Sunday, September 19, 2010

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw

Or heard or felt came not but from myself;

And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Wallace Stevens from “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”

A bird, blackish brown in the intense summer afternoon light, is walking on water. Well, not on the actual water but on golden green lily pads, skillfully hop-flying, then step, step, step, moving just fast enough not to sink. Pin oaks, I see, and white birch, young sycamore. Water stretches into a thick woods and appears to curve as if it might be a river but it isn’t, it’s a marsh, a very old one, one that somehow survived over hundred years of American industrialization. Sedge, that ancient plant of prehistoric times, grows out of the rubble I’m walking on, limestone and slag and railroad spikes.

A marsh hawk startles the heavy afternoon heat, its white and brown belly, as it sweeps down over the marsh. A white egret lopes over the water and disappears into the darkness of the tall stand of sycamore shielding the marsh from the highway beyond. Moments later a heron labors to pick up speed to rise over the trees. Two goldfinch, blurs in the sunlight yet identifiable with their undulating speed, trigger the memory of other summers and other places where I have stood stock still and felt that strange sensation deep in the belly of my body wanting to lift and follow what I was seeing.

Where am I?*

Where am I? That’s a good question. But is it a question of place? Or is it a state of mind that I’m in as I walk through this marsh? A reciprocal experience of the land imprinting itself in me as I walk through it.

Like many people, I could tell the story of my life by describing the places where walking somehow figured in my education and experience. I’ve hiked since I was a teenager, along highways, up mountains, through deserts, along borders, through savannahs, along lakes and rivers, down streets of cities, and into and out of my wayward emotions and imagination. Your legs turn out to be allies, and as Nietzsche, a walker himself, would say, they often can offer infinitely more wisdom than our best thinking.

My recent interest in walking began as a way to combat serious bouts of depression that not even years of study and practice of yoga seemed able to help me handle. I hiked as a way to counter spells that sunk me every winter. As I began to hike more and more, in places of profound beauty and in places familiar and local, I began to notice how the simple act of walking offered more than benefits to my physical and mental health. Walking began to make me see or feel so much more of what was going on inside and around me. Walking I’m learning has so much to do with developing the body/mind’s ability to perceive and read the rhythms and relationships that bind us to the elemental world: to rock and water, wind and weather, sky and space. And perhaps most important of all, walking alerts us to how our health depends on the health of the land in which we live and work and walk.

*These observations about walking were inspired by a walk down an abandoned railroad track through the Clark and Pine Nature Preserve in Lake County, Indiana a few miles from Gary. It is a remnant of the vast marsh and interdunal ecology that once covered the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Surprisingly, the marsh flourishes, teeming with life and birds, though it is next to an abandoned steel processing factory, a gypsum plant a mile to the east along Lake Michigan, Gary’s Sanitation Works and acres and acres of wastelands that is a Federal Superfund Site.

Walking To The Indiana Dunes

People usually consider walking
on water or thin air a miracle,
but I think the real miracle
is not to walk either on water or in thin air,
but to walk on earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh

This week I made a pilgrimage of sorts. One that began at my own door step in Rogers Park, then 19 miles along the Chicago Lakefront, through the industrial cities along the shore of Lake Michigan, Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Gary and finally to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, some 50 plus miles in total. I did this in two days.

I tried to stay along the lake as much as possible, but when you leave the southern neighborhood of Jackson Park in Chicago, the lake disappears from view. Once in East Chicago by the Majestic Star Casino, I illegally slipped through a fence and touched the water. But I had to wait some 24 miles until I got to West Beach in the National Lakeshore until I could finally feel the cool water on my tired hot body.

Why do such a thing?

I wanted to walk this route to ask the question: why isn’t there a walking route linking Chicago’s magnificent lake front park to the patchwork of wetlands, prairies, woodlands and towering sand dunes that make up one of the few urban National Parks, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?

There are plans for a green way called the Marquette Plan to do such a thing, but the momentum, money and will to do it seems more wishful than real. I stayed in a Casino my first night, the Majestic Star, which along with the other casinos in the area are supposedly aimed at redeveloping the region by making an entertainment and recreation zone. Slot machines stretch the idea of entertainment, not to mention recreation or redevelopment. And of course, in a casino the brownfields and industrial wastelands that surround them are conveniently out of sight.

But I also took this walk to prove something I’ve been wondering about for the last few years as I’ve walked in all kinds of more traditional so-called ‘natural’ landscapes—deserts, mountains, forests, sea shores. Would my body and mind respond in similar ways, feeling revitalized and awakened from nature and exercise, if I walked through my own neighborhood and the city lakefront and then into one of the most industrialized and polluted landscapes of America? And further, would walking to the dunes make me appreciate the fragile beauty and ecological miracle of this landscape more than by driving there and taking a little walk through the park?

The body and the legs do more than just hold us up and carry us about back and forth to work. Like the antennae of insects, they read the landscapes and negotiate through them learning where to go and where to find nourishment and safety. The body isn't a machine we turn off on and on. Walking all those steps made me consider my connection to this landscape where I've lived for three decades. And despite the harshness of the highways and disfigurement of the landscape, I sensed it's grandeur, its timeless presence, enduring no matter what we puny humans think we can do with it. From the ground, I felt so many emotions, from rage to awe, from joy to sadness, from humiliation to wonder. We think we know where we live like we think we know our own body, but take a little walk or rather a long walk in the land where you live. And I guarantee you'll discover something about the very ground you drive and walk over and it will be your body, your feet, that will teach you.

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