Ted C. Fishman’s Personal Best
Paying Little Mind in Jackson Park
“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”
There’s nothing like emptyheadedness to clear the mind. Bobolink Meadow, a lush bit of fields, woods and water in Jackson Park, is where I go for a good lobe scrub. Over the last two anxious, sullying years the way the Meadow purges my intelligence has been just the ablution I’ve needed. I’m not alone. Mental health professionals have been heavily prescribing doses of wilder spaces for the afflictions of our era. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation distilled dozens of studies on the health benefits of exposure to trees and green space and it turns out that nature is a natural remedy science can get behind. Even as little as ten minutes a day out in natural places helps treat stress by decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. It lifts one’s mood by upping the levels of dopamine and endorphins. Spells in nature lower blood pressure and heart rates. They boost one’s immunity, help with healing and somehow both increase vigor and improve sleep. For me, there is one puzzling finding in the research. It holds that nature scenes are associated with mindfulness. I get that. I look closely at what I meet in Bobolink Meadow. But how did the studies overlook the benefits of mindlessness, the state of near complete cluelessness as to what I am looking at. That blithe state is the miracle drug.
Bobolink Meadow, an expanse of prairie wilds behind the Museum of Science and Industry, is part of 170 acres of natural areas in Jackson Park. The Meadow is also one of the city’s oldest sites with an ongoing prairie restoration, begun in 1989. The effort aims to revert the land to what nearby fields had been like before alien plants were transplanted or crept into the region. The eastern entrance is over the rude red stone bridge that separates Jackson Park’s smallest harbor from the park’s East Lagoon. The West Lagoon runs the other side of the park where the Obama Presidential Center will—or, rather, is likely to—go up.
Even those who may not have seen the lagoons up close may know them. Souvenir postcards and photographs from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition often show them as the fair’s waterways, though they were conceived before the fair was planned. The old pictures show the lagoons in summer filled with boaters and strollers dressed in the era’s athleisure wear, the suits and dresses made of whole bolts of wool, stiff cotton and taffeta. The smaller lagoon that now backs the museum was a favorite view at the fair. Today, that northernmost pond is one of the sights on the walk to the Meadow. On pleasant weekends, the museum’s lagoon attracts some crowds. In a neglected parking lot between the museum’s pond and the East Lagoon, a small group of mostly men shows off customized cars, some of them vehicular lightning, accented by immaculately polished chrome. Others are noisy, souped-up tiny clown cars that grown men squeeze into like circus contortionists who shrink into jars. There are the weekend barbecuers, too, families with trailers who roll out oil-barrel rigs that smoke, grill and fill the air with plumes of charcoal and burnt sugar. The partiers usually arrive after I do, but are often setting up when I head out of the park when they’re in a mood to chat and extol to me, with Attenboroughian detail, the foods I will miss. On most days, people are scarce around the museum pond.
My favorite hour to arrive at Bobolink Meadow straddles dawn. I head out from home in the dark before coffee or getting locked into my phone. Chicago may be at its most beautiful when washed in the red light before the sun comes up. The Meadow is close to an uninterrupted stretch of the lakeshore. As the sun rises the expanse of prairie grasses and shrubs are backlit and their shadows long. Looking east from the path leading in, songbirds flit in silhouette amid a symphony of cheeps and tweets. On the west side of the path, over the lagoons, the bigger birds, herons, egrets and ducks, bathe in the rosy light, preen their feathers and dip into the water for fish. When the water is dark and still, the rings stirred by the heron’s plunging beaks catch thin circles of light and radiate in slow motion until thirty or forty feet in diameter later they vanish one by one into the ink. Geese wing above, their V-formations black against the sky, their honking unangry. The bigger birds prefer the lagoons south of the bridge to the pool that laps the rear stairs of the museum. The water and nearby grounds are denser, wilder.
My ignorance is less complete when it comes to the human touch on the park. Life in Hyde Park always pulls in the neighborhood’s storied past and my neighbors and I seem to have gleaned all the same historical details of the parks from the books on local interest we keep and from the pages of the durable Hyde Park Herald, “Chicago’s Oldest Community Paper,” whose pages often draw on the publication’s long memory. (An archive is available online.) And recently, I learned more details from talking to Andy Carter, a retired math professor who volunteers on a park advisory council and also serves as a docent in the Japanese Garden on Wooded Isle, the forested small island that divides the East and West Lagoons.
