An Exploration of Life, Relationships, Movement, and Water
East Branch Trek 4:
Glen Oak County Forest Preserve ~> Hidden Lake Forest Preserve
DISCLAIMER: 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.
Experiencing the River as Ourselves
By: Andrew Van Gorp
The two men leave their car in the Glen Ellyn Park District’s parking lot and cross Route 53 into a gravel car pulloff towered over by some kind of radio-telephone-technology-tower thing. The space they stand within feels like a hidden world- perhaps sometimes accidentally rolled up upon mistakenly by automobilists as they need to make a quick u-turn. A car is parked in this pulloff and a man is adjusting his fishing pole on his cartrunk- he is also here by no accident.
Through his interaction with this fisherman, Andrew is reminded of a recurring lesson in his life which he must honor…
Are you catching anything?
Do you eat them?
“No. You can’t.“ he says.*
…In life, we all fall prey to thought patterns that trace a false transitiveness or illusory correlation: if A is B and B is usually C, we assume that A is probably going to be C. These immediate expectations can later be proven invalid, which can be a total bummer.
Andrew loves fishing. To him, fishing represents the abundance of the water world- a world of mystery, largely hidden from human understanding. The water creatures are ancient looking, like living fossils of the dinosaur age: cray fish, gilled fish, pondweeds, swimmerbugs and mollusks.
Whenever Andrew meets someone who shares his appreciation for waterplaces, he is filled with a hope that this new acquaintance will also share the same values and/or worldview: that nature should be protected from human destruction, that nature should be accessible to all people, that nature is a sacred access point for manifested spiritual truths.
However, this is not always the case- similarities do not always beget other similarities. Hiking riverpaths, Andrew has found cast aside plastic worm containers, chewing tobacco tins, and beer cans assembled together as if the fisherperson had just gotten up from their foldable chair and let everything in their lap cascade down to the ground where they had been sitting. Many men, like Andrew, were taught how to fish through a context of archaic gender stereotypes: men like to hold fish, women usually think that fish are too yucky or scary to be held. Sometimes, as was the case with this fisherman, people don’t go fishing to connect to a deep and ancient spiritual purpose of existential transcendentalism. Sometimes they don’t believe fishing is a simultaneous political and moral act. Or maybe if they do, they don’t feel the need to talk to a stranger about it.
Sometimes people just wanna blow off steam, and don’t really know why they end up at the river when they’re stressed- they might not really care to know why it destresses them either. They just want to take a hit of that cool river air hanging above the water, moving in strong as the sun is setting, because work was terrible today.
Andrew is getting better at accepting that those reasons for being at the river are also ok, and just as important- because that fisherperson is a free and sovereign being and his experience of river-visiting-as-recreation might be equally as valuable to him as river-visiting-as-living-poetry is for Andrew. It’s ok that he might not share the same connections in the same way. He might not have ever experienced a nagging need to feel “connected to Place,” as Andrew had once felt before he explored his place in the world. The Greater Context of one’s existence is not always important to everyone- and that’s ok.
We leave the fisherman behind, descending into the brush beyond the gravel- literally descending- we followed the fisherfootpath trailing down the back of a hillside to the waterfront. The mud path was eroding significantly, yet solidpacked from frequent shoesteps and drought.
*(Really, you can eat bass from the DuPage River- predator fish in DuPage can be safely eaten one meal a month, according to the IDNR website. Not sayin’, just sayin’).
Paying Attention to Possibilities
By: Andrew Van Gorp
As we began to walk the river, we noticed this grass which resembles manoomin or “the good seed” or “wild rice.” As the season for wild rice harvesting approaches, our minds grow conscious of rice-looking grasses growing along the river. We know that wild rice grows in six of the DuPage County forest preserves, but we can’t find out which. Harvesting it to eat would be illegal of course, under the current forest preserve regulations and the current forest preserve administration. There is no such thing as a DuPage plant foraging license, yet. It would be good for us to find the DuPage wild rice though, just for future reference. If you were a steward and you did find some- you could spread it, returning the revered plant to abundance in select aquatic sanctuaries within our local ecosystem. Wild rice is very picky about its environment. The water level must be right. The water temperature must be right. The water acidity must be right. The water sediment must be right. The rate of annual reseeding must be right. But if we could bring it back- it would be the foundation of an entire foodchain. This plant is a keystone species for humans and other animals, too. It’s also delicious. Unfortunately, this grass is not manoomin.
