Last month, we asked Chicago explorer CJ Greco to share their experience exploring urban wildlife. In this piece, CJ reflects on the past, present and future of their experience in the outdoors and how it ties to place and identity.
Urban wildlife is something that I find extremely special. As a young person growing up in and around the city, nature always felt so far and disconnected from where I was. But nature is in fact just that, all around us.
Chicago is a city full of green spaces – from the beautiful beaches on the lakefront to the city parks with people playing sports and picnicking. A few weeks ago, I visited Labagh Woods, a natural area on Chicago’s northwest side. As a birder and naturalist, I was incredibly curious as to what migratory wildlife I might find on that rainy weekend morning. This beautiful piece of forest preserve property is on a branch of the Chicago River and is an incredible site for viewing rare and elusive birds. But not on this rainy morning; I think in the hour I spent hiking and playing and birding in the rain, I saw about 12 species of birds. Yellow-rumped Warblers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Wood Ducks were just a few of the gorgeous birds observed.
Beyond birding, I was able to actually engage in some nature play. Nature play – traditionally a tool for engaging young people in nature in an exploratory and self-guided manner – was something that I allowed myself to do; skipping on wood cuttings, balancing on logs, and splashing in the mud and puddles. One thing that I wasn’t ready for was the amount of spring plants that were in bloom! The bluebells and coneflowers were blossoming and I was able get some up-close looks at these beautiful flowers.
When I have the opportunity to go outside and explore nature, I begin to reminisce about my time in nature earlier in my life. Now, in thinking about where and when I feel safe and able to spend time in the outdoors I ask; is the space safe for a trans person? And when thinking about spaces outside of Chicago, the answer to that question can certainly be a no – and that makes me so incredibly sad. An overwhelming feeling of sadness, a feeling of loss of a space that I know brings me such a sense of joy and fulfillment. I’ve said it before, but I’m finally at a point where I’m starting to love myself for my identity, and this part of myself that I’ve grown to love is the same part that could get me killed across the globe, even here in the US. I’m just thinking a lot about how my identity intersects with my ability to interact with the world, and as scary as it is, I know that living as me is the best thing I can do.
Taking time in nature is something that I find incredibly restorative. As a fat, disabled, queer person, I never saw nature as a space that was safe and welcoming to me; but I have become the person that I needed and through partnerships like this with Mappy Hour and Merrell, I can continue to be visible for others like me. Spending time outside has been bringing me so much joy recently. The euphoria felt from being my truest self while exploring nature is absolutely unmatched. Urban places like Chicago can often feel gray and rigid, full of concrete and construction; when in reality we are in one of the greenest big cities. Green spaces like forest preserves, city parks, beachfront, and other natural areas can be such a warm light in an otherwise dark and cold city. Exploring the natural areas around me is one of my favorite things to do. Even when the multitudes of migratory birds evade us in a rainstorm, nature brings us joy and happiness in a potentially sad and scary world.