crazy about nature almost always have a story about a throwaway landscape—a place that others have difficulty seeing as valuable, but that for them defined freedom and solace during their formative years. “Ignominious, degraded, forgotten places that we have discarded, which serve nonetheless as habitats for a broad array of adaptable plants and animals” are the secret gardens of imagination for children who later become adults that care about the natural world. Muddy stream embankments, overgrown housing lots, abandoned fields rutted with dirt-bike tracks—these would never be mistaken for the “jewels” of any national park or wilderness area. According to Pyle, however, in some ways they serve more formative roles. “Along with the nature centers, parks, and preserves,” he writes, “we would do well to maintain a modicum of open space with no rule but common courtesy, no sign besides animal tracks. For these purposes, nothing serves better than the hand-me-down habitats that lie somewhere between formal protection and development.”
Hand-me-down habitats, throwaway landscapes, and secondhand lands do not merely spark a sense of adventure. They provide us close-to-home access to more-than-human worlds, a way to learn who we are in relation to many other species with whom we share a common patch of earth. They unlock portals of imagination, worm tunnels that blast us into new galaxies. They gift us with familiar common ground for developing caring relationships.
It’s not that exotic animals in foreign lands aren’t worthy of concern. In the grand scheme of planetary complexity, they matter deeply. But contact, real contact, leads to relationship. Borrowing a page from Leopold, who wrote, “We only grieve for what we know,” Pyle lays his point out plainly: “People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”
Or even less exotic than a wren—in Sherry’s case, the humble pigeon.
A red-tailed hawk throws a shadow on a solitary cardinal and a congregation of pigeons, chickadees, and monk parakeets. Nobody seems bothered. Underneath the hawk’s watchful gaze, I step into an unlikely bird oasis near 111th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in South Chicago.
I’m certain this avian gathering did not constitute a part of George Pullman’s plans. George Pullman, train entrepreneur and capitalist utopian, moved to Chicago in 1863. He had an ambitious vision: create a self-contained manufacturing city. In four years (1880–1884), four thousand acres of marsh and prairie sprouted a complete town with its own market, sanitation, entertainments, and, of course, workforce. It was even voted “the world’s most perfect town” by one international body in 1896.
I walk through the streets and between filigreed buildings, and my imagination easily drifts backward in time. Nostalgia clings to the bricks. The local McDonald’s displays vintage historical photos. The buildings show their age and their tarnished dreams, frayed but beautiful. They seem to be waiting.
The now-derelict Pullman factory is where Sherry, the pigeon lover, had a vision.
Sherry became familiar with local birds on her balcony, but Chicago as a whole serves as a kind of front porch: a major migratory flyway for birds, who use the area as a layover stop on their seasonal journeys. And as Sherry is quick to point out, Chicago has also been a prominent place for the migration of people. Moving, settling, seeking welcoming habitats and opportunities, connecting distant places of concern—humans and birds move across landscapes in the hopes of safe harbor.
From the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, thousands of African American people were drawn to Chicago by employment opportunities, hoping to escape racial barriers in the south. This Great Migration figured prominently in Pullman, where the first all–African American union (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) was established.
These two streams of interest merged for Sherry behind the defunct Pullman factory clock tower. As she thought about human and bird migration, a connection began to crystallize. Another pigeon, this one a more ethereal dove, provided the inspiration; as Sherry explains, “The Holy Spirit has a way of inclining ideas to you.”
For Sherry, constructing a bird oasis became a way to better understand and welcome avian migrants that use the area, as well as highlight the migration stories of people in the community. With the help of the Illinois Audubon Society, young people who needed service hours to fulfill Chicago public school requirements, and curious neighbors, Sherry began hosting guided tours about once a month. The transformation of the site included repurposing a mowed path that was once used for security checks of the Pullman property into a footpath for exploration; taking out invasive shrubs and replacing them with native plants and trees attractive to birds; adding feeders, baths, and birdhouses; and creating a central picnic area.
