Big Picture Focus

By Diana Zak

(August 2017)

No place like home. Choosing an intensive one-week summer class conducted outdoors in green spaces within and close to Chicago, over spending an average workweek inside the artificial electronic office of my job, was seriously the easiest course selection I have ever had the pleasure of entertaining in my nearly thirty-year history of pursuing a bachelor’s degree. This North Sider has longed to leave the area since discovering Colorado on a trip at age 17, having instantly fallen in love with the Rocky Mountains at first sight. Yet 35 years later, I remain in Chicago. Even learning four of the five planned excursions were fairly familiar locations did not deter my enthusiasm for gaining some fresh insight and positive new impressions about my hometown.

I won’t lie: life has been a rough journey through a harsh and frequently inhospitable urban wilderness to find and kindle my true voice and purpose that, it turns out, has always resided within nature’s infinite reach. Chords were definitely struck as I read with envious wistfulness of the beautifully cultivated father-daughter relationships described and fostered respectively by professor and author, Mike Bryson, and that of Leonard Dubkin, a “self-taught naturalist” and subject of Mike’s blog essay, “Commonplace Nature: Close at Hand” (2014). Hearing about the savored experiences and lavish time these dads devoted to their girls, illustrating how the study of nature is a lasting joy, particularly at its most immediate and minute levels, melted my soul. Having frequently escaped reality alone in the block’s worth of prairie that then-existed across the street where I grew up, I understand the power and significance of such sacred relational communions between parent and child. In particular, planting the seed of appreciation for nature is one of the loveliest and most rewarding connections there is to be had on Earth, our mutual home, as it establishes a reverence for all life.


RU students entering SE garden of Art Institute, Michigan Ave./ Jackson Blvd., Chicago, May 2017 (source: D. Zak)

Something old, something new. Our first hike was the closest both to work and home for me compared with my much younger classmates, most commuting from adjoining or outer ring suburbs. We walked north on Michigan Avenue, which I’ve traveled literally thousands of times previously, and entered the prettiest of intimate spaces—but one that can also be passed by without realizing it—tucked against the south wall of the Art Institute. A vertical multi-spouted fountain chorused tinkling watery notes underneath the stately perimeter of honey-locust trees, while our persons were splayed by determined beams of early morning sunlight sifting through a tight lattice of brambling branches from smaller thorny trees immediately overhead.

Mindful that the peaceful and serene scene just steps away from its relative opposite could be abruptly interrupted at any moment, I was grateful nothing of the sort happened as we exited this exceptional arrangement. On the north side of the museum is another public space cordoned off from traffic’s view by trees and hedges with manicured lawns framed by concrete ledges and adorned by selected flowers and sculpture. I reminisced about having had my photo taken with the same bronze abstract, Large Interior Form by Henry Moore, subsequent to its installation in 1983.

Personal photo taken at Art Institute NE outdoor garden in downtown Chicago, 1983 (source: D. Zak)

Adding a whiff of mystical connectedness to the air was opening my pre-digital photo collection housed in my Mom’s petal pink Samsonite suitcase and immediately finding said image in the uppermost envelope atop scores of similarly stuffed sleeves of old pictures, and then noticing that over my left shoulder in the photo is the Gage Building where I presently work.

Dirty reflections. Speaking with one of the neatly coiffed elderly unit owners who beat me by half a load to the laundry room in my building first thing in the morning, I alluded to the new washing machines to soon be installed. She replied in a ‘who cares?’ type of voice there would also be a smart phone app to alert residents when the machines were available. I responded that, while I owned such a device, I would not be taking advantage of said technology, and I was fine with simply owning an old-fashioned telephone. Likely 30 years my senior, she said she liked better how things used to be, so I brought up my SUST 390’s class excursion to the Volkening Heritage Farm within the Spring Valley Conservation area in Schaumburg. I relayed coming upon an antiquated clothes wringer inside a home built in the late 1800s, settled by Germans when the land was treeless and swampy. “Those people really had to work hard,” I reminded my neighbor, to illustrate how not everything old is necessarily better. However, so as not to betray my ecologist’s underpinnings, I added, “though I do miss hanging clothes out to dry,” to which she smiled; and we parted company, wishing each other a pleasant day.

Lauding the merits of natural drying methods was twistedly represented at the scene witnessed from our canoe at Bubbly Creek: plastic bags, prophylactics, and countless baby wipes hung tattered like abandoned laundry on low-slung tree branches extended over the river’s surface.

“Wet dream catcher” at Bubbly Creek, SUST 390 canoe trip, Chicago, May 2017 (source: D. Zak)

Apparently, these unfortunate limbs sieved and caught pumping station debris on days of released combined sewage overflow. Some might sarcastically call these garbage collectors contemporary urban art, but for me, they are a screaming public service announcement on why we should not flush such items down the toilet. I can safely say the proudest of narcissists would become exhausted attempting to extract an ounce of satisfaction gazing down into the river’s inscrutable black surface trying to catch their reflection.

