Thursday, July 28, 2011

Walking Among The Beach Combers of Chicago

What makes a person wander along a beach fingering along through the flotsam in search of treasures that have washed in with the waves?  Are these people born this way? Has something happened to them to make them seek the solitude of the morning surf?
Though the beaches along the southern shores of Lake Michigan do not have the majesty of sea coasts, they nevertheless draw out the beachcomber in the Midwesterner. On my walks along the beaches from Chicago to the Indiana Dunes, I often come across this peculiar breed. They are of all colors and sizes, of every class and physical condition. Once, I saw a woman dragging her tank of oxygen through the rocks, as she sifted through the sands looking for glass. They are often older, but among children you can see the same instinct to marvel and collect, finding in a spent balloon or odd bit of driftwood or colorful stone something to decorate a sand sculpture.

The beach comber apparently has its origins among British sailers, who, exhausted, banished, or simply  intrigued, stayed in ports and islands in the South Seas and in other distant shores far from home. There, they learned to live off what they could find on the beach, fishing, collecting, making a hut, co-mingling among the native people, and returning on the next crew or deciding that this life and the ways of these people were far superior than the harsh life of a sailor. I suspect that the beachcomber is part of a world wide tribe of people.  And I’m not so sure that a beach comber even needs a beach to do his wandering and sifting through the debris of man and nature. The found art folk, the alley wanderers, dumpster divers, etc. My mother, who suffers from Alzheimers, walks around her yard and garden every day and picks up sticks that have fallen. Is that not a form of beachcombing?  We come from a long line of hunters and gatherers, and some of the earliest archeological sites are along the shores of lakes in Africa.

But as I walk, I’m always looking for the beachcombers, to see what they’re doing, what they’re collecting, what they’ve got in that special bag by their side. Often they are simply picking up trash, the good Samaritans of the beach. (There are many of these in Chicago, men mostly, for some reason.) I met a man who'd been picking up trash for over 25 years on Hollywood Beach. He told me: "My daughter cut her foot out here once on a piece of glass, so I just think maybe I can do some good." On the Chicago lake front there are no real shells but there is glass, shards polished by the surf, and this occupies many of us beach combers.

“I’ve got pounds and pounds of them,” a woman told me last week, as I was about to go for a swim. She was dragging a stick through piles of tiny tumbled lake stones by Pratt Pier on Chicago’s northern most  beach. “I pray while I do it,” she said. “It keeps me sane,” she smiled, showing me her finds. “I make things with them. Prayer glasses, you know, for candles.” She showed me her legs, scared with little dots up and down her ankles. “I got titanium bones, got rear-ended three times. Blessing in disguise, though. I pray for these rage road people, cause I was like them once.” She leans on her stick, then bends back down and picks up a thumbnail shard of green glass.

“You’ll think this is crazy,” I confessed to her, “but I collect brick and concrete stones.” I picked up  a piece of concrete that had been tumbled into a polished stone of conglomerate pebbles.  “Water is a powerful thing,” she said. “I’ll look for some for you. I’m collecting Warsaw granite, see,” she showed me a garnet colored stone, wet and gleaming in her black fingers. “I know this guy who picks up the trash here. His mother’s gravestone is made of the same granite. I give him all I got.”

I walked on down the beach, thinking of her, ambling there in the surf, picking through the rocks, as the waves came and retreated. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


“The more we lack the courage and the will to act, the more we condemn to death our brothers and sisters, our children and our grandchildren. When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of a global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?”— Nelson Mandela, Tromso, Norway (11 June 2004)
Zackie Achmat and AIDS activists at AIDS Conference in South Africa, 2000

Thirty years ago, I heard the news on a gerry-rigged short wave radio with its antennae attached the top of my thatched roof. The BBC announcer described a mysterious disease that affected the immune system, which apparently only infected gay men and some Haitian immigrants. The disease was called AIDS. It was 1981. I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa working with women on vegetable gardening. I heard the report again and again that day, a news junky even then. Each time I became more and more alarmed and scared.
Fifteen years later, in a public health clinic in Chicago, I sat across from a social worker. She passed me a slip of paper with three words on it:  my first name, my last name and underneath in a dot matrix blur: POSITIVE. I stared at it for what seemed like a long time, thinking first that it meant, good news, positive, as opposed to negative, bad. Then, as my mind struggled to accept the diagnosis, I actually had the thought that I was not, Michael McColly.  After all these years, this was not my name. Who was this man? Not me.

