An Exploration of Life, Relationships, Movement, and Water
East Branch Headwaters ~> East Branch Forest Preserve
In no way whatsoever are Andrew Van Gorp, Jason Phillip Halm, Sustain DuPage, or any accompanying affiliates, suggesting that you should walk along the path of the DuPage River. The walk along the river is largely UNSAFE.
“Terrain” is to “Land” as “_______” is to “Water.”
The single word “terrain” is tied to many different understandings in our structure of knowledge. In our minds, the word “terrain” is strongly tied to the concept of “knowing” (or, conversely, “not knowing”). And so it happens that the most frequent phrase to string these two words into use, is, “she knows the terrain.”
But when a speaker speaks, “she knows the terrain,” what is the speaker actually implying that she knows? What can be known of terrain?
For us, the speaker may be suggesting that this person knows one of many things- one of many different things! Maybe what she knows is if the slope of the land is humble or proud. Perhaps what she knows is if the soil at a point on a map was, at last recollection, sandmixed or claybound. Knowing the terrain might even suggest she knows which activities can best take place when and where: a picnic in the meadow while the young flowers are in bloom, the path which is best for hiking through ancient trees when the snow still clings unsunmelted from the night before, the exact day the briarleaves have probably tinged red-and-yellow, signaling the blackberries are ready for patient hands and yogic postures. It might be that her understanding of the terrain stems from a geologic perspective- she could tell you of the region’s deep history, that of glaciers- or even further- that of lava and tectonic intrigues.
All these concepts of knowing can be bound up under one little word: “terrain.” After all, as terrestrial animals ourselves, we know the land best.
It is the same for me. I have explored the terrain of our region for all my grown years, and in step, my knowledge of the terrain has grown. But upon searching through my scaffolding of lessons that I’ve learned in my life, I could not for the life of me come up with a word equivalent to “terrain” for the converse regional presences and existences of water: the life dependent upon it, the relationships it maintains and sustains, its paths and personalities, its nature.
“Watershed” is close to a hydrologic equivalent to “terrain.” But “watershed” feels, eh… lacking. When I say, “use the word ‘terrain’ in a sentence.” You would say, “she knows the terrain.” If I said, “use the word ‘watershed’ in a sentence.” You would probably try to define it, “A watershed…is… a region… it’s a human understanding of, how- if a raindrop fell right here- would it end up in that river, or this river? If it goes there, the boundary, denotes- where it goes. A watershed is a boundary that denotes where water ends up.” Mmmmmmmmkkkkkkkkkkkayyyyyyyyy. Thanks for the very nerdy and confusing definition of what a watershed is…I guess. In asking someone to use “watershed” in a sentence, I would bet that next to no one would say, “she knows the watershed.” That’s telling.
“Waterways” is an even closer hydrologic counterpart to “terrain.” However, when we hear, “she knows the waterways,” we might accidentally assume it to only mean that she can navigate the connections of waterbodies for the purposes of travel to distant landmasses… but not much else beyond that. For example, in common usage, you might know the waterways and still not know when you are standing upon land hiding the course of a deep underground river, you might know the waterways and not know if you are more likely to pull up chert stone from the sediment above or below a beaver dam, you might know the waterways and not know at what depth the Largemouth bass likes to suspend during a sweltering hot summer afternoon.
I was trying to sit down and write about “Water Walks,” the new adventure my friend Jason and I had finally initiated, and I was lit-rally stuck at the first word. I was stuck at the first concept of a missing word, really. In all honesty, I was a little embarrassed. I grew up in a county that is named after a waterway- in a Village named after a body of water, within walking distance of both a lake and a river. I immerse myself in a constant stream of ecosystem and environment. In starting Sustain DuPage, people have even begun to expect that I just know things- and I couldn’t think of a word that is the hydrologic equivalent to terrain?!
So, where prior knowledge falls short, invention must do us service. Please lend me your approval of our newly co-held understanding, let us together agree that the water equivalent to the word “terrain” is: “hydrain.”