Jackson Park was originally designed prior to the Chicago Fire in 1871 by the American versatile genius and first notable landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and the British-American who designed the White House grounds, Calvert Vaux. The pair famously laid out New York’s Central Park in the 1850s. They also plotted, in 1869, the Chicago suburb of Riverside, America’s first planned community and now a National Historic Landmark. In Chicago, Olmsted and Vaux also mapped out Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance, which together with Jackson Park, make up a connected network of parkland as large as Central Park. While Olmsted often imported trees and other flora for his parks around the United States, he was also obsessive about drawing in features of the local natural environment. Olmsted rejected the colonial impulses in Victorian gardens that gave preference to farflung plantings but drew inspiration from the naturalism of earlier generations of British landscape designers. In an earlier career, Olmsted plied the China trade and it is tempting to wonder whether some large Chinese gardens which created scenes of idealized natural settings played a role in his development, too. Olmsted’s and Vaux’s vision for Jackson Park rested on it being populated largely with species native to the region.
The Chicago Fire stymied these early plans. What’s more, that vision had to change once Chicago won its bid for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Nothing is less local than a World’s Fair. The 1893 Chicago fair was to be, and was, one of the least local such spectacles the world had then seen. It was back to the drawing board for Olmsted who, together with Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root, reconceived the park as the grounds for the classically inspired wonderland that made up the signature sections of fair. The Columbian Expo commemorated two events. The first was the arrival of Europeans and European civilization to the Americas. The second was Chicago’s impressive emergence after the Great Fire. Neither of these purposes fit particularly well with the vision for city parks that Olmsted usually evangelized, which envisioned them as natural places where urbanites caught in the rush, toil and soot of industrializing cities could go for peaceful recreation and contemplation. Hailing Columbus and the city’s rebirth required that anything but the prairie rise from the prairie. The Olmsted-Burnham-Root maps filled in with megastructures that aped Ancient Rome, Venice, Paris and, down the Midway, the brothels of Cairo. One of the sensations of the fair was the Japanese exhibition, a series of halls built in a traditionally Japanese style and filled with art and ornament. That’s about as far from the local prairie as one can get, though in a wonderful irony, the Japanese garden in the park today, an heir to the original exhibition, is perhaps the park’s most beloved place for the kinds of reprieve from city life that Olmsted held dear.
It took more than a century to fully realize the vision of Jackson Park as a place for recreation in a more authentically local natural setting. Fire again played a role. This time, rather than inspiring a fair, it cleaned the park of it. In January 1894, a conflagration, which the Tribune reported was started by “insolent tramps,” wiped out nearly all that remained of the dormant Expo. Fiery embers fell on the icy lagoons; the waters looked like blazing gasoline.
The southeast section of the park sat derelict for the next four decades, but got a partial public revival in 1933 when the Museum of Science and Industry opened in the renovated building that had been the Columbian Exposition Palace of Fine Arts, the only building sturdy enough to withstand the 1894 fire. (Artworks at the fair needed a fire-resistant hall.) It was around that time, too, that a Japanese teahouse that had been at the Century of Progress Fair was moved to the site in Jackson Park, on Wooded Isle, where the first Japanese pavilions had been fifty years before. It didn’t last long. The teahouse was burned down during World War II in the paroxysm of anti-Japanese feelings. When the city of Chicago joined Osaka as sister cities in 1973, the Japanese city rebuilt the garden, again on the Jackson Park site, as a gift to its new partner. The garden, alternatively known as the Osaka Garden or The Garden of the Phoenix, has been rebuilt and regularly restored since.
For most of that time, the corner of the park where the lagoons and meadow exist languished. Some of the park was used by the U.S. military for a missile site meant to defend against nuclear attack (though the defenses were outmoded soon after they were built). Older adults who grew up in Hyde Park remember Nike missiles at The Point. The pictures of the needle-nosed weapons mounted on launchers and aimed skyward still make one want to duck and cover.
Burnt fairgrounds and military defenses seem impossibly distant from Olmsted’s goals for a natural park. Yet, as with barbed-wire demilitarized zones and the Chernobyl exclusion zones, untended land becomes a haven for plants and animals, which repopulate them and thrive in the absence of human activity. The lagoons and Wooded Isle grew flush with plant and animal life. The relatively small area became a host to more than a hundred kinds of birds, many of them migratory species that are prized sightings for birders in the spring and fall. In 2012, a group called Project 120 raised funds and lobbied successfully for a restoration of the section of the park to a condition that would, above all, nurture local flora and fauna and keep the restored sections ecologically stable. The effort closed the park to the public for three years and also required the removal of alien plants and trees. Lots of them. The Japanese Garden got another overhaul, too.
