Where the Forest Meets the Prairie
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe oaks swayed tall and full with the shadows of their leaves and creaked in a way that sounded almost like breathing. A woodpecker drummed. Mosquitoes whined. Light trickled to leaf litter. I ran through the forest. The leaves of the maples were buttered with the first cool days of September. The wind tugged at the edges of my hair. The gold-green spaces between the trees smeared into the sky. I ran until the trees gave way to a dazzle of goldenrod at the opening of the prairie. Trees faded to waves of grass. The sky stretched taut over the rippling bluestem. Swallows swerved. Milkweed seeds shimmered through the air. The shadows of clouds rolled over. I was dizzy with the illusion that these grasses and trees were always here. That before I came, there had been the goldenrod, the trees, and the wind, and after I left that was all there would be. Light erased the boundaries between things, fringing the hawk’s wings and filling me with the sense that I was the first person to ever run down this path.
IIIIIIIIIIIII was wrong.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe illusion went beyond my efforts to ignore the cigarette butts in the dirt and the rumble of cars. In that moment, I did not think about how people restored the prairie from farmland. I did not think about how before the farmland, the Algonquin peoples lived here and about how Euro-American colonizers dispossessed them of the land. I did not think about how glaciers swept over the ground I stood on and gave the land its contours. I forgot the land’s history. I don’t know why. The quivering cottonwood leaves, the rising sparrows existed in a false and perpetual present.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThat moment was the closest I have come to understanding what my grandma must have experienced when living with Alzheimer’s. I was removed from historical memory. I got lost in a tapestry of light-silvered leaves. Grandma slipped in and out of the past and present until she could no longer distinguish the two, until she crossed over to a different sense of time that was removed from the places she visited and the people she met. In the hospital, she saw a squirrel scamper across the room. I wondered if she envisioned a forest, a thickening of greenness overgrowing the white walls. Where I smelled antiseptics, perhaps she breathed the scent of autumn maples. The fluorescent lights became slats of sun spilling through the trees. The tubes of the IVs tangled into vines. The featureless ceiling took on the smoothness of prairie sky.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe place where the forest meets the prairie is called an ecotone, a transitional place between ecosystems. Although an ecotone represents the merging of two distinct landscapes, the ecotone becomes a place of its own, often with higher biodiversity. Towering oaks meet little bluestem. The air swells with the songs of thrushes, elusive in the trees, and sparrows perched on the tips of sunflowers. To lose one’s memory is to live in an ecotone. A hospital room grows into a forest. The exterior landscape fuses with the mind’s faltering topography, creating a borderland. An ecotone where falling leaves settle on starched linens.
A Garden of Bridges
IIIIIIIIIIIII trace the dissolution of Grandma’s memory through the visits we made to the Chicago Botanic Garden. My family and I walked over an arched bridge to enter the gardens, my father pushing Grandma along in a wheelchair. Bright flowers wove through the sides of the bridge, and swallows flickered in and out of the frames. As a child, I crossed the bridge of wood and light and dreamed that I entered another world.
IIIIIIIIIIIIGrandma loved the rose garden the most, especially in late spring when the roses swirled in red constellations. A circle of roses surrounded a large fountain. When I was in preschool, the fountain loomed immense, a cascade of plumes that stretched up and up. I splashed around in the water. I listened to the burbles. I caught fractals of blue and silver water between my palms. I danced through the ripples. Water and sky swallowed me. Grandma watched me from the grass, through the shaded rim of her sunhat. Eventually, she motioned for me to come back. I did not want to leave. I watched the edges of my reflection dissolve. I dreamed that a part of me lingered in the fountain, rising buoyantly.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIn middle school, I kneeled by Grandma’s wheelchair and identified for her the different birds that flew over the fountain. The gray-white arcs of the herring gulls and the long glides of a great blue heron. On hot days when the petals crumpled, and I was sunburnt from summer, a cluster of small children congregated in the fountain. Grandma watched the kids with a smile on her face. Aren’t they so cute? You were just like that at that age. Always in the water. I photographed the spray of droplets, trying to freeze the water flung against the sky in mid-motion.