Autodidactic Tactics of Wild Hibiscus Harvest
By: Andrew Van Gorp
The banks of a small hibiscus-studded fluvial lake of the East Branch held pink flowers gleaming in the midsummer sun like large whorled jewels. Passing them on foot we wondered aloud if we remembered if we can make tea from their calyx? Jason and Andrew have often expressed a yearning for a teacher- someone older and wiser who could connect them to generations of vast accumulated knowledge of this specific place: a community elder. In the absence of a human teacher, they must learn just as the Ancients did. They must learn firsthand from the muted whispers and acted-out lessons of their community of natural beings. They must make the surrounding world their Teacher, and honor the pace of their learning process.
Once Andrew and Jason were finally able to pull themselves away from their standing break with the hibiscus patch, Andrew told a walking story. He had found a hibiscus grove on the river near his home and made a point to note their precise location for a return visit when it was their time to be harvestable. However, when he did return, their gummy red calyxes had already fallen into the tall grass and were off to other purposes than to serve as warm winter tea for humans. Andrew told how he had set his will to try to return again the next year after that shrugging disappointment.
The two men discussed what it means to be in tune with nature. Being in tune with something or someone means that you are in agreement. To be in tune with nature, you must make and honor agreements with nature. The timing of the development of wild hibiscus calyxes requires you to check in on the plant as it flowers- to ask yourself if any petals are browning, to observe how many flowers are past-petal already. To stand witness that every plant’s flower has a different duration of stay. Some plants, like Morning Glories, flower and curl in the breadth of a day. Some open and close for days on end. Some flowers remain open for weeks. These are observations that can only be committed to memory from an agreement to make frequent visits with a plant. These observations require an intention to learn how to “read plant.” Plants agree to tell you the time of the year. Plants agree to tell you the direction you are facing, they tell you when it last rained, they tell you where an old tree used to stand decades ago. Plants have agreed to help you find your place in context to the rest of the world, every time you visit with them.
We do not need a teacher to have a relationship with the life around us. We can simply: relate!
Naming, Viburnums (Wild vibes)
By: Andrew Van Gorp
Different people get different vibes from exploring nature. We know that language shapes our reality and that not having the right words for something can be an unsettling experience in many ways and for many reasons. As humans, we feel intuitively that we can’t ever trust something that we can’t name. For many of us, to name something is to know it, despite virtually all of our human-given names being, objectively, mostly meaningless babble. It’s not a name that holds meaning- it is our ability to know a thing that holds meaning for us. Names, like all aspects of language, are a social construct. You could meet the above pictured plant in the wild and name it a “Blueberry bush” because the berries are blue in color. This will not make the berries delicious like the berries of the plant many people commonly know as “blueberry,” but if this is what you have named this bush for yourself, it doesn’t take away from your understanding of who that plant is. The name of the plant would not change the relationship you have with the plant.
Some people in the eco community get reallllllly caught up in the human naming of plants. They assert that there is a proper name to call a plant, a correct naming. They take pride in knowing plant names, they take pride in categorizing plants. But sometimes, other people just take pleasure from calling a plant whatever the heck they want to call it. If you correct someone when they name a plant in a different way than you do, you might be asserting your worldview over someone else’s in a pretty regressive way. It can be really cool when people are able to offer up the scientific name of a plant as a touchstone of global understanding, but it can also be pretty burdensome if the scientific naming of a plant actually serves to obscure, interrupt, or bar a person’s knowing of a plant rather than clarifying it.
The Common People’s inability to name organisms in the natural world contributes to their fear of the entire ecosystem and its parts. There are plants that require an explanation of caution of course, such as poison ivy. Some people know the name of poison ivy- and its story, but can’t identify it- so every plant in the forest becomes a potential poison ivy for them, or maybe even a plant worse than poison ivy that they haven’t even heard of. If someone showed you a plant and pointed out its three leaves, red-tinged stem, and mitten shaped leaflets on the sides and told you “this plant can give you a rash if you don’t scrub off its oil from your skin after 24 hours” it wouldn’t matter if you couldn’t remember the name of it. What matters is that you learn what that plant means for you: it means scrub your skin when you get home with a washcloth and harsh soap if you touch it- regardless of what it’s called. Many of my friends know of poison ivy, they know how it can affect them, but they can’t identify it. What good is the knowledge of the name if you don’t know the plant?!