*SIGH OF RELIEF.*
Now I can truly begin writing.
Why Walk With the Water?
There has long been a whispered urging of my heart to fill out an ungrown branch of my own unknowing: the learning of DuPage County’s hydrain. (You nod along in agreement that this is a word you have long known and fully accepted as a very real word, a word that a majority of our community also knows and accepts as a very REAL WORD).
Ahem, as I was saying- the hydrain of DuPage is a currently-vacuous section of myunknowing which could alternatively be filled with rich new knowings, if I would only set out with intention to explore the unknown. But you see, exploring the unknown can be very intimidating if you set out to attain it alone. Which is why I am very thankful to be blessed with the friendship of a very cool person named Jason Phillip Halm, who shares my desire to know the DuPage hydrain.
We had once been in conversation, seemingly very long ago, about DuPage’s hydrain- namely, the East Branch of the DuPage River and the West Branch of the DuPage River, and how they confluenced just South of the County. Jason lives near the confluence, and frequents it often- yet I had never been there. He urged me to visit the confluence with him, and I did. And I am so very grateful that I did, because our journey there was the seed which led to our “Water Walks” adventure, an exploration of life, relationships, movement, and water.
In planning Water Walks, we didn’t really know what to expect. Like, was it even possible to walk the entire length of the DuPage- branches and all? Both Jason and I are practical people, so we decided to start small: “Let’s walk the entire length of the East and West Branches (headwaters to confluence), and then walk from the East Branch/West Branch Confluence to the Des Plaines River/DuPage River Confluence!”
So it was decided what we must do, but it wasn’t clear until much later why we must do it.
When I asked Jason why he wanted to do Water Walks, the word “confluence” stood out in his mind. Confluence is a word which means the flowing together of things (it’s not solely applied to rivers). And so for Jason, Water Walks is a flowing together of things.
Our understandings are built through relativity- no understanding can exist in isolation, but only exists in relation to all of our other understandings. Understandings which have been previously unconnected can become newly related through life experiences. I am eager to watch what meanings and understandings for Jason become confluenced through our experience of Water Walks.
If I had to pick out a word that stuck out in my mind when thinking of Water Walks, I would pick “relationship.“ I think when we say “relationship” most people think of intrapersonal human relationships, that is: our relationships with other humans. But when I think of the word “relationship” I tend to include extrapersonal relationships too, that is: human relationships with all biotic and abiotic existences of the known universe and even the unknown/mystic universe (which many call the, “spirit” or “dream” world).
And so for me, I would like Water Walks to be an exploration of my relationship with DuPage’s hydrain. I have long believed that relationships with other-than-human lifeforms are just like the relationships we share with our friends. The more time we spend together, the stronger our relationship gets! We cannot expect to cultivate a deep understanding and appreciation for biotic or abiotic beings who we don’t spend time with. I’ve long felt a growing desire to connect to all the life around me in DuPage, including that of DuPage’s hydrain. In order to strengthen my relationship with DuPage’s hydrain, I must spend time with it- and that’s why I’m participating in Water Walks.
Our “First Trek” Experience:
Driving in a car over to the East Branch Headwaters, I shared with Jason that I was actually kind of nervous- just kind of- mostly excited, but also…nervous. He asked me why. In my head I asked myself, “why am I nervous?” I mimicked the response I received back from that heart/stomach voice inside me back to Jason, “I guess I’m nervous because I’ve never done anything like this before. But I also feel grateful to be doing this with someone else.” That last part I spoke rang loudly in my ears, “someoneelse.” I didn’t want him to think I meant just anyone else, because it was important for me that he knows I’m excited to do Water Walks with him, not just someone, so I added “with you, I mean.”