My initial apprehension about traveling to unfamiliar parts of the Southwest Side and armed with some preliminary info about Bubbly Creek from our day’s readings, quickly turned to strategizing on how not to tip the canoe or get splashed with the river’s fetid-looking murky liquid. After launching the canoe, being the rear navigator of the vessel with a semi-novice at the bow, we paddled out to a collecting basin area near Canal Origins Park, when a bulging floating disk caught my eye. I quickly returned my attention to our guides’ instructions and Bubbly Creek historical tidbits, while we cinched together our fleet of canoes, and speed-assessed and adjusted technique to accommodate the skill level of our first mate.

Black-crowned Night Heron at Bubbly Creek, SUST 390 canoe trip, Chicago, May 2017 (source: D. Zak)

We dispersed at the signal to head out and as we approached the looming flotsam, the instant recognition sank my heart: a lovely two-foot long beak-to-tail water turtle with no obvious wounds bounced lifelessly on the freshly churned waters of our paddles. I consciously chose not to further disgrace this beautiful animal by taking its picture, as I knew the memory of its sad acquaintance would be forever captured in my mind. It took some effort to shift my thoughts away from the prospect of there being additional morbid encounters along the way in what appeared to be at first glance a river of decay. It didn’t take long to snap out of my funk, however, for almost immediately I had to assume command of our vessel and pull a reverse to redirect our trajectory, lest we crash into a bridge support or an outstretched tree limb adjoining the competing jumble of concrete and fiercely obstinate greenery staking out turf at the river’s shoreline.

We were surprised to learn from our knowledgeable guides du jour, volunteers from Friends of the River, that scores of different species of fish have been documented in this stretch of water once so polluted from the Chicago Stockyards dumping days that chickens were observed walking atop the viscous hodgepodge of biological stew. Even in its current degraded state it was difficult to fathom that this waterway we traversed constituted the same portion of the South Branch tributary that formerly bordered the Stockyards. The fact that people of lesser means continue to fish and consume the toxic flesh of immersed creatures who call this thickened black soup home, is quite disturbing. My injustice alarm simultaneously rang as I surveyed the unmistakable pockets of poverty on one shore, the collective polluted waters acting as an “other side of the tracks” median, in contrast to the opulent mini-mansions of the more recently gentrified Bridgeport neighborhood across the way.

We managed to avoid all but a tender sprinkling of rain from the grey clouds that crouched somewhat precariously over our heads. As we came to the cauterized end of the creek at the Pumping Station with a full bouquet of decomposing gases affronting our noses, the seasoned guides knowingly advised us of our luck at having only an overcast sky and slightly cool temperature, given that the stench factor apparently rises exponentially the hotter and sunnier a day gets on this canoe trip. I trusted the factuality of their experience implicitly.

In all honesty, I saw a lot of bubbles from the infamous rotting carcasses and biomatter chucked in the river for decades, but no actual fish. Conversely, however, a plethora of Chicago River “whitefish,” the affectionately named bloated sheaths of spent condoms, would be a mighty easy catch if one were so inclined. The sight before me was befuddling in retrospect: having traveled on many perceived pristine waterways in my day, nearly everything about this river seemed the antithesis of my expectations of a river. Sort of brings to mind studying a photographic negative—you know what you’re looking at but the picture is just not quite right. Then again, how many ecosystems, particularly our water sources, are unspoiled nowadays whether chemically or biologically: probably none. You can imagine how my spirits lifted and faith in nature heartily returned when a healthy-looking Painted turtle swam up as if to say ‘goodbye’, or perhaps ‘hello,’ as we pulled up to the dock at the end of our outing on Bubbly Creek.

Thriving turtle near boat launch, end of canoe trip on Bubbly Creek, Chicago, May 2017 (source: D. Zak)


Serious green. No sooner do I commence writing, when comes a drilling noise from men installing wiring in the walls just behind me outside in the hallway. My eyes roll in exasperation and I grouse on such mistimed fate, the angst stemming largely from having exchanged a vacation day to gain some needed peace and quiet at home to work on my essay, where my spouse and I rent a unit in an upper crust Lincoln Park condo building in Chicago. Then my eyes again rise up and over the laptop screen whereby, in shifting my sight from right to left, my gaze falls upon a lush sweep of rich and leafy green treetops, a glowing emerald gem of a park, over to an exquisite display of early morning sunlight striking a periwinkle blue Lake Michigan more magnificently than would a zillion-plus diamonds shimmering under a glass case in the world’s fanciest jewelry store.

I can feel my tenseness relax. I linger a bit on the mesmerizing sheen of sparkling waters: the lake’s edge is so dazzlingly lit, the far horizon that leads to Michigan is temporarily bleached out of view. Instinctually and intellectually I grasp the magnitude of this life-giving body of fresh water that will one day be the cause of war and bloodshed in this country, so we are warned by the social scientists; and I am reminded of the blessings and curses, benefits and costs that coexist in contemporary urban environments.