When I lead people through nature, I try to emphasize who the plant is to us, not what they are called. Name memorization comes with repetition over time. It would fill me with more joy to observe a friend point at a plant along the trail and say to a newbie hiker accompanying us “look out for that one, I can’t remember the name- but it can give you a rash!” than to have my friend proudly exclaim to the newbie, “we’ve got to watch out for poison ivy today!” as their shins are painted with urushiol.
Binding Patterns of Aligned Fate
By: Andrew Van Gorp
A human notices a feather laying amongst pondleaves.
The patterns we are able to witness recurring in life-bearing spaces are the thumbprints of our Universe. Their existence is a manifestation of the same Divine Laws that govern our existence.
At first, when I saw the feather out of the corner of my eye, the similarity of shape led me to believe that I was actually seeing the sun reflecting off of one of those pondleaves.
It’s frankly amazing to me how similar in design feathers and leaves are.
Leaves catch sunrays, feathers catch the air, and when separated from their organisms into a gust of sun-pushed wind, both leaves and feathers flit about dramatically, bearing a fleeting trace of character from the living bodies they have lost.
Yet once they both are detached in their time, they are no longer part of “bird” or “plant.” Alone in the world, they form shrinking identities unto themselves. They are decontextualized, temporarily awaiting rapid dissipation. We don’t think of feathers as being “birdless,” or leaves as being “plantless.”
I guess it’s the same with humans.
The return of one’s body and subsequent composting is really just a decontextualization of our once-incarnated identities in the end. We, in the pattern of all things, simply drop our no-longer-useful parts and senesce into the Great Decontextualization, into the greater history of the ecosystem.
But really, no.
Many of us in DuPage are not living fully contextualized lives.
Death for us would not represent decontextualization. A better word would be just contextualization. Of course anyone living their entire life out of context from their greater reality would be faced with a jarring experience when approaching the end of their time as their Self on Earth! In order for a human to be spiritually prepared to die, one must accept the context of one’s limited life and allow for that concept of Oneself to end. To live life as if one does not rely on the ecosystem for daily sustenance, avoiding thoughts of one’s inevitable return to that same ecosystem- pretending we are not a part of a temporary equation, is to live life without the context of Truth.
Speaking for many of us who grew up in DuPage, our identity as being an important part of the ecosystem is a context we were never truly initiated into as we were born into our human bodies. In fact, we exist fully dependent on the ecosystem, causing great impact within the ecosystem; yet, this greater context was omitted from our cultural upbringing.
Yet I am a feather laying amongst pondleaves.
So much of our lives here are lived out of context from our ecosystem, that for some of us, death might represent the only contextualization of our true Place in the Universe. The passage of time inevitably pulls away all of our feathers, and strips us of all our leaves, and takes the muscles from our bones. These materials drift away from us. The leaf halts its sugarmaking, the feather falls from flight, and the human body ends its work to create greater harmony and abundance in the world. They all share back the identity of their True Natures and are dissolved into the Family of Life, the same family which kept them alive during the time of their unique lived expression.
By sweetening our lives with every new morning sun, by caressing the wind with our cheek, death will be for us not an epiphany of obligated debt and fearful loss, but a familiar and honorable transformation evoking a feeling of deep caring generosity and humble gratefulness.
Poop Tubes and Other Modern Hilarities
By: Andrew Van Gorp
This was the first sewer pipeline we passed. Up until now, the only pipelines we’ve seen crossing our only access to locally-running fresh water have been petroleum transport pipelines.
For those who don’t know, running water is the safest water to harvest for drinking. Even when water is harvested from a running source, you have to boil and filter it to ensure it is safe to drink. (This process does not remove toxic heavy metals or all chemicals). Stagnant water is dangerous to process and drink, and should be avoided, even if it’s free of modern toxins.
It is most likely that this pipeline is leaking into the river to some degree, especially during rain events or mass snowmelt. Sewage leaking into the river is a bad thing because it throws off the natural chemistry of all life. Of course, the dangers posed by sewage are incomparable to the centuries of pollution potential that fossil fuel pipelines crossing the DuPage Rivers represent. A sewage spill can be naturally healed within a relatively short amount of time. A fossil fuel spill takes many human generations to fully heal. Maybe ten human generations or more?
Since we’re on the topiiiiiiiic…
Pooping into fresh water is not sustainable. It’s a waste of energy and resources. Some day in DuPage, we’ll all be happily pooping into composting toilets, guffawing at the idea of using a resource as precious as fresh water to transport our poop around. Anyway, onward down the river we go!