*A brief aside*
In my relationships with straight guys, I always try to achieve a balance between two non-assumptions:
1) Don’t assume they will be uncomfortable being intimate with you because they’re straight [if I’m too distant with them in order to protect them from my gayness (read: internalized homophobia) I sometimes hurt my guyfriends’ feelings, cause they’re all like “don’t you know that I am not homophobic and you can be your regular gay-*ss self with me?!“)
2) Don’t assume they will be comfortable being intimate with you just because they generally accept your gayness. (Even super progressive feminist cis straight men are entitled to healthy boundaries of what levels of intimacy they desire from a friendship).
I explained this delicate balance I constantly strive for to Jason in the car and he laughed. He said he’s also excited to do Water Walks with me too. I love that he doesn’t have fragile masculinity like dat, it makes me feel more at ease to just be organic and uncurated in my friendship with him. I can’t remember if he and I ever broached the gay topic before, but he handled it like a pro. #Gratitude
We stopped to get gas before arriving at the headwaters because we’re fossil fuel abolitionists who can embrace complexity like dat. Also, Jason had to pee. While I waited for him I was trying to envision what to expect the headwaters would look like. With the little knowledge I had of how DuPagers treat our hydrain, I was expecting a non-magical spot, probably largely ignored and especially unassuming, encircled to the shoreline with either concrete, lawn, or buildings. I hoped against the struggle of my logic to picture a beautiful sloping fen, tucked away from the terrors of human landuse- but the former picture kept superseding my dream vision in my mind. Jason returned to the car. I decided to try to not have any expectations, just to make sure that I wasn’t disappointed in the end, which has basically become my modus operandi when dealing with feelings of excitement in my jaded late-twenties.
We arrived at the headwaters of the East Branch of the DuPage River. We first glimpsed it peaking out from between two houses as we drove around to find a place to park. We walked toward what appeared to be an unassuming retention pond surrounded by lawn, complete with giant fountain.
Yep, there was absolutely nothing magical about it. It might have had something to do with the sign that loudly exclaimed the headwaters of the East Branch of the DuPage River were, “PRIVATE PROPERTY” and that we- “DO NOT TRESPASS.” Yeesh- Ok Ok! Message received! We’re not welcome here! Got it!
We loitered around long enough to shoot a little intro video for the Water Walks project (linked at the bottom of this article!) but not long enough to have a run-in with the police. After all, the enjoyment of one of DuPage’s most sacred natural heritages, the birthplace of the East Branch, does not just belong to anyone, but rather a small subset of very specific people.
The water, which was pumping up into the pond from somewhere deep in the ground under Bloomingdale, crossed under the street- so we walked along to follow.
For all intents and purposes, this is where the East Branch takes on its river form and begins its long walk to the Gulf of Mexico. It comes out of an elbow-noodle shaped pipe at a 90 degree angle from the riverpond. (We decided to call ponds and lakes which are really just rivers disguised as ponds and lakes “riverponds” and “riverlakes,” respectively).
Most passerby would probably assume this water comes from somewhere North of this pipe, but it actually comes from the pond immediately to the West, which you wouldn’t know unless you crawled down that cute shore incline to doublecheck, as we did, just to make sure. It doesn’t take more than a few human steps before the East Branch’s erosion problem becomes noticeable.
The silt from Bloomingdale, some of the Earth’s richest soil for plant growth- built up over thousands of years- could end up as far South as the Gulf of Mexico. That’s pretty hard to stomach. It was the first sight that caused an emotional and spiritual response from us. The headwaters had lacked the inspiration for any feeling, except for maybe disgust. It was the banks of the infant river which first elicited our sympathy. It hit a little too close to home. It’s houses, roads, parking lots, and lawns like mine that cause this river to experience 100 and 500 year flood events every summer. Ouch. Sorry River. We can do better. We will do better.