But it was.

On Northwestern Campus, Evanston
In 2000, I was back in Africa, marching along with tens of thousands of South Africans, people like me living with HIV, as well as activists and health workers from around the world who were attending the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa. I wore this t-shirt, walking through the streets of Durban, proudly raising my voice with the others, chanting slogans to wake the people of the world to the injustice of drug companies and governments blocking access to the millions in need for treatment. What I remember that day were the throngs of young people, bussed in from around South Africa, from Soweto, from Cape Town, from rural areas where rates of infection were in some places nearly 30 percent.  They were so boisterous, chanting, laughing, arm-in-arm, finally able to be out in the open, unafraid, their heads held high, marching at the front of the protest.

Then as now, millions still have little access to the necessary drugs and care that have kept me and thousands of others free from the ravages of this insidious retrovirus, which infiltrates and copies itself onto healthy T-cells.

Last week, I pulled this t-shirt out of my drawer. (I’d worn it only once since that day at talk I’d given  on AIDS activism, which was the subject of my last book, The After-Death Room.) I decided to wear it for a few days in honor of all of those who have been affected by HIV as well as all of those unsung healers, care-givers, health workers, activists, scientists, and artists who’ve given so much to keep the world aware of this disease.  I wore it to readings, while teaching, while walking through campus, while walking through the streets of Chicago, and through my own neighborhood. It was my mini march of memory and protest.  Everyone wears t-shirts to support causes or proclaim affiliations or make jokes or call attention to something. But when I put on this shirt with HIV POSITIVE in bold purple, I felt that old anxiety of fifteen years before, an anxiety that I’m reminded millions feel every day, terrified for not only their health but of others finding out. People are still jailed, beaten, and murdered for living with HIV.  Two men boldly asked me why I was wearing it. A few smiled. But most still rushed by, one young man on Michigan Ave, blurted, as if I might not have ears, “Eeww, look: HIV!”

HIV and AIDS still threatens the lives of some 30 plus million people. Most of those who live with HIV don't know they have the disease, as they are too afraid to find out or have little access to health care. Most of the people with HIV are poor, young, female, and vulnerable to other diseases and the world's injustices.  The losses attributed to this disease are incalculable. The fears are still palpable and destructive. Yet, this disease has also awakened the world that we share this planet, and the health of each individual affects us all.  Whether it is HIV, TB, war, toxic chemicals, greed, racism, hatred or hypocrisy, we all suffer. But we all triumph when even one of us turns toward the fight and marches on.  I am alive because of many before me, from all over the world, who did not back down.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


 “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.”   Rachel Carson      

I’d just wanted to get outside, walk, and feel the promise of spring.  For those urban apartment dwellers, spring comes in other people’s yards and in little corners of wilderness like the miracle of Montrose Beach.  And that’s where I headed that April day last year.  Pulling into the park, I could see teams of adults in green t-shirts in the wooded bird sanctuary, and further out on the beach, kids were dragging trash bags through the sand.  And then it dawned as on me, I’d stumbled into Earth Day. 

It was an awkward moment. If anyplace in Chicago deserved a hand, it was the marvel of Montrose Beach’s bird sanctuary and its reemerging dunes and rare wetlands habitat. Where else in the city could you spot piping plovers and red fox while listening to the rustle of the dune grasses, then in this monument to the will of nature and the passion of people to preserve it?  I considered sifting through the junk in my car for a plastic bag and joining in, but I let it go.

