As published in Dunes Review Winter/Spring 2024

This August I returned to my hometown of Evanston, Illinois after six years in the mountainous high desert of northern Arizona. I had moved when the narrow strip of Lake Michigan shore abutting the city no longer felt wild enough for the sort of nature I craved. In Prescott, Arizona, I reveled in ponderosa forest, ephemeral creeks, quartz crags, and arid scrub, still occasionally traveling back to the Midwest for summer sailing. When the pandemic arrived, however, I chose to remain rooted in the Southwest, where I could continue to explore the vast, arterial network of trails in Prescott National Forest.

I wasn’t the only one who sought refuge in nature. While the pandemic made the world a terrifying place, it also made it a quieter one. Streets emptied of cars, the roar of traffic on Route 89 replaced by birdsong and wind sifting through the leaves. An increasing demand for fresh air and solitude led even those in the region who weren’t yet adventure-minded to the outdoors; an influx of humans joined the mule deer, javelinas, pumas, and countless soaring, crawling, bounding creatures who call the forest home. 

Returning to Evanston after spending so long with only the wilderness for company has spawned a mountain of mixed emotions—the only elevation in a prairie-flat land. I find myself overwhelmed by the noise, the swarms of people, the smells. Cars rattle the floors at all hours, clattering over speed bumps and blaring their basses at ear-quaking volume. The lakefront is a crush of bodies, and the resinous scent of ponderosas has been replaced with exhaust, cigarette smoke, and the ersatz flowers of perfumes. But as I adjust to the sensory onslaught, I’ve begun to notice something new.

Evanston has gone through a sort of urban rewilding over the course of the pandemic. Where suburban lawns once carved the town into neat, green facets, pollinator gardens now flourish, rife with native grasses and wildflowers: the orange origami buds of butterfly weed, cheerful black-eyed Susans, and riots of echinacea in every shade of sunrise. Yard signs read, “Please excuse our weeds, we’re feeding the bees,” and sure enough, the bees are feasting. My neighbor has erected columns of pastel hives on the roof of his porch, and can often be spotted wandering the neighborhood with a bin in hand and an eye towards the trees, looking to catch an errant swarm. Monarchs, their numbers straggling in previous years, have returned to the land in fluttering clouds of stained-glass wings, and more goldfinches than I’ve ever seen rustle citrus-bright amid the coneflowers. 

Originally a drainage canal for the North Branch of the Chicago River, the North Shore Channel—once disparagingly and accurately referred to simply as “the sewage canal”—now flows a lucent aquamarine. Along a section of the channel’s shoreline known as Harbert-Payne Woods, local volunteers have been working to remove invasive buckthorn in order to allow cottonwood, walnut, cherry, and redbud trees to flourish, providing better forage for local fauna, and making way for more native plantings. In this narrow strip of forest, branches form a shadow-laced tunnel, and stalks of pokeweed sprout bold and violently pink, their berries—poisonous to humans, but an important source of food for mockingbirds, northern cardinals, and mourning doves—on the cusp of ripening to a deep indigo.

Along a sprawling stretch of shore that was once barren sand, the Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary has matured to a dense spread of flora including switchgrass, rough blazing star, and common milkweed blossoming in great pom-poms of ballet-slipper pink. The sanctuary was established in 2015, just a few years before I left, when a last vestige of natural forest to the west of the Northwestern University Sailing Center was hewn to make way for a behemoth parking structure. 

I had worked at the sailing center and seen how the forest’s cottonwoods, box elders, hackberry trees, and shrubby sand willows served as a way-station for migrating birds, and for the dragonflies who arrived in great clouds of blue each summer to put on a dazzling show as I lay on the trampoline of a catamaran beneath the shimmer of their cellophane wings. The trees were also home to warrens of rabbits, and a sprightly fox who often left “gifts” for us to find on the sand—the grisly remains of his nocturnal meals that we rushed to dispose of before campers arrived. I had been devastated to lose this last, wooded refuge in an increasingly urbanized town, so to see trees returned to the shore by dedicated volunteers—their branches now filled with cedar waxwings, goldfinches, and palm warblers—rekindles a hope so often dampened by the insidious creep of concrete. 

I still miss the rural high desert—the hush of hot air stirred by grasshopper wings, mule deer grazing beside a creek swollen with monsoon rain. But I’m learning to embrace this urban wildness, to appreciate the sweat-slicked toil of a community working to restore balance to an ecosystem so far removed from the natural order. I know American bird populations are still in rapid decline, their migratory paths increasingly stripped and squared to a patchwork quilt of pavement, lawn, and agricultural land that feeds so few. But as I write this, I’m watching the neighbor’s garden through my window, and where there was once nothing more than a threadbare swath of mown grass, goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows are flittering through waves of goldenrod.