Pace by Design
By: Andrew Van Gorp
I like this photo because it gives you a small sense of what we experienced during Water Walks treks. In the foreground, a tranquil bed of water is held on high ground by a gently sloping berm. A heron hunts in the stillness. In the background we see cars whizzing down I-355. The way that we experience the passage of time in these two spaces is radically different, which is disorienting when these two spaces are so close to each other in proximity.
Watching the heron we imagine time from a standpoint of two-legged beings who can conceptualize billions of years of history. Lifting our eyes but slightly, we are sucked into a disjointed and frenzied experience of time that feels rapidly fleeting- too rushed for safety or much consideration.
It is as if certain ecopsychological consciousnesses are engineered into both landscapes- consciousnesses that are equally difficult to resist. It’s very difficult to feel rushed and self important in the stillness of a swamp, and it’s very difficult to feel pensive and connected along a stretch of turnpike.
Transitioning between these spaces left us both feeling whiplashed with dysphoria.
Many of us DuPagers live our daily lives without an awareness of the sacred pace of life. Watching the heron demonstrated to us the patience required for fishspearing. We do not embrace the heron’s knowledge, for knowledge of pace is not needed for our survival at this point in history. We affect but are not affected. We are dissociative with our own lives. We do not connote. We do not connect. We are unthinking. Whizzing by the moments of our lives and all the lives around us. But we were not made to not live like this.
What’s So Bad About This?
By: Andrew Van Gorp
Eco people: we need to talk. Nearly every plant species in this photo is what eco people today would demonize as an, “invasive species.” Yet the “invasive” Reed Canary Grass pictured here is able to withstand the bomb flows of stormwater runoff we are blasting down the river, preventing erosion and stabilizing the streambank. The Mulberry provides nutrient-dense berries for wildlife and humans alike. The Buckthorn is sequestering carbon and providing nesting habitat for shrubland bird species despite being doused with salt pollution when the river floods. Surely some Grass Carp swim in those depths, eating the pondweed and algae that would explode with growth due to our lawn fertilizer pollution- preventing hazardous algal blooms at lowtide.
Can we truly in good confidence blame these species for thriving in the conditions we have created for them? These species still give their gifts, still honor their niche roles in the ecosystem- despite our best efforts to eliminate their participation in our local ecosystem. The land managers of this area would tell you that all of these species should be destroyed by various means and replaced with native species. Here’s the problem with that: a lot of our native species are not as disturbance-hardy.
We can’t have our cake and eat it too. If we want Reed Canary Grass to stop monoculturing itself all along our streams- maybe we should work to prevent the radical erosion events we are causing that create the disturbance Reed Canary needs to keep a foothold. If we want mulberry to stop popping up everywhere, perhaps we should work to not stress out our soils with devastation and compaction. If we want buckthorn to stop spreading, perhaps we should work to ensure regular controlled burns are happening in all natural areas.
In other countries, entire town holidays are dedicated to the upkeep of celebratory traditions which balance humans into harmony with nature. Why can we not certify a battalion of citizens with red cards so that on those rare days with perfect conditions for controlled burns- we can send out the bat sign and call our citizen fire keepers to leave work and head to their closest forest preserve to assist in controlled burns? Why can we not scythe Reed Canary Grass before it seeds and feed it to regional farm animals as hay? Why can we not coppice mulberry and inoculate the logs with mushroom spawn to keep the tree’s population in check?
Nature is not very noisy, but it’s practically shouting at us to return into relationship with the landscape.
Separate, and Yet Together Somehow
By: Andrew Van Gorp
Walking through this breezy grove, I realized that the willow plant and the bamboo plant are eerily similar. Both coevolved with humanity, serving the role of being a wet-soil loving weaverplant. Rapidly growing, bendable, splittable, strong. Both plants are a source of green biomass for grazers (deer and panda). The way they both dance in the wind- you’d swear they were cousins! These green beauties made me consider… where are we truly when we are stepping through un-human-claimed landscapes? The space pictured in this photo has been temporarily rejected by society as “not worth destroying” and in places like this all over DuPage, these life-carrying corms of continuity are living out their existence- following their cycles of nature. Yet, they seem to thrive only as disjointed simulacra having forgotten their true purpose: simultaneously enacting living ceremonies of the past and unchoosingly paving new practices for a brave and unknown future. I imagine these willow singing, half-sway, “If we must dance now in truck exhaust, then we must now dance in truck exhaust. Our dance is unchanged, though the wind carries specks of uncombusted gasoline with which to coat us.”