I walked around, trying to spot some of the spring migrating birds, but invariably I’d see these school kids, gleaning what they could after the fastidious Sierra Club folks. They reminded me of my friends and I picking up bottles and trash on that first Earth Day forty years ago in 1970.  Within an hour or so, our sacks were filled. We had no idea how much trash there was embedded in the grass and soil along the highway outside of our central Indiana factory town. They were too heavy to drag home, the bags, so we just left them there.  And that’s where they stayed, for months. 

I got back in my car, a bit guilty but inspired by those kids and the idea of Earth Day as embodied there at Montrose. And instead of going about my usual Saturday routines, I decided I’d make a pilgrimage of sorts a bit further down the shore of Lake Michigan, to another miracle of urban wilderness, another emblem of the spirit of Earth Day, the Indiana Dunes.

For a long time, if I had a desire to get away or enjoy the natural world, I’d get on a plane or drive far from the smokestacks and concrete of Chicago’s Lakefront. But economic times have been tough, so I have been exploring by foot places I’d driven by for years in and around Chicago.

I drove through South Chicago and the industrial cities of Indiana where I could stop and walk along beaches or abandoned railroad beds to see birds and the budding of spring, but it seemed fitting to revisit Cowles Bog in the National Lakeshore on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.  This section of the park is named after the pioneering work of botanist Henry Chandler Cowles of the University of Chicago, who spent years studying the dynamics of the dunes and how the climatic forces affected the plants and animals which inhabited them.  From Cowles’ work and others we can’t ignore the fact that all life forms—including us—are dependent on the health of the web of life around us.  A field of science emerged from the sand dunes of Indiana: it’s called ecology.
Cowles Bog with Steel Mill and NIPSCO in backgound

But the places where Dr. Cowles and his students made their discoveries are now gone, bulldozed, and turned to industrial use.  A loss, for sure, but in the battle for the dunes and in other places around the globe a voice emerged, a voice from local people who understood in their own way how their health and that of their children’s depended upon the health of their environment. And it’s for them, on Earth Day, that you want to thank for laws that give us cleaner air and water and parks like the Indiana Dunes.  

The trail to the beach at Cowles Bog took me along railroad tracks with a long line of coal cars ready to be burned into digital joy or used to form ore and stone into steel. Underneath crackling electrical lines, I marched on, noticing the mallards in the marshes oblivious to me and the steam billowing from the stacks. I climbed up the old dunes now covered in an oak forest and then made it down into the foredunes, where I walked to the shore through the same grasses now emerging on the beach at Montrose.   

Thursday, April 7, 2011


"We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."  Talmudic saying

I have a reoccurring dream. It involves a car and often some member of my family. In this dream, I'm usually driving but last night it was my older sister.  We were driving a truck-like utility vehicle. As usual the car or truck is going out of control or going too fast or heading down a very steep decline or climbing a very steep incline or veering off the road or some such irregular movement. Nobody seems to ever mind that this is occurring but me. In this case, we were speeding down a very slippery road into what I can only describe as a cavern or cave that was icy and gloomily lit. Strangely some guy was there, and his house was in the distance, he was looking at a computer (of course computers and screens are popping in to my dreams all the time now—are they yours too?) The guy didn’t even look up. But I didn’t care. I was just glad to be out of that careening car. Then, looking around I noticed a man coming from some house in the distance. His face looked somewhat threatening and a bit crazy, and strangely and rather comically he held a small saw in his hand, a very rusted saw. At this point, of course, my family has disappeared. I should’ve been concerned but my mind fixed on that saw. I recognized it from somewhere. And then, I remembered: that was my saw or my father’s, I can’t remember, but it was the one I used all the time to make things as a boy and I’d left it out in the rain once and ruined it. Hence the rust.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


 “There you stand, but a mountain may be there.

Instead: it is not unlikely that the earth

May be yourself.         
                                                  Matsuo Basho

Perhaps it is nostalgia, a feeling I was sure I’d never know or have, but I’ve become aware of my body’s love for land as I age. I must admit that for a long time I never much cared for artists or writers who waxed on and on about nature or painters who would stand before an easel and paint scenes. Learning that Cezanne painted the same mountain over a hundred times (Mount St. Victoire in Provence) or Thoreau making a big to do about walking about the outskirts of Concord, Mass., I could never quite get it. How quaint and anachronistic, I thought.