IIIIIIIIIIIIStarting when I was in eighth grade, Grandma had difficulty remembering people from her past, first her parents and then my grandfather. She still remembered the roses. A gauze of bees thrummed over the flowers. Her eyes filled with an almost childlike light as she looked at the roses. They’re so beautiful. I obsessed over photographing the way the light stroked the petals. I felt urgent about recording the details in photographs, from Grandma’s red jacket to the way the wind carried pollen. A photo-graph was tangible, lasting beyond memory’s fluidity.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen I returned to the rose garden after Grandma’s death, I thought about the pictures my Earth science teacher showed me of glaciers. During a lecture on climate change, he projected on the screen a series of photos taken at the same place about thirty years apart. In the older pictures, glaciers dominated the landscape with their bright tongues of ice. In the current pic-tures, the mountains loomed brown and bare. I have never seen a glacier and don’t know if I will get a chance to. The disappearance of a glacier is gradual like the melting away of memory. Standing among the roses, I watched the fountain and realized that the garden’s abundance made me feel Grandma’s absence all the more sharply. Her absence had become a presence, woven into the green threads of the trees.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIn 2014, about a year after Grandma died, the New York Times published an article by Michael Wines, titled “Climate Change Threatens to Strip the Identity of Glacier National Park.” The article discussed how the rapid melting of the park’s glaciers undermined the ecological and social identity of the park. When the physical elements that define a landscape disappear, what hap-pens to the historical memories embedded within those features? Without her memories Grandma was no longer herself. Would something similar happen to places like Glacier National Park? What memories would crumble away with the calving of ice? What stories would fade away with the thawing permafrost?
IIIIIIIIIIIIOne of the last times I went with Grandma to the botanic garden, she became for the first time in her life afraid of water. Whenever my dad pushed her wheelchair over a bridge, she would look at me with flaring eyes. Don’t get close to the water. You’ll fall in and drown! It’s dangerous. Oy vey. You’re getting too close. She used to love watching the ripple of lilies, the arc of a muskrat. When-ever I photographed the bands of watery light, the mallards, the fountains, she would look at me with a fear that I would fall in and never resurface.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe last time Grandma visited the Chicago Botanic Garden, I did not accompany her. I don’t remember why. Maybe I was at school, or I had to study for a test. More likely my dad was trying to shelter me from the pain of having her not recognize me. He took her around the gardens, but she wasn’t enjoying it. She no longer knew where she was. She had receded far away like a glacier, leaving the landscape she left behind changed.
IIIIIIIIIIIII never visited my grandmother’s grave because the cemetery did not have any meaning for me. Years after her death, when I brought my prom date to the Chicago Botanic Garden, we stood together on a small bridge over an artificial waterfall. Silver ribbons of water cascaded downwards, carrying with them reflections of the reeds, snatches of cloud and foam, Grandma’s legacy. Irises and cattails grew on the transitional places between land and water. Falling water whispered. Mist threaded the space between us. While after graduation, I stood on the bridge with my date, my child self stood on the bridge alongside my grandmother. She was the roses flaring with light, the song of water.
IIIIIIIIIIIII walked through the woods at Mazon Creek, looking for fossils with my parents. Barns with peeling paint sagged on the horizon. Canada geese flew over us. The grass was long and itchy with the texture of unraveled threads, thrumming with mosquitoes. I searched for shale concretions until the grass gradually gave way to trees. I walked through bramble and bare rock outcroppings. Geologists call Mazon Creek a lagerstätte, which is a term for a place that has a richness of fossils. Lagerstätte means “storage place” in German, suggesting that fossils store images of history, serving as geologic memory cards. In Landscape and Memory, historian Simon Schama asserts that “…landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.” The strata of Mazon Creek held my family’s stories. Led by a paleontologist from the Field Museum, my father and uncles would spend the day at Mazon Creek, cracking open rounded nodules of rocks to look for fossils inside. Grandma would some-times tag along on the fossil hunting trips, though the rocks didn’t interest her. My dad remembers climbing over strip piles from the old coal mines, searching for rounded shale concretions. Decades of coal mining denuded the landscape, leaving behind tailings of exposed rock. In the process of destroying a living ecosystem, the coal miners had unburied an ancient one.