[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
I am a daughter of Hyde Park, born in 1953. My migration started with the graduate school in Rhode Island and morphed into a New England adventure including time on an organic goat farm, life in a cabin in the woods by myself, and miles of hitchhiking. When I tell people about my thumb-fueled adventures, they always want to know whether I was scared. I wasn’t, for I had been coached by another young woman in certain tricks to deal with awkward situations, one of which I can share.
The basis for this trick is best expressed by the motto “never sleep with anyone crazier than you are” and it is used when a female passenger is being harassed by a male driver. It is not really possible for him to do much more than annoy you while he is driving, but his attempts should not be treated lightly. While he is driving, you must open the door and act like you are going to jump out.
I can tell you from personal experience that this really does work, but explanations would bring us into existential discussions as to the nature of men, women, and technology, and I need to stay on the topic of migration.
I have moved a lot in my life: east to graduate school in Rhode Island, north from there to Maine, then back home briefly, then west, west. To Oregon and northern California, the land of the pointy trees and rolling blue mountains, where Madre Pacifica, the primordial Tiamat, and creatrix, rolls relentlessly east. Her waters move like liquid, but also as mist and rain and fog and cloud, pushing their way to the ridge of the Rockies and nurturing the world’s only temperate rainforest. We have seen Al Gore, in An Inconvenient Truth, explain the Keating Curve, with its annual jigs and jags that represent the yearly breath of Planet Earth. To walk the forest floor of the northwestern coastal rainforest is to trace her alveoli where oxygen is born. The west coast nurtured me and my infant daughter. Its forests, coasts, and mountains reminded me of New England and of magical childhood summers on Lake Michigan.
Over the years, these physical migrations were accompanied with drastic mental shifts. As my neurons switched from fluorescent graduate school to natural light my brain’s incipient rebellion against the structures of mathematics grew artbumps and idealistic and visionary corkscrews.
I cannot remember not loving trees as entities and have lived in many beautiful forested parts of the country. When I returned to Chicago, I was almost 50 years old. I purchased a very small house on a double lot in a forgotten part of the city. In this economically depressed neighborhood, I began to recreate my ideal environment, a clearing in the woods.
Although Illinois has sometimes been called the prairie state, many people do not realize that before settlement the land here was about one-third forested and that there are many wonderful trees indigenous to the area. Oaks of many types were abundant, as were maples, hickories, elm, hackberry, and ash. Trees were removed for lumber and to make room for crops without regard to any long-term effect on the environment. Also removed were incredible native grasses with roots descending 10 feet into the ground and more. With the removal of the vegetation, there was also a wholesale destruction of animal life, and of course, topsoil.
In my tiny patch, I wanted it all: fruit trees, flowering shrubs, wildlife habitat, vegetables, flowers, and trees. My yard exploded with plant life, and my compost piles got so big I stopped turning them. When they looked almost ready, I would knock off the top, put in a shovelful of garden soil, and plant some pumpkins. Eventually, I crossed the chain link barrier into my Parkway, and when I ran out of room there, we expanded into the vacant lot behind my house. My garden became a magnet for flower-loving girls, who would dawdle along my fence line looking for beautiful flowers to swipe. I never minded giving them a few flowers, but it broke my heart to see them yank things out by the roots. One day I caught three of them almost in the act and drafted them (they were willing victims) into planting their own garden on a vacant lot behind my house. The garden made it into our local paper, and one thing, as the saying goes, led to another. Our local homeowner organization was given the right to create a community garden in lots lying west of my house. This happened in 2004; seven years later we are adding an additional lot and anticipating our first apple harvest from trees planted in 2006. About half of the garden is dedicated to growing food. As of this year, the garden consists of three city lots, 11 apple trees, a mini park for the neighborhood, and an 8×12 greenhouse under continual construction.
To set up a community garden on city-owned land a group must first have a letter of permission from the alderman. The care, feeding, and appeasement of this individual will occupy a significant portion of your attention for the next few years because aldermen are sneaky and opportunistic individuals. Who can possibly object to a community garden? Just wait, and you will be enlightened.
We all see a “vacant” lot through different eyes. The biologist sees an ecosystem; the neighbors may see an eyesore or a rat haven; a realtor sees dollar signs. It’s the same piece of land variously colored by dreams, fears, and priorities. Our first complainers lived next door. They were upset because “someone might throw tomatoes,” never stopping to think that children throw things and tomatoes are softer than rocks.
Once you have a permission letter, there are several different agencies that can help you. The City Department of Environment has a program known as Greencorps that provides training for the core group that plans the garden as well as physical and financial assistance. Another option is Neighborspace, an urban land trust that purchases land for community-managed open space purposes. A third option would be Openlands, an organization devoted to the protection of the environment.
All of these groups are dedicated and can be quite helpful. They will throw questions at you that need to be answered: who is responsible? How will you get water? What toxins are in your soil? What do you plan on growing?
If any reader is interested in starting such a garden and wants more info, email me at email@example.com. I will probably invite you down and ask you to help me in the garden while we talk. We love visitors.