Whose spaces are these?
Surely, our DuPage culture asserts that someone has a file somewhere with important paper, assigning these plots to humans who have sorted themselves addresses with homes that are built far from here. Likely, these humans resent that their name carries the burden of a land that cannot be destroyed to host a building that could harbor some kind of consumption practice. “What purpose have I with an un-developable willow grove? What could I possibly gain from a useless stretch of green with no in-road, no electricity, and no pipes?”
Perhaps the Willow claim this land. Perhaps the Willow claim themselves for Freedom. Does this small, leafed family know that their stand is threatened to be chipped away and buried deep under concrete by just the sideways glance of a speculative eye? Does it matter to them? Does not a day’s sun ray of fleeting freedom, ignorant from death, taste as sweet as a promise of longevity at the moment of a solar flare- heating the land with a temporary breathe so subtle it could almost be missed?
Can a landscape be both living and dormant? What can an ecosystem truly provide if it is just considered to be a placeholder between the context of past and future development? What is a willow grove to he who does not visit the land he was paper-entrusted?
By: Jason Phillip Halm
The way to know that a river is lower than it previously was recently is to notice that there is so much area exposed that isn’t teaming with plant life. That’s how we know the river went down. Walking, we saw numerous birds hanging out in this lake, and felt, the both of us I believe, for the first time on these walks that we were seeing remnants of a functioning ecosystem–incredible, considering we’re almost halfway down this branch of the river. Killdeer birds skittered along the mudflats. DuPage is beautiful country. There is richness here enough to survive on. We saw a man’s footsteps all the way out here, accompanied by his dog.
Walking, more, amongst the trees and prairies, we see, we think, a black-crowned night heron. Shortly thereafter, in another wetland area, slow moving riparian zone, probably 50 or so other birds, some easily identifiable–egret–some not so. Bird identification, another skill largely missing from the mainstream of our society.
It isn’t the birds that got us started on this topic, I must confess, but they seem to be fitting teachers for a skill-less society.
That black-crowned night heron, though, knew much. It knew–had to know, really–that in order to fly, it must nest. In order to nest, it must construct a nest. To construct, it had to forage. We aren’t positive about this, but it’s quite the possibility to behold the next step, that in some ways the night heron may also encourage its foraged plants to take hold over less preferred species–all for its descendents.
And perhaps most of all, the heron knows, instinctually perhaps, that to fly is not the goal but the means, really–in order to share in its provision of life.
That knowledge may be the most fleeting in our society–that it isn’t the phantasmal flying that matters, it’s the sharing of the inherently shared experience. When we make our livings separate from one another–children to one corner, parents to another, grandparents to yet another, we fly in the face of what life actually is: an ephemeral experience that we must go through together. And when we divorce ourselves from our shared experience, we try to replace it with flights of fancy, often in our very own energy-intensive but somehow low-energy modules.We talk a lot about how our community has lost so many skills essential to not just a sustainable future, but, as five times enough carbon to permanently ruin our atmosphere for human life sits in barrels ready to burn, a future for humans, full stop. The most striking to me, though, is our lost capacity to share. Our culture insists on alone time, and it insists on private spaces. These are quite good ideas at the level of a home. Private space though, is a uniquely terrible idea at the level of a community.
This was proved to us as we tried to venture forth down the East Branch, encountering yet another fence, this time one with a barbed wire top–supposedly to keep people out of the wastewater treatment plant? I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone with an eye towards invading a sewage treatment plant. But, in our present time, it has been decided that this is one group’s space and not anyone else’s.
This ignores the fact that this is actually our sewage treatment plant, whether we like it or not. This is our river, too, a river that’s commonly used as a last step in the treatment of our sewage. Another piece of knowledge unshared–how safe is this water? What are the steps taken? Where can I find lab results of my local stream? It isn’t just the eco stuff meant to be shared on instagram that ought to be shared–it’s also the dirty facts of our ecologically bankrupt life.
While sunlight may be the best disinfectant, I like to know that it’s more than the summer sun disinfecting the water I kayak, fish, wade in. And I want to know–want to share this knowledge widely–what is the standard for disinfection? Is it water that’s safe to touch, to dive into, or to drink?
So much of our ancestor’s knowledge was based upon what was observable- but so much of what needs to be studied today, can’t be observed with the human senses. We distrust ourselves and our traditional wisdoms because of this.
