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The Urban Wild

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The Urban Wild

Tucked throughout Chicago are verdant oases—some feral, others restored, each a respite from the noise of the city.

ABOVE: Montrose Beach Dunes in Uptown

In 1987, there were rumors of mink in LaBagh Woods. The forest preserve on the city’s Northwest Side was a tradition in my family. My father, an avid bird watcher, had mapped the shimmering gravel trails that followed the line of the old railroad track through the foliage. On a balmy spring day, he and I entered the forest from the south. We passed fallen logs studded with mushrooms and marshy pools gleaming in the underbrush. I was 8 years old, clutching my father’s hand. I knew what mink looked like—smaller than otters, sleek and clever, usually found near water. We approached a bridge so thoroughly coated in graffiti that the clashing colors danced before my eyes, doubled in the water, a chaos of indecipherable symbols. My father and I lingered there, inhaling the musk of the river. We saw a turtle and a cloud of dragonflies. We did not see any mink.

In 1996, rumors of monsters and spirits circulated around my high school, all of them sketchy and thirdhand. On a chilly evening in autumn, my friends and I were feeling brave. We did not believe in ghosts. Probably we did not believe in ghosts. As we tracked the moonlit path, the darkness thickened around us. The ground was muddy and slick beneath our feet, though it had not rained in over a week. We moved in single file, whispering to one another. The wind was moody, the trees watchful and sentient. We found a clearing and settled in the damp grass, startling at every sound. We saw shadows shifting and fireflies pulsing among the branches. We did not see any ghosts.

Earlier this year, I brought my son to LaBagh Woods for the first time. He was 4 years old, hurrying ahead of me down the trail, his skin dappled by sunlight. He was hoping to see a deer. It was summer, the season for fawns. I had never seen any of the creatures that LaBagh Woods was renowned for—no mink, no red foxes, no black-crowned night herons—but it did not matter. The mere possibility was enough. For centuries, people had claimed that the forest was haunted, and I had come to believe it was—not by ghosts but by animals, by the chance of an encounter with the wild. LaBagh Woods was special.

In recent years, there has been a push to reinvigorate the natural areas of Chicago. Some, like Loyola Dune and Steelworkers Park, are younger, cropping up in urban spaces abandoned by humans and now flowering with new life. Others, like LaBagh, have always been wild. They have been touched by civilization but never conquered.

As my son dashed down the trail, I saw a kind of fierce joy in his face. This place had the capacity to reawaken the latent wildness present in all human beings. We hiked for another hour through a riot of birdsong. We did not see any deer, but as I carried my son back to the car, he assured me that we would next time.

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