Photo by Niki Dreistadt
My picnic basket fits snugly on the rear rack of my bike. The wicker is a little busted and the lining reveals berry stains and tiny rips but it holds up. Stuffed with a light blanket, grapes, hard cheese and the end piece of what was once a nice loaf of bread the small basket is packed with nothing else. I strap it on with a bright yellow bungee cord. My toolkit hangs from my handlebars like a barrel hangs from the neck of a St. Bernard. Like a St. Bernard I have all the tools I would need to revive a fallen traveler- a wrench, a bike pump, and a tire patch.
I wheel my bike out through the small garden in the back of my shared apartment. The tomatoes and peppers are dotted with flowers but no fruit, the lettuce is threatening to bolt and a few flashes of bright red call out to me from the strawberry patch. I saddle up and start gliding through the alleyway onto the street.
I grew up surrounded by nature but moved to Chicago a decade ago for work. I have no car so if I want to go to the woods I have to bike. I don’t mind the ride, on a hot day the breeze keeps me cool and the city unfolds before me.
Chicago’s design reveals a lot about the way the city works and the ways that it doesn’t. Near the train there are people laughing on restaurant patios and large colorful murals staring down at me from the side of the tallest buildings. As you get further away from the train the scenery shifts. The restaurants and boutiques are replaced by shuttered shops and police cars parked on the corner. Riding west out of the city the wealth distribution of the city is hard to ignore. On my bike it passes by in an instant but you see pedestrians dragging grocery carts from the convenient store that is anything but convenient and the bus stops are full of people checking the time and walking into the street to see if the bus will ever come.
You also see barbecues and community gardens. You see neighbors hanging out their window to look over the kids riding their bike on the pavement. You see good people cut off from the city by infrastructure, by transit, by politicians, by money, by racism, by neglect and by design.
I’m a transplant here but the longer I stay in Chicago the more I see the city for what it is. The museums, theaters, shops and skyscrapers that once populated my imagination of the city have been replaced slowly over time in my mind. I moved here initially to be a part of the cultural heartbeat of the city but I had the anatomy all wrong.
I bike out of the city, through the neighborhoods and then into the suburbs where multi-family houses are replaced by mini mansions and perfectly manicured lawns. I see the trees in the distance.
I like going to the prairie. Growing up in Florida is used to comb the beach for seashells. In the woods outside of Chicago I scan the trees for shelves of mushrooms and the ground for wild onions but I almost always smell them before I see them.
Chicago is named for the wild allium. The prairie is painted with them. The name was stolen right alongside the land and twisted up to be a faint recollection of what it once was. Zhigaagoong, Shikaakwa, Checagou. Wild Onions. The alliums are tucked into coneflowers, foxglove beardtongue and phlox. These plants have other names too, but I call them by the names I know. I can see a few deer munching on the plant releasing the smell into the air. I park my bike and watch them, soundlessly unloading my picnic basket and joining them in the feast.
It is easy in the city to feel disconnected to nature. As a child I grew up by the mighty ocean. Before moving to Chicago I lived in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. I thought in order to be beautiful nature must be pristine. Watching the deer in the prairie I can hear cars on the other side of the highway. The bike trail winds through train tracks and backyards. The landscape is peopled. It has taken me nearly a decade of living in the city to hear the sound of people as a part of the natural landscape.
There is someone’s laugh buried in birdsong. There are footsteps working in rhythm with the sounds of a stream. There is a car alarm going off piercing through the sound of shimmering leaves. There is a deer staring at me and I am staring at them.
I gather onions, taking only a few. When you move to a new city for a better life there is an instinct I have learned to resist. There is an instinct buried in my history, buried in colonialism, buried in segregation, buried in class politics, buried in industrialization to take the best for myself. There is a part of me that expects access to all parts of the world, a part of me with no roots and no community. There is a part of me that wants to harvest the entire patch. I fill my little basket, strap it to my bike and I move on.
I have the people of Chicago to thank for the roots that have started to form in my life. I have my shared backyard garden to thank for community. I have the bus stop to thank for patience. I have serviceberries squished on the sidewalk. I have yarrow on the side of the road. I have a birds nest on my neighbors roof. I have a picnic basket full of onions. I have all of this only because it is shared.