It might be due to the environment in which I was seeded—the flat, farmlands of central Indiana, where I could climb up in a tree and see nothing but manipulated land for miles, every acre cleared, tilled, drained and put to good use. Like everything else—plants, animals, people, machines— the value of land depended on how much you could squeeze out of it.

Walking began to shift my perspective on landscape, slowly though. As I have tried to understand and write about what happens to the body and the mind when we spend long days wandering through landscapes, I have noticed that it’s the land itself that gives us our sense of wonder.

Even in Chicago and along the southern shore of Lake Michigan where I walked last summer, walking over asphalt and concrete and through industrial lands of Northern Indiana with its tank farms and brown fields, I began to feel something I’d not felt before—the land as a force that is shaping us even as we pretend that it is us that is shaping it.

Nostalgia actually comes from the Greek root “nostos” (a return home), and “algia” (the suffix meaning pain), hence the word often has a connotation that implies a bittersweet feeling for something lost from the past. Another clue to its origins might be from the Old English or Norse, which gives us the word “nest” from a related root “nes.” These derivations made me wonder: do we feel nostalgia when we sense we’ve lost our nest, our sense of home?

Watching the earthquake and the tsunami that has shaken Japan and the world, I feel the loss and fear generated by the images and horrific sounds of raw footage. The children and older people, the lost family members, the loss of homes and life and cities all sickened me. But it was the nuclear disaster that triggered some other form of loss that I’ve been feeling since walking through the industrial landscape of Northern Indiana this past summer. It reminded me, too, of the losses suffered in Katrina and Haiti as well as the man-made disasters of BP’s oil spill and the sludge spills of coal wastewater and destruction of mountains I’ve seen in West Virginia. The loss is everywhere if you look. For those who live in Illinois, don’t forget over 7,000 tons of nuclear waste sits in similar cooling pools. (No state has more.) The world is awash with tsunamis slowly rolling in all around us, particularly for people who live in vulnerable places. My friend, the environmental writer, Rob Nixon calls these slow forming environmental disasters aptly “slow violence.”

I turned to Basho, the 16th century Japanese poet and nature writer, the morning I read of the Japanese quake. And I thought of him, the older man walking with his paper rain coat and satchel of ink pad and paper to write his gifts of 17 syllable haiku as he wandered through the same areas that were affected in the Far North of Japan.

Here he is describing the bay of Matsushima along the same coast where the tsunami hit:        
                          "Tall islands point to the sky and lvel ones 
                           prostrate themselves before the surges of water.
                           Islands are piled above islands, and islands are
                           joined to islands, so that they look exactly like
                           parents caressing their children or walking with
                           them arm in arm."  from The Narrow Road to The Deep North

 And reading him, I was reminded of the humility he taught as he walked so lightly on the earth, observing and marveling at all forms of nature before him along his path through his beloved island home of Japan.

This sense of nostalgia is not despair or sentimentality. In fact, it’s a sign of life in us, a vibration that is there if we listen.

Spider, are you


or the Autumn wind?  

Friday, February 25, 2011


“. . . Today as I stand before you and think back over that great march, I can say, as Sister Pollard said—a seventy-year-old Negro woman who lived in this community during the bus boycott—and one day, she was asked while walking if she didn’t want to ride. And when she answered, "No," the person said, "Well, aren’t you tired?" And with her ungrammatical profundity, she said, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested."
                   From Martin Luther King’s Speech to marchers after the Walk to Selma, Alabama

For the past several years I’ve been exploring the wonderful trails and walks of Wisconsin, specifically those in and around Madison. I’ve been led on my walks by my good friends, Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon (writers of extraordinary heart and intellectual integrity who teach at UW). They’ve introduced me to the network of trails around Madison and its lakes, greenway, and UW’s campus as well as hiking in Devil’s Lake State Park and the 1200 mile Ice Age Trail that meanders through the state and other parks and preserves nearby. After the big snow of the week before, I was eager to get out and “blow the stink off” as my father would say.