After anxiously preparing the estimated necessities I’d be required to carry for the upcoming day and hitting Chicago’s streets by bicycle to meet up with my class, I experience that same loosening sensation whenever I focus on non-human flora and fauna, just like magic. Nature’s therapy produces a gentle yet energizing impact and culminates in a state of wellness that leaves me anticipating my next dose. The really wonderful part is the doctor is readily available 24/7 for free.

Being born in the last generation to predate cell phones, PCs, cable TV and the Internet, I cannot imagine how increasingly difficult it must be for today’s children to develop an association with nature. On Wednesday’s tour of the 606 Trail, I chatted for a brief while with Gavin Van Horn, contributor and editor of our assigned text, City Creatures. I observed how outstandingly impressive was this transformation of a former elevated rail line turned multipurpose pedestrian extravaganza. Subconsciously I knew the tracks existed since I lived in the area as an adult plus rode the intersecting Blue Line to Cicero to visit my Grandma many times during my youth; yet, walking the 606 now, I felt like a total tourist. Think pleasant, but in a weirdly discombobulating way. As we sauntered west down the 606, aka the Bloomingdale Line, it was such a refreshing relief to have a car-free thoroughfare for 2.7 miles decorated liberally with all manner of flowers, grasses, bushes, and trees from side to side.

As I contemplated the thoughtful planning and execution undoubtedly required of such a massive creative undertaking, it was impossible to ignore the crucial role an estimated $100K price tag had on the final product. Beyond the magnificence of the 606’s evolving layout of amenities, artwork, and community connectedness, the gentrification of the 4 neighborhoods enveloping the 606 was extremely evident. I hope the residents living in those areas (Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square) prior to 2013 when the trail opened can share in this wonderful and unique park, but the new million-dollar homes bordering the 606 lead me to believe otherwise.

Not having read Gavin’s essay, “Tickling the Bellies of the Buffalo,” due Friday for our hike to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, I lamented aloud: what if each successive generation continued to embrace technology and man-made environments to the exclusion of the natural world, thus failing to know what wonders they were missing because those things no longer existed or mattered, and all they knew was what lay in their sights ahead of them? Later I found that sentiment embedded in Gavin’s essay on the bison, except his remedy was to ensure the wheels are set in motion to counter our damage, whenever possible, so that children have something to appreciate and build on. This natural exposure and cultivation needs to include all children, not just those lucky enough to be from families earning 6 or more digit incomes.


Last call. Both Professor Bryson and I half-jokingly conceded that it seemed impossible to escape the landscaping motorized (i.e., fossil-fuel powered) whirring and buzzing sounds as though a squadron of ungodly metallic super-hornets on the attack swarmed around our ears each day as we set out on our hikes. Moments later as we moved into greener spaces, the jarring noises melted away to be replaced by varying twittering tones in stereophonic sound as if nature changed the radio station quite literally to The Birds. Particularly welcome was our task of silently walking through and back a forested section along an earthen footpath in Busse Woods near mid-day on our fourth day out.

I kept to the rear of the group and reveled in my solitude while I considered the difference in perception of how I reacted to this walk at age 51, as someone now capable of being present in the moment, in contrast to my younger self, 30 years ago, the same age as basically all of my classmates. I imagined myself then charging through, albeit enjoying my surroundings, but being restless and annoyed at the instruction to keep quiet. Back in the 1970s and 80s a transistor radio or Walkman would have adorned my ears more often than not and likely have had me singing along in competition with the birds. Today’s not-so-smart phones distract and separate us far more insidiously, wicking our attention away and supplying a false sense of reality and security, especially within a natural environment. Tools have purposes, of course, but continual electronic over-stimulation induces boredom for simpler pleasures and can led to passivity and inactivity.

Considering how the health of the environment and all living things is integrally linked, the future’s prognosis, given our societal ills, is potentially worrisome. Nature is the wisest of teachers who gives the apple to us with billions of years of research and development. Respecting, listening to, and heeding her advice is an infinite learning experience that, for me, man-made technology simply cannot ever supersede. I found John Rogner’s words really resonated and brought our week-long urban nature adventure to an optimistic opportunity and conclusion: “Caring for the land and caring for other people are mutually reinforcing, and both help create the foundation for a stable society” (p. 285). In short, together we repair and save, but divided we falter and fade.


Bryson, M. A. (2014, May 19). Commonplace Nature, Close at Hand: Thinking about Leonard Dubkin as Spring Emerges. Retrieved from:

Rogner, J. (2015). Calumet: Requiem or Rebirth. In Aftandilian, D., & Van Horn, G. (Eds.), City creatures: animal encounters in the Chicago wilderness (pp. 277-286). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Van Horn, G. (2015). Tickling the Bellies of the Buffalo. In Aftandilian, D., & Van Horn, G. (Eds.), City creatures: animal encounters in the Chicago wilderness (pp. 334-341). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.