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThree hundred million years ago, Mazon Creek was a delta of rivers and estuaries. Light filtered through a swampy forest of cycads. Large insects flew through the air, heavily saturated with oxygen. Thunder rumbled in from the sea. A catastrophic flood surged through, erasing the land with a thick layer of silt. Without the flood, the fossils would not have formed. The destruction created geologic memory. I would line up my dad’s collection of fossils from Mazon Creek on the living room table. I would trace the imprint of each animal, compressed into shale, trying to conjure back the ancient estuary. I traversed past landscapes in my imagination. Over time, I assembled pictures of different fossils into a binder I studied for a high school science competition, including detailed pages about Mazon Creek. When my dad told me Grandma died, I grabbed my fossils binder and pressed it against my chest, not caring that my tears smeared the pictures.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAt Mazon Creek, I walked by a lake where people fished. Cormorants dived in the water. A nuclear power plant created many cooling lakes in the 1980s, flooding portions of the fossil beds. Water had created the fossils; now water hid them. When the power plant was built, my dad and uncles stopped coming to Mazon Creek. In 1986, the state of Illinois bought up a large portion of land nearby the power plant and began to ecologically restore the coal tailing piles back to prairie and forest. My dad told me the trees weren’t there when he visited Mazon Creek as a young man. The tall grass and thick trees buried the fossils in soil and leaf litter. The creation of the present obscured the memories of the past.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAt the tide pools, the sea lapped nacreous over mudstone flats. Wind-whittled. Chipped slickrock. Sanderlings flickered like flecks of foam. Under a mirror of water, blue-green anemones unfurled amongst turban shells. Kelp curled. Purple pencil urchins and orange starfish glittered. The blue entrails of a dead cod spilled onto the sand. Mussels crackled underfoot. I tasted salt on my tongue. I brushed the smooth shells of limpets and chitons and barnacles. I saw waves when I closed my eyes. Beaches are an ecotone at its most extreme, serving as the transitional place between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Organisms that live on a beach must be able to survive abrupt changes in moisture, temperature, and salinity. Yet beaches harbor great biodiversity.
IIIIIIIIIIIIMy grandmother’s father, in his old age, had dementia and lived in a nursing home near Lake Michigan. My dad remembers how when he was a child, Grandma loved taking him for walks on the beach with my great-grandfather. He would pick up fishbone needles made by indigenous peoples that washed up on the beach. In all my years of walking along Lake Michigan, I never saw any fishbone needles, nor I do know which beach is the one that remains vivid in my dad’s memories. Yet when I visit Lake Michigan, I hear my dad’s stories in the heartbeat of waves, in the sigh of sand sifting in the wind. I pick up pebbles of tumbled granite that carry histories of the glaciers that began retreating fourteen thousand years ago to form Lake Michigan.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOnce walking down Montrose Beach, I saw a snowy owl hovering over the sand. The Chicago skyline with its blue haze of skyscrapers stretched over the horizon. The wind held the bitterness of early spring. The owl watched me with piercing yellow eyes. Several people passed by without noticing the owl. To stop paying attention is to begin forgetting. The poet Janet Kauffman invented the term “eco-dementia,” which she describes as a “condition of humanity; a love of the living world while causing and suffering its destruction.” She developed the concept after her experiences with a parent’s dementia. The consequences of eco-dementia extend beyond a disconnection between society and environment to a collective amnesia about the social, historical, and geological memories that reside within the land. How can I tell if climate change is affecting Illinois, if I don’t understand its history? If I don’t remember when people start planting corn and when owls arrive in the winter and how hot it usually gets in July?
IIIIIIIIIIIIOnce, I spent a day hiking through marshlands in Alviso, California. The tracks of herons were etched in the mud, and ducks bobbed up and down in the blue swathes of water. Wind whittled through trees. With the exception of the road, a small park, and a few scattered houses, the marshes seemed devoid of infrastructure. A harrier floated above the reeds. Clouds of black-birds drifted through bare branches. About a year later, I mentioned the hike to a friend studying civil engineering. There used to be houses there before the sea rose, he told me. I had no idea.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWithin landscapes are memoryscapes. The memoryscape contains the mind’s ecotones, the borderlands between remembering and forgetting. To walk the memoryscape is to meander through the contours of the mind until thoughts become entangled with trees. I remember the smell of prairie wind, the shadows of leaves floating across my grandma’s face. I remember the dance of waves across the tide pools, evoking the power of water to expose and erase. I remember the echo of my great-grandfather’s footsteps in the sands of Lake Michigan. I remember searching for glimpses of lost estuaries in fossils and for traces of glaciers in the flat sweep of forests. I remember Grandma leaning on the railing of a bridge, watching flower petals drift across the water. I remember the flight of an owl and the way Grandma danced. I remember, and my memories are beaches and tributaries, prairies and forests, lagerstätten and ecotones. Memories sprout from the soil and roll in the crashing surf. The memoryscape holds the topography of our stories, the geologic strata of our histories.