Of course, all week I’d been following the pro-union rallies and protests against Wisconsin’s state budget bill and getting first hand reports by Anne and Rob. (See Anne's photos below.) And the next morning, our first walk was the one through campus, down famed State Street where we met the throngs of folks who’d been circling the State Capital for days.

What a scene.

I knew it would be big and loud but I’d not expected such joyous solidarity: school children in support of their teachers with banners marching, nurses and the doctors to support them, snow removers and sanitation workers, police, students (of course), school teachers, and fire fighters and emergency workers. A parade of red and flags and outrageously funny and inventive home-made signs.

Organized marches and taking to the streets are powerful forms of democratic action and speech. We’ve seen many in the past month in the Middle East and it has reminded us of what can happen when people stand together against governments or powers that assume a weak and indifferent public. And this certainly was the case in Madison. And yet here, what struck me was how civil people were. On Saturday when 70 plus thousand attended, including a few thousand to support the proposed budget, I watched two men debating on the capital steps their opposing views. Rare in our polarized times.  How proud people were to be there and to support people who work for them. How proud workers felt to be recognized. When some men came into the rotunda directly from their jobs as fireman and city truck drivers, roars went up. The budgets are complex and deficits are real in America, but what impressed me was the sense of solidarity of people walking in circles with friends and children wanting to express their concerns together and not just grumbling alone in front of a TV or in front of a computer.

Gandhi marched to the sea to protest British tyranny. Martin Luther King led marches throughout the South and North for civil rights. And leaderless movements and demonstrations have been sprouting and roaring around the world in the past few years for peace and environmental sanity and now for freedom and democracy in the Middle East. They all demand that people get up, drop their fears and cynicism, and walk together to show their strength and cohesion.

After the cheering and clamor of the protest, we headed to UW’s Arboretum to take a stroll in the late afternoon chilly sun. Out walk took us a good four miles as we circled around the lake and through a subdued wooded residential section of the city and then along the new and old trees of this great center of ecology began by Aldo Leopold. We talked some of the protest but as we often do we recalled episodes of youth in different parts of the world where we grew up and how those lands shaped who we became, for Rob  South Africa and for me similar territory back in Indiana. At the end of our walk, we watched a marsh hawk gliding through an opened field and disappear behind the old black oaks with their wiggly squiggly branches against an evening sky.