I consider myself fairly well-versed in environmental literacy- but I don’t know what to think about these bubbles. Part of me wants to believe the water treatment staff who say this is due to the aeration of the water in the plant, but with haphazard ecoterrorism like we’ve seen in Detroit, it’s hard to know who to trust when we can no longer simply trust our eyes and instincts.
And when they say this many bubbles in a river is normal- it’s hard to take a moment to step back and realize- even if it’s non-toxic, it doesn’t mean that it’s normal or acceptable.
The fence with barbed wire showed no signs of relenting. On relatively flat terrain, walking along a stretch of our home river felt more like climbing a small mountain–we had to watch out particularly for vines, lest we mistake fallen barbed wire for a wild grape vine. In what world are private property owners able to let barbed wire fall into a river, unattended?
Eventually, after about a mile and a half, the barbed wire (thankfully) subsided, and we walked once more along a riverbank with animals, plants, and people free to come and go as we may. As it once was, as it should be, and as it will be…..
By: Andrew Van Gorp
If Jason and I are fully honest, there were moments during Water Walks where we shouted, “A ComEd right-of-way, thank GOD!”
These treks, especially this fourth one, really beat us UP! As we pulled buckthorn twigs from our hair, and dusted the bark flecks from our sweaty faces, we emerged onto the green of desolation with thanksgiving in our hearts.
Once we left the buckthorn thicket, we were able to pick up the pace from 2-3 feet a minute to about 100 feet a minute across the mowed turf. We practically floated over the lawn, awing at this vast space under the lines that could provide hundreds of acres of food for our community. Once we reclaim regional energy sovereignty, vast swaths of land that was once claimed by ComEd will return to the public commons.
Our conversation fades, and we both sigh deeply as we walk, alone with our thoughts of possible futures.
Still Life of Buckthorn Thicket
By: Andrew Van Gorp
It really is surprising that there is still life under buckthorn. The ecosystem is so decimated underneath, you could count all the organisms on one hand. Two kinds of moss on those rocks, a bracket fungus, buckthorn, and a bird.
If only someone had harvested this thicket for firewood about fifteen years ago- there would be hundreds of other species growing here. Undisrupted buckthorn is the killer: it needs punctuations of human disruption in order to coexist fairly in the ecosystem. Buckthorn is not a bad plant- it’s just misunderstood. It is calling on humanity to remember our roots- to acknowledge our needs for local fuel sourcing to heat our homes instead of blasting the middle east and central america and north america from the face of the earth to acquire and burn fossil fuels. We’ve got a rapidly renewing fuel source right in our backyard!
Allegory of the Informed Eco.
By: Andrew Van Gorp
Jason and I stopped to watch the shadows play over the highway ramp wall. It was quiet here, (surprisingly so for being within a few feet of the highway). It was a false quiet as the car and truck noise was blasting into the distance far overhead.
We both felt there was something poignant about the sun casting mesmerizing silhouettes of dancing tree and grass shadows animated against the concrete wall before us. I didn’t recall Plato’s Allegory of the Cave until I sat down at my laptop to reflect for this piece. Plato wrote this allegory as a tool to teach about the philosophy of our reality.
Climate change is real, it’s a serious threat to our existence, and it’s brought about and worsened through current modes of industrial living.
It seems as though we as ecos have seen that the proverbial moving shadows cast on the wall are made by the objects behind us, yet it feels of no use to try to tell our fellow humans about the reality we’ve witnessed, because they are not easily approached, chained stationary into a cave. Instead, they are blasting music and sports reports in their fossil-fuel powered guzzlers, whizzing by at break-neck speeds, up and above a barrier we cannot even reach. Plato had it easy in comparison!
This moment was a perfect model of our ecological dilemma. How does one help other community members to see the dangers of climate change, obscured by the false reality we live under, when they can’t even be reached with shouting and flailing arms?
It is not our job as ecos to stop the traffic. It is our job to walk the river and blaze a trail for a time when their cars run out of gas.
By: Andrew Van Gorp
I want to have the tenacity of this tree.
When I meet an immovable obstacle planted at my feet, I want to not only grow around it, but to further absorb the obstacle into myself, capturing it as a part of my extant skeleton- using that which would seek to hold back my growth as a source of support and strength around which I sew my base of structure.
