Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Spring Day on the Southside

I have seen some truly spectacular places in this world, and I've come to realize living in the Midwest has made me a more creative person when it comes to seeking out natural beauty. When I was a kid, my sister and I would point to banks of clouds on the horizon, calling them cloud mountains, pretending we were just a short drive from a different world. When I finally did get to see alpine mountain ranges from a distance, my first thought was of my sister and how clever we were. They looked just like our prairie cloud mountains from when we were little. The endless sky and acres of farm fields interspersed with occasional swamps and oak forests are less than fascinating to most reasonable people, but I've made it a personal mission to find beauty in the flatlands.

I refuse to accept that beauty cannot be found or invented in my surroundings. The Chicago metropolitan area isn't known for geographical or natural beauty, but it exists. Take the Calumet-Saginaw canal for instance. I've written about the Cal-Sag before. It's basically an open sewer/industrial shipping lane, but it's full of history! And cars, appliances, industrial waste, polluted runoff and probably body parts of wayward criminals and victims of violence, but that's beside the point. The point is, yesterday was a lovely spring day, and I wanted to take my son for a walk along the mighty Cal-Sag.

The village of Worth boasts one of the handful of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's super spectacular Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration (SEPA) stations, which includes a pump house that sucks the shitty water up into an aerator and sends it down a series of flat pools terraced, creating a waterfall that gives the oxygenated water back to the canal. This supposedly increases the quality of the water, and the smell is ... singular. It smells like detergent and rot. But it makes for a scenic spot along the Cal-Sag. Observe the consistency of the water--and this is the "treated" stuff.

Baby and I strolled through the pump house arcade, stopped to read about the history of water sanitation in the Chicagoland area, had a chat with some police officers hiding out from the mean streets of Worth, avoided schools of cross-country runners and watched golfers tee off on the course to the north of us. I've been enjoying the filthy, industrial beauty of the Cal-Sag for as long as I can remember, and now I'm passing on that fine tradition to my son. We eyed up some springtime nature, including cardinals and violets, Illinois' state bird and flower. We saw muskrats on the mucky bank. It was a lovely day.

As a Bayliner cruised by on the canal, I began to get excited about the coming summer. Ken and I would be out there soon, too, headed to Lake Michigan via the city or the Calumet River. The baby will definitely be sitting out those boating adventures, but for today, he and I enjoyed the sun, the breeze and the onset of spring together. This sign should demonstrate just how delusional I am in my search for suburban beauty. No matter how full of effluvia it is, I can't help myself; I just love a good waterway. You may not be able to see the list of cautions on that sign, but my favorite caveat is that the canal is "unsuitable for any kind of bodily contact".

Identifying when nature stubbornly, even aggressively fights against industry and progress is something I do to find the beautiful within the ugly. It's something that I've done since I was young, and will continue to do until I die. Sometimes finding beauty becomes a struggle, but when I find it, it's all the more sublime. My experiences on the Cal-Sag have illustrated that consistently. It's a good thing beauty is subjective, because no one can tell me that I'm wrong.


Anonymous said...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I remember there was a show on Channel 11, god i love PBS. Anywho this show went down the Cal-sag starting from Chicago, and told the history of each of the south suburbs. It was great. Wish I could remember the name of the show, too much whiskey has killed vital brain cells. Stoopid whiskey.

Ratherto said...

It is beautiful, but did you see the signs saying No Swimming - Unfit for Human Contact? Those are all along the Cal-Sag in the Lemont area.

Nora said...

Ratherto, I not only saw the signs, I took a picture of one of them. That water is straight up toxic.

Anonymous said...

It's delicious on a cracker. I like my water the consistincy of cheez whiz myself.

Nora said...

It's more like the consistency of dysentery-induced diarrhea.

Luke Baggins said...

This reminds me of this old post by James Lileks. He insists repeatedly that the midwest is actually more beautiful than places with mountains and he makes a very interesting case:

money quote:

"...As for scenery, it takes an unimaginative mind not to see the glory of the prairie - after you’ve seen the Panavision sky change nine times in the course of a day, mountains look so obvious, so tired. Imagine a mountain range that reshapes itself hourly, and you have the cloud banks of the North Dakota prairie. And this sight is available to all, unimpeded by any signs of civilization, five minutes from the Barnes and Noble. You can put down your Starbucks, drive west, stop, and behold a magnificent void that humbles your heart more than any city skyline or coastal view. It’s not for everyone; it has its chilling existential implications, but don’t say they don’t have scenery. When you hit the Great Plains, the sky is your IMAX, and it’s open 24/7."

Nora said...

Exacti-freaking-mundo, Lukey-Luke. Thank you for that. It was perfect.