Monday, January 31, 2011


While most of America was under snow last week, I snuck down to Florida to spend some time with my parents. On my way to the airport, I nearly got into a traffic accident as a trunk squeezed my taxi nearly into a parked car. The cab driver, a young Moroccan man in a hooded sweatshirt, shrugged his shoulders, sighed some prayer to Allah and we went on. “I don’t get upset any more at these things,” he told me as if explaining to himself. We’d bonded and he went on to give me his philosophy of driving he’d picked up from an old Indian man he knew from his cab company: “Doesn’t pay to rush. You do your job and thank God, for what comes to you. In the long run, you are happier, you don’t get so much of the stress, and you are thinking more of God. And this is the better way.” He was happy to tell me this. We talked on about politics in America and in North Africa. He was excited about events there. (Though he reminded me that, like so many immigrants from North Africa, he’d come here to find work as there was little chance for him there.) Yet he was proud of his country. He told me that Morocco was the first country to recognize America after its independence.
When I told him, I was going to visit my parents in Florida. He turned around for the first time, smiling under his hood. “You are a good son.”
I sighed. My parents are aging and it’s hard sometimes to watch this. My mother is struggling with dementia (or Alzheimer, no one knows). My Moroccan cab driver heard the sigh. “Tell me, when you come back from visiting your parents, how do you feel?”
“I feel . . . I feel always better. You’re right.”
“I know I’m right. They took care of us. Now we take care of them.” (He’d told me that he sends money home as often as he can, and he’d helped pay for their new house along with his brothers.)
In northern Florida, I spent every day walking with my mother on the beach and into the inter-coastal dunes and oak and manzanita groves on the barrier islands where they spend part of the winter. Each morning, we walked an hour or so. And at night after my parents went to bed, I’d walk back on to the beach, where it always gives me the sense that you are walking in space, as the sound of the surf and soft sand seems to lift you out of your small thoughts and up into the stars.
But it’s with my mother where I always seem to learn something new about walking, which is to say, something I’d ignored about what happens to our body when we reconnect to the land around us. When my parents came to this part of Florida twenty years ago I found the area of quaint beaches and the endless inter-coastal wetlands boring. Over the years, in my visits I’ve hiked about and kayaked and fished and found more fascinating each year. This is the area, I’ve learned, where the Spanish first landed in the continental US. It’s also the same area (roughly) where Charles Bartram, the 18th century Philadelphia naturalist, made his drawings and observations about natural history as part of his walks through the Southeast. Bartram’s Travels, chronicled with a lyrical but lucid prose, is often credited with being a major influence on the Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as a hundred years later, inspiring a young John Muir, who trekked from Indiana to these same wetlands to follow in Bartram’s footsteps.
With my mother, we walked as naturalists, too, picking up seashells, pointing at the pelicans and skittering sandpipers, marveling at the osprey with the snake dangling over the telephone wires where he perched. We always make a pilgrimage, a long walk around the beach to Fort Matanza National Coastal Park. A wonderful park with interpretative board walks along the shore and coastal waterway. Here we invariably meet my parent’s neighbors out for their morning walks. There, we find our prize, nesting in the great Spanish oaks, the great horned owl, warming her egg. My mother has a hard time spotting it but feels the excitement and presence of the wondrous owl just the same.
Over past few years with onset of memory loss and the cognitive impairment of Alzheimer’s, my mother’s pace has slowed. She can’t always discern the level of the ground from shadows and changes of light. The beach is easier for her somehow. Perhaps, she trusts it from all the years she’s walked on it, relying more on the feel of her feet than on what her mind might misinterpret. She’s more relaxed and thus more lucid. But, then again, so am I.
Walking gives her a sense of agency and adventure and certainly a sense of joy and freedom. And this, in fact, is extremely important to all of us, but especially those suffering from memory loss and cognitive impairment. Recent studies have shown that walking three or more times a week for at least a mile has a marked improvement on brain plasticity and cognitive health.
Why? Circulation and heart rate are improved, of course, but perhaps more importantly the intricate relationships in the brain circuitry are maintained via the variety of actions being carried out by the body as we walk. Think about it. Orbetter feel it next time you walk. We think, we move, we see, we feel, we haveemotions, all in fractions of seconds as we simply take one step. Link.
As much as I can, I try to slow to her pace, noticing the ferns growing on the mossy limbs, the raccoon tracks in the sand, listening to the cardinals overhead. But I’m still too fast. And then my mother asks, from behind. “You don’t like to walk slow, do you?” I turn. She’s looking out at something in the wooded undergrowth of the oak groves, and if talking to it and not me, declares to all who might walk too fast in the world: “I liked to walk slow. It’s better that way. More interesting.” And then finding me again, “There’s so much here to see, isn’t there?”
From my Moroccan cab driver to my mother, I’m trying to get the message.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Open Lands and Ragdale

“The health of the eye demands a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we see far enough.” R. W. Emerson

Something happens to perception and thus to our very well being when we are afforded access to natural spaces and open lands where we can walk, gaze, wonder at the elemental world that somehow we lose sight of in our urban life of work, possessions, and technology. I don’t believe we have evolved quite so far as to ignore our essential affinity with our nomadic roots and for our need to roam and wander.

