Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Scent of Summer

It is something that I cannot photograph, alas, that moves me the most on my solitary walks in the forest: the scent of the earth and the newly burgeoning grasses, shrubbery, and trees. It is the scent of summer.

This evocative aroma is as potent an elixir as any I’ve encountered and it is as potent in the Chicago wilderness along the Des Plaines River as anywhere I’ve been.

The forest preserves along the Des Plaines, though narrow, are a natural wonder, which is fitting for an urban river, I think. The name Des Plaines derives from French voyageurs who traveled beneath overhanging trees (probably sycamores and maples) that they mistook for their native European plane trees.

Once again I found myself dropping my oft-traveling wife at O’Hare airport just as the rush hour starts to make the freeways impassable. What a treat to have the Forest Preserve so nearby, a place of tranquility where I can pause for an hour or so in relative solitude while the crush of cars gradually thins.

I quickly leave the wide, well-used bike path with its packed earth and mown margins for a more inviting, narrow track towards the river. I am quite alone in one of the largest, most densely populated metropolitan areas of the country. The constant drone of traffic is faint, no more distracting than the buzzing of a mosquito would be if it were safely outside a screened porch.

The regular roar of aircraft passing low overhead on their flight path towards O’Hare is a bit more distracting. But as each fades off, the quietude deepens. I gaze up at the place where a jumbo jet just zoomed over on its inflexible trajectory and I spy a hawk making slow, lazy circles in the sky.

The soft ground of the river’s flood plain has become an even softer carpet of cotton.

The wind shakes loose a steady stream of cottonwood fluff, like gently falling snow.

Perhaps eventually it will cover up the intrusive marks left in the drying mud by an errant motorbike.

Although I’m aware of the pressures of society and the compulsions it creates towards conformity and consumption, I am constantly mystified by the contrast I find when I venture off-road, so to speak, and into an urban woodland. Why do I not meet more like-minded lovers of nature? It is a curious conundrum, that I myself relish in the peaceful solitude of an urban wilderness like this one and at the same time despair for the fate of humanity because so few find equal pleasure in it.

This is far from a new or unique observation. In a journal entry, dated 1854, Thoreau wrote, “The true poet will ever live aloof from society, wild to it, as the finest singer is the wood thrush, a forest bird.”

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