Though all ages of people go on the walkabouts, Sherry is particularly concerned with young people. Several times she mentioned gun violence as an ongoing problem that the community faces. As an increasing number of birds have discovered the site (a recent winter count resulted in sixty-three species), “slowly but surely young people have become attached to the project.” Students who came initially to accrue community service hours now learn about African American migration parallel to the migration of birds in Chicago. They’ve made this the core of what they discuss, Sherry says. She sees these experiences and conversations as a way for them to “become that next generation of stewards.” During months with favorable weather, signage on the walking path displays narratives of human immigration history as well as information about bird migration, building on the conversations Sherry has fostered around the oasis.
In the midst of so much movement, the oasis is aptly named. A place to seek refreshment. A place to stop and reflect. A place to think about people and birds—and how our stories may bear affinities. For Sherry, a connection to the common pigeon unfolded into a larger vision. Out of disrepair, new habitat has begun chirping. A larger conversation between people and place has begun.
I’m not a great gambler. Whatever attracts lady luck, I don’t seem to possess it. I joined the Cub Scouts in grade school, and the memory of a monthly gathering of various Cub Scout packs still feels fresh. I recall only one thing about those monthly meetings: the cake raffle. For fifty cents a ticket, you could buy a chance to win a cake. My mom always spared me one dollar. Two tickets. Never mind that some kids clutched a string of tickets reaching from fist to foot. All I needed was for my number to be called.
On a typical night, ten to fifteen cakes populated the table. As numbers were announced and kids rose from their chairs to select the most delicious, icing-laden sugary delicacies on the table, I hoped until the final number’s hollow echo against the walls of the rented church auditorium that my ticket was a winner. I would have settled for the last lonely, dry, poppy-seed-encrusted Bundt cake. But never in my four years as a Scout did I cash in a ticket.
I presumed I was cursed. So it was no small relief when, in adulthood, I finally won a lottery. A garden lottery, for a plot in one of our city’s community gardens. True, it wasn’t a cake, and I actually had to pay for the privilege of renting the plot, but it brought consolation to the child in a Scout uniform who once pined for triple layers of chocolate.
I’d had a backyard garden long before, but now that we lived in a city apartment, I missed tending young seedlings, digging up a few scrawny vegetables and scrappy herbs for the table, and, mainly, the pretense to be out under a warm sun with soil-stained hands. When I won the lottery, big ideas were set in motion. I thought about space optimization, accounting for shade and sunlight. I contemplated accessible pathways to plants with a carefully hand-drawn map. I participated in a local seed swap, ordered exotic-sounding heirlooms from catalogs, and put a solid set of blisters on my fingers while turning the soil with a borrowed hoe and shovel.
By midsummer, though, it was clear I wasn’t going to reap anything close to the bounty I imagined. Only a smattering of plants hung on. Then I started seeing the rabbits. Soon after, the hoofprints of deer. My raspberries went to the birds; my tomatoes to the chipmunks. When a plant appeared to be near fruiting, I began a race against the clock, and the other neighborhood animals were more frequent garden visitors than I. Finally, I began to call my garden what it was: a wildlife donation.
I learned to come to terms with this reality. In fact, I began to think about how I could be a more proactive donor.
Over the course of the next few years, I lessened the square footage for vegetables and increased the number of native plants that served as hosts for butterflies and offered nectar to bees. I managed to pull quite a few carrots and pluck the occasional pepper for my own family, but I also began to think of the garden’s broader bounty, a dot of habitat within the larger green matrix of the city. I noticed my view of lawns and vacant lots and road medians changing, too. Wherever I turned my gaze I saw life-giving potential.
I’m not the only one. Robert Nevel acquired this vision long before I did and has been putting it to use on larger scales than a single plot in a community garden. Nevel is the president of KAM Isaiah Israel (KAMII), the oldest Jewish congregation in the Midwest. Trained as an architect, he one day looked at the grounds surrounding KAMII’s historical central-dome synagogue on Chicago’s South Side, and, where others saw manicured grass, if they noticed the lawn at all, he saw opportunity.