I hope to use the unsolicited discouragement from an aggresor, decades later, as the very tool that would shatter the barbed teeth of chainsaws, thus liberating me from those who would seek to cut me down in my full individuation. If I were like this tree, I would not let the iron rod of my oppressor dream of escape from my indomitable ability to transform an injury into reinforced flesh, barring the burning of my living body or several decades of post-mortem decomposition finally easing my wooden grip.
The Beginning of the End, Long, Long Ago?
At one point in time, the people of this place ate a diet of almost 100% food grown from this bioregion.
Did you know that Cattail’s protein content is comparable to rice or corn?! The seeds are high in linoleic acid- one of the two essential fatty acids humans need to survive (omega-6). At one point, the number one staple food of this region became unharvestable- but how did the tradition die?
Who was the last person in history to eat the last meal of DuPage Cattail rhizome?
Was the tradition simply lost with the unjustified enforced banishment of First Nations peoples?
Perhaps the tradition lingered on for a while amongst settlers before slowly passing from memory?
Or was the end of this staple crop more fullstop?
Did an old newspaper article warn regional folks that due to the newly-arrived pollutions, the practice of eating from DuPage waterways was now largely unsafe? Did a traveling doctor diagnose lead poisoning after a home visit for a sick child? At one point, someone in DuPage might have made the realization- we can no longer safely eat the root of this plant that was eaten here for thousands of years.
And if that’s true, that breaks my heart.
But how can we know?
How can we safely harvest now from places whose sediments might hold hidden toxins for our bodies? Is our new wild-foraging practice going to require rapid-test toxicology kits? What have we done to the air, land, and water that we and our children require fear of poisoned wild-harvested produce?
Where do we begin from here?
We Got More Options Than We’re Admitting
By: Andrew Van Gorp
Flowers of the Canada Thistle have gone to seed in a forest preserve, most likely pollinated by regional honeybees. A local neighbor plants wildflowers in their yard a mile away to save the honeybees. This neighbor’s taxes unknowingly pay for the Forest Preserve District’s purchase of a toxic herbicide that boomsprays the local thistle, killing millions of bees and compacting the soil. The thistle thrives growing in compacted and degraded soils, and so it grows back readily after the spraying- unfortunately, the native plants who were maintaining a small foothold, do not grow back. Thistle is a soil healer, it sends down roots to aerate and add organic matter.
As the summer ends, the neighbor buys Chinese-imported thistle seed for their bird feeder, exacerbating the effects of climate change which further endangers their beloved honeybees. The following summer the neighbor volunteers to hand-pull the thistle in her favorite local forest preserve for hours on end, leaving the plants in a garbage bag to be trucked away to a landfill where they will decompose anaerobically, releasing methane- a greenhouse gas four times more potent than carbon dioxide. Stricken with the summer heat, she visits her local grocery store for imported kale greens to juice in a refreshing smoothie…
The forest preserve hand-scythes the thistle before it can go to seed, bringing the stalks to a local cafe who juices the superfood for fresh and locally-sourced health, educating the public on this vigorously growing species and its imbalance with native flora, with an option to donate a small percentage of the transaction toward the Friends of the Forest Preserve fund.
The thistle leaves are left in the field to compost after the stalks are scythed, and the ground is covered over with a thick layer of straw. In the spring, the forest preserve returns to scatter native seed into freshly-spread composted manure. The seeds are of species who are vigorous enough to compete with any thistle regrowth.
Local neighbors are trained in how to identify Canada Thistle and how to overharvest it for health smoothies in the event it creeps back into the field over the years. These practices succesfully keep the plant population in check as native plants re-establish and biocultural rhythms allow for community interventions wherein regularized cycles of vigorous plant growth are corrected and recycled into the community as value. And when a flowering thistle escapes the scythe, it feeds a finch and represents summer smoothies the following year.
Balance is restored.
Missed by a Moment.
By: Andrew Van Gorp
In life, the difference of a split second can be paramount. As we walked through Reed Canary Grass, I happened upon a grasshopper who was shedding his skin. Like, as I looked down, he was pulling his legs from his husk. I can’t tell you how low my jaw dropped. I turned to Jason and said, “look at this!” and as I turned back I watched the grasshopper fall into the grass. Only his shed skeleton remained.
Jason caught up and awed at the sight of the skin, and I began to explain what he had just missed- but as I tried, I felt that words couldn’t do it justice: the slickness of the hopper’s skin panels, like a freshly waxed car- shining in the sun, gold and green, and silver, and yellow. His eye, literally turning toward me and making contact with mine. In that moment I felt like I felt his experienced vulnerability on an emotional and spiritual level. All of this, did not translate into my description to Jason.