A couple of weeks ago I spent several days at an artist’s retreat, known as Ragdale, that is located on a ridge near the shore of Lake Michigan in Northern Illinois. For those who may not have heard of a place like Ragdale or of someplace like an artist’s colony, imagine a place where you are invited, honored no less, because of the value of your work as a writer, or composer, or artist and given two or four weeks to work without interruption. Where you are given a quiet space to think and doodle and sleep and stare and hopefully create. And you are fed by a gourmet cook who treats you like a prince or a child or a tired soul or whomever you are when you show up to imbibe with your other colonists at supper. And, in this case, at Ragdale, a place that is adjacent to acres and acres of prairie, marsh, and a wooded creek, all preserved by a band of good folk who recognized the value of these spaces and preserved it as well as those today who maintain it, such as the citizens of Lake Forest and the Open Lands.

I’d not even finished unpacking my bags before I marched right out even though the sun had just set. Darkness and the cold made it just that more enticing, and I found myself losing myself in the woods, my eyes not used to the darkness and I nearly walked into the creek bed. But I just wanted to be in the middle of it, just to hear the place, and sink into it a little, be for a while in the land and feeling it there, feeling its darkness and winter brittleness.

That first night it snowed about four inches, beautiful soft wet flakes that fell lighting up the darkness, and by morning the trees and prairie grass were covered, creating that purificatory ritual we all know that comes with the first snow. The patterns made you wince when you had to make the first foot tracks in the snow, reminding me of what it feels like sometimes when I walk at the Indiana Dunes and you don’t want to mar the magical windscapes of sand. But I did, and ran about like a boy, stopping to see if the snow would mold easily into . . . something, I mean I’m no Andy Goldsworthy but I began imagining a snow fort on the edge of the prairie under a few trees. At dinner that night, almost every one of the artists had made a similar excursion into the snow and prairie, and I whispered to the paper-maker and artist next to me, Melissa Craig, if she wanted to make something with me. “Sure! I’ve been going out and finding all kinds of interesting things in the woods.” Of course, that is what she does in her work, find ways to use the actual natural world as the very medium of her work. (Here you can see what she’s doing with her paper making and sculpting and organic use of color in creating a fungus like bar code that reads: “DO NO DAMAGE."

I walked around every day of my 12 day stay, watching and walking about in the snow through this precious oasis that is painstakingly and lovingly restored to its original and evolving ecological niche. But each day, I’d see something I’d not noticed or appreciated before, either because of the light, or the weather, or my own mood. One day, I decided to walk on the ice of the creek, seeing or hoping that it was as hard as it appeared. From inside a ditch, looking up in to the brambles and branches of the cottonwoods and other hardwoods that create the canopy over the creek, I realized from this perspective, from below ground, that this is not only another view but another world, even in winter.

Other artists made other discoveries, British poet, Cheryl Moskowitz, wrote this about one outing of hers where she came upon a deer:

Out there in the cold you don’t expect to see anyone.
Glad if you don’t, actually.
Time to be alone, find a stump,
brush the mound of snow off
sit for a while by the creek that’s all froze up
and listen, like the deer do.

You are a stranger here
the birds know that -
calling out to one another in their strange tongue
retreat, retreat, retreat.

And all at once she’s there,
one side of the Dharma wheel.
Chestnut markings like a dark target
framed against the vast white
and so are you.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Ragdale and not heard of some reference to the prairie or to some insight that it evoked. Here’s another image from poet Beth Brandt who very much works with natural imagery in her work:


How it

is dust

rut mound





What it

hides what it

keeps. How it holds

you up weighs

you down draws

you in. The gravity

of it turn of

it pull of

it when

it’s midnight

in November

and you can’t


But, oddly, as the days wore on, I found myself transfixed in my walks by not just the natural landscape but the the electrical towers rising out of the ground, at the fixity of the rusted steel of a train trestle and the trains that went by that I could hear at night in my studio. And I wasn’t the only one, Cheryl told me on the last day she made a video with her I-phone of a train moving through the landscape as she stood in the woods listening, and listening to her video myself, I was struck by the disappearance of sound as the train faded from view, leaving the woods and making me hear it anew. Here it is, listen to the end of the video. We think sometimes that these environments are sullied by the ways of humans. But all spaces have something of the wild still echoing through. We just have to give over to the place as it is and spend some time there, watching and listening and absorbing what it has to offer.