It’s typical, Nevel tells me, for congregants to view a house of worship as a mass in a sea of grass, treating the surrounding lawn as leftover space. For most of the synagogue’s history, the grounds were indeed an afterthought, some thing to walk through on one’s way to what was truly important and unbound by earthly soil.
As a congregation in the Reform Jewish movement, KAMII holds social justice as a core part of its identity, so Nevel believed there was an open opportunity to connect the dots between social and environmental justice, with the lawn as the canvas. He knew, however, that tearing up the lawn was going to be a tough sell. Noting the devotion of Americans to their lawns, he wryly remarked, “In its own odd and ironic way, lawns have become a sacred space.” The solution would have to include easing his fellow congregants into an alternative perception.
He proposed designs for a hexagonal garden in the front lawn of the synagogue, in the shape of a six-pointed Star of David. Each of the star’s points would grow food; the negative space would remain lawn. The proposal was approved. Work began in 2009. The Star of David remains, now anchoring a much larger transformation: gardens surrounding the synagogue have doubled every year, and the former lawn on the 2,500-square-foot property is hard to find between the tomatoes.
Further connections, both religious and secular, came quickly, and the evidence radiates into the larger community. Some of the most remarkable stories involve the way in which the gardens mediate interfaith relationships and understanding. Nevel recalls a moment when he watched Muslim children attentively listening to an eighty-year-old member of the congregation read a book about growing carrots. “Food and care for the earth is common to all of us,” he explains.
In many ways, gardens are the epitome of domestication. But in a city, where concrete and manicured patches of turfgrass rule, a garden is a step toward re-wilding, a welcome call to the agency of other beings, from microscopic soil organisms to four-winged pollinators. The gardens at KAMII serve a very practical purpose—feeding people in the community. They also represent lifelines that reach still further, woven together by the aerial surveys of goldfinches, foraging bumblebees, soil organisms, and a hundred different gleaming beetles. The value of such vital places—one might even say their sacredness—is that they add a measure of wildness to the city’s fabric. The garden is not solely an invitation to other creatures; it is an invitation to remember how the human creature is connected to soil, water, air, and non-human neighbors who share our urban spaces.
“I think that anybody who works in this program is changed when they work in it,” Nevel reflects. “They see their responsibilities to each other and the land differently.” Another way of putting this: much more than the lawn of a synagogue has been transformed. People go from living on a landscape to living within one, as participants in the greater well-being of their community. Nevel summarizes this for me: “They see it under their fingernails. They see it on their knees. They feel it in their back. They can see, and feel, and taste the difference that they’re making.”
When I visited KAMII, I explored both the buildings and the gardens that surround it. It occurred to me that while a building may unite people in common purpose and belief, the grounds were a celebration of the world to which we, all of us, are connected. The big congregation of life. Perhaps gardens like those at this synagogue reveal how the wild and sacred can be cultivated. Perhaps the two words, wild and sacred, are closer in meaning than most of us imagine. Perhaps they both can be seen under one’s fingernails.
Balconies, backyards, gardens. Thinking about how re-wildings of the landscape can be scaled up and out, I went to visit another garden—a very large urban garden—known as the Perry Avenue Community Farm.
On what happened to be his sixty-sixth birthday, I met with Orrin Williams (no relation to Sherry), the founder of the Center for Urban Transformation, a co-leader of the Perry Avenue Community Farm, and a person interested in a revolution on Chicago’s South Side. I first became aware of Orrin while attending a conference at Chicago State University and was immediately impressed by his casual candor. His salt-and-pepper dreadlocks hint of the radical, the lines in the corners of his eyes speak to an earned perspective. I discovered that we shared an interest in urban agriculture, particularly the way it provides a medium for social and ecological exchange, so I sought him out to hear more.
This led me to the Perry Avenue Community Farm, a two-acre chunk of rectangular land situated on a former school parking lot in Englewood, Chicago. When the neighborhood of Englewood makes the news, it’s typically not a good thing. The area is one known for its gang violence, still reeling from the institutional racism that stalled business prospects, gutted its local economy, and prompted white flight to the suburbs.