The river rambled under a bridge, past a school, and around the lawn of a soccer field which was mown down to the river’s edge. We wondered aloud if the surrounding neighbors knew if the water here was a river or not as we walked under the swinging branches of a majestic weeping willow (a little too on-the-nose if you ask me). We wondered that same thought aloud very often throughout the walk: what did we expect the people who live next to this river knew about the river. “The person living in that blue house!” (Pointing demonstrably). “Do they know it’s a river? Do they know it has a name? Where it’s from? Where it’s going?”
The river turned decidedly into a concrete underpass. A crow called with warning. As we crossed the street we noticed a commonly-ignored death cairn: “WARNING. PETROLEUM PIPELINE.” Just a few minutes from the headwaters of this river, a pipeline flowing under homes, under our Earth’s arguably second/third most precious resource (water). A hidden pipeline filled with literal ecocidal poison.
Past the road the river overflowed a small waterfall into a beautifully large riverlake, also lawn-strangled and house-menaced. We were thankful for the splashing sound. It sounded happy, despite everything.
Upon and above this riverlake we saw “sea”gulls floating and flying. By voicing this observation, we realized we had both noticed an unusual number of gulls this spring, independent of eachother. I hypothesized that maybe they were dying by the lake due to the 2014 heavy tar sands oil spill that threatened the drinking water of more than 7 million people in the Chicagoland region, and so maybe decided to fly inland to seek food refuge? After all, we’re still not sure how much oil remains sunk to the bottom of our lake, emitting toxins into our drinking water within a few miles of the water treatment intake. (#AbolishFossilFuels) “Or,” Jason offered, “maybe those gulls were just switching it up, seeing some new sights, trying out something new- like us.” I’m thankful he keeps me focused on the good stuff.
We walked along the northern shore of Westlake Park, confusedly past the monument-sized bolder with no plaque or companions (definitely not glacially placed- EXPLAIN YOURSELF! WHY ARE YOU HERE?! #mysterybolder), until we reached the outlet of the riverlake where the water returned to river form. If you can call it that…
Between the outlet of the lake at Westlake Park and the inlet of the river at Sunnyside Park is the most heinous infrastructure of human destruction I’ve ever seen. And I’ve visited open landfills. Jason and I were struck silent at first, resentfully stepping into the concreted aqueduct the river was allowed to pass through.
In a way it appeared- in form- like art. But art in the way that art is something that makes a human reflect on the human condition, like the tragic mummies of Pompeii. Art that manifests an eery beauty evoked from the shadow of a past terror. Jason and I came to a realization through dialogue that there must have been at one point a vote held at a Village meeting wherein Villagers agreed in good faith to cement over approximately 1,210 feet of the river’s path motivated by what we supposed was called “convenient maintenance.” About 500 feet down the aqueduct Jason voiced, “I mean, this river is completely dead.” There were, to the human eye, two distinct kinds of algae growing on the concrete floor of the river: a solid mass of the slimy lime green kind, and occasional spots of the forest green kind. It is an example of ecocide.
Jason found a really cool rodent skull in the aqueduct. It was a nice distraction for a moment, but we didn’t linger to discuss it for too long. We were pretty eager to be done walking through the aqueduct stretch of the river because it filled us with so much shame for the current indefensible behavior of our species.
THANK GOD. We made it past Knockturn Alley. The river flows back into riverbottom sediment at Sunnyside Park. Just South of Sunnyside Park is a wastewater treatment facility. We paused to inspect curious stakes set firmly into the riverbed at equal distances along the Eastern shoreline. Perhaps they were once meant to hold in place wetland plants for a mitigation project and had been long forgotten? Perhaps they were once holding riprap to reduce erosion? We never figured it out.
Downstream of the water treatment plant (where our water goes before reaching the river) there were lots of sudsy bubbles. We wondered how much pharmaceutical pollution flows through us and into the water. Does the treatment plant filter out all the cleaning chemicals we pour down our sinks, toilets, and bathtubs? Even if the treatment plant cleans the water to EPA-recognized “safe” levels of pollution, are the EPA-recognized levels really safe? Is there any safe level of pollution? We breathed deep sighs as the conversation petered out and we continued on our walk.