I guess I learned, again, that some experiences in nature don’t translate when retold. Maybe it’s because these interactions are only meant for the one who sees them firsthand.
Maybe Jason didn’t need a reminder to let go of stagnancy that no longer serves him. Maybe Jason didn’t need to feel inspired by something so beautifully pure in that moment. Maybe that grasshopper was a spirit, reminding me to just let go and leap out of old versions of myself.
This is a common sight along the river. Piled up waste. This phenomena either happens from the annual record flooding the river experiences due to our development, or it was dumped here by a neighbor- either way it sucks. I wish artists would collect this riverwaste and make art with it.
A Difficult Lens for a New Future
By: Andrew Van Gorp
To consecrate something- you are dedicating its existence to an idea of sacredness manifest in the world. To deconsecrate, (and later becoming the shortened form: desecrate) is to remove the state of sacredness from a person, place, or thing.
First Peoples from all over the world believed that most of the places they frequented daily were consecrated, sacred- (barring a few locales that they considered “cursed” or “taboo.”)
In my daily life, I don’t look out my eyes and think of the world as sacred as frequently as my ancestors probably would have. I have to remind myself that it is so, usually on a weekend when I actually have a moment to breathe and think. I’m usually so busy just trying to survive the current corporate-oligarchic regime that the world around me passes by as a dead landscape, a background across which my life plays out.
Even so, there are moments when I am walking into work at 4 or 5AM, when I am able to stop in the parking lot and look up at the moon, or feel the wind on my face, to watch leaves swirl in a vortex across parking paint, to feel the firm ground packed under asphault beneath my feet- and I am reminded of the world’s sacredness, defiantly unhidden by monstrous human constructions, if we take the time to see through the Sacred Lens.
When I was younger, I wasn’t capable of seeing through different lenses. I used to be gripped with fear at even the thought of seeing the world in a different way, and so I was mired in stagnancy and ignorance. This stemmed from my Evangelical Christian upbringing. I was encouraged by my parents to “explore other religions and ways of seeing the world” but always with the hinted warning that I might become demon-possessed if I “delved too deeply.” Hence, I wasn’t too keen on listening to other ways of knowing the World.
Later in my life, I learned that considering things, considering things we might not necessarily readily believe, is not dangerous- and in fact it is crucially important to our growth as human beings!
Considering new ideas is like trying a new wine. A lot of people fear that considering something new, truly considering it in their mind- will allow for the new idea to slip down their throat and into their heart without their permission. This fear might stem from a lack of confidence in one’s self-sovereignty or a belief that a changed perspective is some kind of moral failure or strategic loss. But this fear is not how considering another worldview works.
The world is like wine, and everyone has a different opinion of it. When we swirl a new idea, a new way of seeing- we turn it over in our minds. We observe the wine- smell the wine, maybe even sip some into our mouths. If we find the wine is disgusting- we can still spit it out! If we like it, perhaps we swallow a little, or maybe a lot. The point remains: there is no danger in re-considering the world from a new point of view. Even if we don’t agree with a different lens through which to see the world, we learn from having tried out a worldview we disagree with- we learn empathy and understanding of where someone else is coming from.
During Water Walks, I was able to see the river through a new lens: the East Branch is a river deconsecrated. Staring through the open portal of this discarded car tire really hammered the point home. In painfully admitting the river’s desecration, I was also freed up to savor an idea of new potential.
I realized in this moment of our journey, that we don’t need River Cleanups.
We don’t need River Restorations.
What we need is River Reconsecrations!
Who will lead this endeavor to reconsecrate the river?
To make sacred again in the minds of our community this desecrated body of Earth’s most precious resource?
Will it be The Artist? The Spiritual Leader? The Teacher? The Organizer? The Mother? The Father? The Child? You?
By: Andrew Van Gorp
An ancient oak was turned over along the ground. In its roots it held a stone, smoothed by the grinding of a glacier’s maw. When we surround ourselves with beings who experience their existence over a longer scale, time becomes collapsible in our minds. We are given a new pace of consciousness. This is one of the most important gifts that ancient ones can give us: the wisdom of timebending. To fall out from human pacing and experience the world in a grander context. To see the ephemerality of our humanly fleetingness.
How many thousands of years had the stone laid in this very soil before being unearthed?