Orrin has witnessed it all. He came of age when a black middle class in Chicago was more robust and fondly recalls how, as a child, he could buy live chickens a couple of blocks away from his home. There was an A&P supermarket. There were local grocery stores. At Sixty-Third and Halsted were theaters, banks, and the second-largest economy in the state, behind only downtown Chicago. To get what your family needed, Orrin says you didn’t need to leave Englewood: “Your mom would hand you a list and off you’d go.” But he also experienced the manufacturing decline in Chicago in the mid-1950s and watched segregation draw the boundary lines around his neighborhood’s prospects, including the construction of an expressway that bypassed Englewood and became a catalyst for suburbanization. He tells me there were no vacant lots in his neighborhood growing up. Now, there are no houses standing on his childhood block. He’s interested in changing that.
After pulling up to the site and having a brief look around, I follow Orrin inside a once-vacant home that has been refurbished into a beautiful community center. A stunning mural with a collage of colorful visages of African Americans stretches across the entire north side of the two-story building. Inside, an aquaponic system hums in the background; photographs of people holding radishes, watermelons, and chard line the walls; a dry-erase board, with various brainstorming notes scrawled across it, such as “[solution-]/aries” and “Consumer Re-connect,” dominates one corner. Orrin explains that this is the “think-do house,” a place of community reflection, strategy, and action.
I had come to talk to Orrin about how food can connect us to place and to one another, how it can create a sense of rootedness and home. But our conversation soon veers into many inter-related topics. Two mind-expanding events in Orrin’s life fed directly into the creation of Perry Avenue Community Farm. The first happened during the Vietnam War, when he was stationed in Thailand. It was there, half a world away from Chicago, that he saw alternatives for food. As he puts it, his little urbanized, American brain exploded “from the first moment I stepped off the plane. It smelled different, it looked different, the people looked different. You didn’t have a car. You didn’t have a furnace. You didn’t have air conditioning.” Thailand was awash in green vegetation, rice paddies, farms, and villages with ponds full of fish. Mangoes were as common as acorns in Chicago parks. Orrin’s consciousness around food expanded as he connected to a new pace and rhythm of life, sometimes plucking breakfast straight from the branches of backyard trees. A number of years later, in a second revelatory event, he became aware of his own family’s ancestral connection to farming as well as a broader movement to secure and reclaim black farmland. He recalls visiting Pembroke, Illinois, sixty-five miles south of Chicago, where a community of black farmers persists to this day. His eyes opened wide when he first saw this community, stunned as he was by seeing black people farming, and his mind filled with possibilities.
Although food provides an intergenerational pathway for people to reconnect to place, Orrin notes that local provisioning is merely one part of re-creating twenty-first-century cities. Communities also must reckon with the need for better-quality housing and offer viable local commercial and entrepreneurial opportunities. Orrin tells me it is critical to put all the pieces together—the social, the economic, the ecological—integrated within a dynamic community. This includes reviving traditional arts and music. As he puts it: “There’s no word for art in a lot of societies. It’s lifeways. It’s all part of an aesthetic. Schools don’t want to do it. We want to do it right here.” This vision for lifeways that nurture community could be especially important for neighborhoods such as Englewood, where unemployment rates hover around 50 percent. “What the communities are notorious for is really just a small part of what goes on,” Orrin says, referring to the periodic and all-too-common shootings on the South Side of Chicago, but “if you don’t have life for people to do, then other things come to them.”
When I ask Orrin if healing in the community applies to non-human Chicago residents, he points toward the farm and chuckles, “We try to grow enough to make sure they have some, too.” He then becomes philosophical: “The planet is not here just for humans, right? It’s here for all kinds of sentient beings. And we have to be respectful to that. I think their being is important as any human being, if you will. So we gotta try to do things in ways to heal the planet and allow them to thrive as well. I look at communities as ecosystems; we are part of the Earth ecosystem, we are part of the cosmos.” From the planetary to the microscopic, as Orrin puts it, “I think people are connected to place in ways that we don’t even recognize. We’re connected to micro-organisms, I mean they’re all over us. The health of your gut determines how healthy you are. The whole thing is it’s all one thing. It’s all about oneness. That’s all there is to it. Now whether we connect to that, recognize that, whether we’re conscious of it, I think that’s what makes the difference.”