The riverbanks rise high over the sinking river, which cuts its way through a cottonwood and elm forest- the banks dropping some 10-12 feet in the worst eroded sections. Most of the mature trees on either side of the river are dead and stripped of their bark, which left tall white columns contrasted against the dense black of a buckthorn thicket. If we disregarded what we could read was happening to the landscape it was pretty stunningly beautiful. I was enraptured by this small hollowed out treeknot. I could sense on a spiritual level that at least a few bird families had raised chicks in this hollow- I mean, how could they NOT have?! I spent some time feasting my eyes on the quiet enclosed space from multiple angles. We continued our way, ducking and snapping through the buckthorn thicket.
Every once in a while Jason feels the need to prove he could be a GQ model, largely because I enable him/ don’t give him much of a choice in the matter- OK IT’S ME, I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW MY FRIEND COULD BE A GQ MODEL. This was the highest bluff eroding into the river through this section. It showed a cross section of gravel under a few feet of the dirt that was pretty cool to see if you were able to just stand witness objectively without recognizing the destruction taking place on a daily basis as an externalized cost of our society’s built infrastructure. I learned a long time ago that if you want to live as an eco person in this region at this point in history you have to get really good at withdrawing emotionally from 90% of your waking existence or else you will completely lose your mind from the backwardness of the insanity we commonly call “the carryings on of daily life.”
This tree’s roots were slowly exposed and worn away by the erosion from regular catastrophic rain events. Because so much of DuPage soil is now covered with buildings, lawn, and asphalt, (not to mention our infrastructure built to get rainfall away from our houses and straight to the river) less than an inch of rainfall can overwhelm our rivers in minutes. In the olden days, less than an inch of rainfall would percolate slowly through the soil over the course of months, ensuring a steady supply of water for the river. In the hottest months of summer in DuPage, the water we see in the river is actually water we pump in from Lake Michigan. If we were to stop pumping in water from out of county and walk away from DuPage, we would observe the result of our infrastructure leaves the rivers dry in the summer months.
We found an old car rusting into the soil along the river, surrounded by a heap of scrap metal. It was very “I am Legend.” We wondered aloud how much the metal might be worth if someone dug it up and scrapped it. Maybe there’s a farmer somewhere still telling himself, “some day I’m going to fix that car up!” Sitting in a half-buried rust heap surely makes one ponder the legacy of one’s life. Looking at this image I think, “I like that I can’t see the company logos sewn onto my clothes in this photo.”
Seeing these 55 gallon drums camouflaged by so many years of piled up brush filled me with immediate dread. God only knows what evil lurks within, waiting to be rusted free. It was a pretty surreal moment between Jason and I. I remember asking, “What is this?! 1970?!” It was a fitting metaphor for our human response to the growing toxic legacy we are building up upon the landscape: hide it from view and maybe we’ll never have to deal with the consequences of our toxic burdens within our lifetimes. Who knows, maybe they’re empty? But with what I’ve seen so far in this world, I doubt it.
We finally reached the East Branch Forest Preserve. This was by far the most undestroyed landscape of the entire first trek. Walking through the tallish grass I suddenly remembered that there was a cougar sighted at this very forest preserve a few weeks ago! At this point in the 2.66 mile trek, we were getting cold and our thoughts turned to tacos. There were a few tributaries that were not on the map we had previously referenced, so we had to keep veering left to find a place to cross the tributaries. The telltale sign you are approaching a tributary within the next 15-20 feet as you walk in the direction of the river’s flow is cattails. If you’re walking with the flow of the water and hit cattails, you might as well veer off at 90 degrees to seek the thinnest section of the tributary to cross (to save time by eliminating the need to double back up the tributary).
Our first trek was very fulfilling and I am very excited to go out on Trek 2: East Branch Forest Preserve ~> Churchill Woods Forest Preserve!