Yoko Ono installed her graceful, steel, lotus-like sculpture “Sky Landing” outside the garden in 2016. It’s one of the city’s most spiritual and most moving public monuments, though there’s no escaping that it’s milled and fabricated. Children play around it, families picnic under it, sunlight bathes it in the hues of the hour, but the metal flower is ever-free of birds and other wildlife. I understand the piece too well and it fights against my jealous fog. Happily, I come to it near the end of my walk, perhaps an hour and a half after I cross the bridge into the Meadow and get my renewing nostrum of numbskullness.
I carry a camera, fitted with a long lens to catch what birds and insects I can. My iPhone 11 Pro is handy for wide-angle pictures of the landscape and macro shots of flowers and bugs at my feet. I don’t have the lama-like patience of a stalwart nature photographer but any nature photography is the enemy of a hiker’s pace. My sixty- to ninety-minute passages through the Meadow take those passing by me about five minutes to walk. But ignorance is gained by seeing and a camera with an ample telephoto or a smartphone camera that makes the tiny big, forces the kind of close study that makes you feel the limits of one’s knowledge deep down in the bones. There’s the old idea of Socratic ignorance in which true wisdom is knowing the vastness of what one hasn’t learned. That wisdom is easy to come by while fixed on any of the variety of herons in the lagoon, up close through the lens, as it stands all but motionless in the water. They’ve been more abundant this year than usual. (In other city parks, too.) There are mature birds and juveniles, which suggests they’re nesting nearby, too. Some are skittish and take off like pterodactyls with the faintest disturbance. Others are fearless, and stay their ground even as one nears them. Yet as with nearly everything I see there, I resist going deep. It’s a bird! Its head resembles a dinosaur’s! It eats fish! Okay, I stop there. A year ago, my family gave me a copy of David Allen Sibley’s wonderful book, “What’s It Like to Be a Bird.” I read it and can call a few of its facts about bird behavior and anatomy to mind if pressed. But the walk is for wonder and the details about the particulars intrude on my awe at what I do not know. On what it is impossible to know. Each trip has me surveying the Meadow and, of course, it changes moment to moment, making it all the more ripe for incomprehension. This fall, in addition to the siege of herons, the flora in the Meadow has been spectacularly lush and abloom. Grasses and wildflowers as tall as corn stalks are alive with flies, bees and grasshoppers. Decaying brush holds its beauty, too. Chipmunks, rabbits, coyotes and beavers are near, too. This is the South Side of Chicago, friends. For first timers in the Meadow, especially those from outside who tremble over Chicago’s south, the sights and sounds of this place, which can feel like the setting for a Constable painting, is a purgative for fear. It is a giant welcome reminder of what they don’t know about our city. For me, as a regular, the unknowability of the lush density and self-organization in the Meadow, in its early beautiful hour, a reminder that it’s okay, too, to limit my obsessions over the human world that will meet me later in the day.
In 2018, psychologists at Britain’s University of Derby studied the effects on the well-being of the Buddhist practice of emptiness meditation. The foundational concept of emptiness is that phenomena that we perceive as feeling real are instead dreamlike, and hard to place in time or space. According to the investigators, the study “involved some of the world’s most advanced Buddhist meditators, recruited from across the globe, including from…Thailand, Nepal, Japan, Sri Lanka, and several countries in the West.” One precept of the meditation school is that with practice one comes to sense how a focus on emptiness connects one with “fullness,” and the idea that “the one connects the all.”
“[M]editating on emptiness,” the researchers found, “led to a twenty-four percent reduction in negative emotions, sixteen percent increase in compassionate feelings, ten percent increase in positive emotions, and ten percent reduction in attachment to both themselves and external experiences.” I don’t know how the study assigned percentages of emotion and compassion, but the upshot is that “emptiness meditation… is more effective at improving wellbeing and wisdom than mindfulness.” This sounds like a group I can walk with. Though it occurs to me that striving for emptiness, at least the kind I’ve been seeking, is also a path to mindfulness.
Best of Chicago 2021