Orrin leans back in his chair, pulls out a smartphone, and exclaims, “We get dazzled by all this bullshit.” He lays the phone down and puts an index finger to the side of his head. “The revolution happens here,” he says as he taps his temple.
Orrin’s right, of course. Ideas—especially the collective power of shared ideas—give us an architecture for the future. This is “think-do” work: the revolution happens in the mind andin the places we live. “People say, ‘I think I’m going to leave Chicago,’ but then they say, ‘Where am I going to go?’ The problems are everywhere.” As an example, he asks me, “Why are we importing California’s water? I don’t care if you call it lettuce—it’s water. They don’t have any water, but they are exporting water to Chicago. . . . What’s the interconnection between those communities and this community? What’s the interconnection between our city and other places on the planet? Whether it’s food, whether it’s art, whether it’s healthy children, I don’t see the disconnection between any of that.”
Local food is a place to begin, a strand to pull on that connects us to others on the landscape, human and nonhuman. Orrin sees an opportunity in the midst of the vacant land for various uses: “Some of these spaces, even in places like Englewood—I don’t want to see farms and I don’t want to see houses on them. Can they become bird sanctuaries or habitat for some of these creatures? The block I grew up on, I was over there visiting my buddy, and he said, ‘See all that stuff over there.’ And there was a bunch of trees and grasses, and he said, ‘Man, at night, all kind of shit comes out of the trees,’ like raccoons and opossums. Maybe we need to create those islands and let ’em be. Maybe we don’t want to rebuild every neighborhood. Maybe we want to let it go wild, if you will.”
As Orrin speaks, I reflect on the disasters that have struck major cities recently. The economic collapse of Detroit, the devastation Katrina wrought in New Orleans, and Chicago’s patchwork of affluence and poverty. Cities are cauldrons, shifting brews of destruction and opportunity of our own making. They are also places of experimentation. “As we approach the point that 50 percent of people live in cities, I feel a transition,” Orrin reflects, “I don’t think we know but I think there’s some wonderful possibilities. The planet is going to be here. We’re not destroying the Earth; we’re destroying the possibility of being here in this form. Until the asteroid hits, we need to fix what we do here. The experiment has begun. We’re part of that emerging understanding of what we have to do to be here.”
An experiment has indeed begun. People like Orrin are rethinking the city from an ecological point of view. They’ve lived through transitions, watched urban neighborhoods vacated and reborn. Speaking with Orrin, I can’t help but get the sense that another change is coming, a think-do effort to re-weave our cities into something better for humans and non-humans alike along a wild continuum.
Vital places draw our attention to the life that pulses through our everyday worlds. In urban areas, these places help us rethink what our responsibilities to nature might be by reframing our ideas about wherenature is. A balcony, a backyard, a garden, a city, a bioregion. Awareness doesn’t always follow in that order, radiating outward like the concentric circles of a pebble splash, but an initial encounter with other species can grow into a wider effort to connect the dots. It certainly has for Sherry, Robert, and Orrin.
I’m under the shagbark tree again, cozied into the corner bench. A slight breeze pinches my cheeks. I put my book down and close my eyes, thinking about the strange and wonderful beings that share this little nook with me, thinking about the small and vital gifts of green space, known or forgotten, scattered about the city. In The Thunder Tree, Pyle reminds us that the way to caring about other species begins on the footpaths close to home. “What, to a curious kid, is less vacant than a vacant lot? Less wasted than waste ground?” he asks. These places cradle small discoveries, nurturing moments of delight, and “somewhere beyond delight lies enlightenment.”
I stare through the branches of the shagbark, delighted by what this tiny triangle of green park space brings to both the shagbark and me.
Acknowledgements: Reprinted with permission from The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds by Gavin Van Horn, © 2018 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.