Last night, I was reading through a new collection of poetry from the early twentieth century jazz poet Kenneth Patchen (You can read my review here if you want), but in the middle of his poem “I Went to the City” I found the following lines that really resonated with these explorations in urban naturalism:

Yes, I went to the city

And there I did bitterly cry,

Men out of touch with the earth,

And with never a glance at the sky.

…   (from We Meet: Poems, 135)

I must confess that for too long I have been one of the men in the city who are “out of touch with the earth.”   Maybe, just maybe these explorations will help me reconnect with nature.


Indianapolis weather this afternoon:
Clear, sunny and bitter cold!
(Feels like -17°F with wind chill)

Here’s a thought on the coldest day of the winter to-date, a day when I’m inside at my desk pounding away on my keyboard.  The is a part deep inside me that wishes I could agree with Liberty Hyde Bailey’s views on the weather: e.g.,

No man is efficient who is at cross-purposes with the main currents of his life; no man is content and happy who is out of sympathy with the environment in which he is born to live: so the habit of grumbling at the weather is the most senseless and futile of all expenditures of human effort. Day by day we complain and fret at the weather, and when we are done with it we have—the weather. There is no other effort at which human beings are so persistent, and none at which they are so universally unsuccessful. [Outlook to Nature 42]

Generally, I agree with Bailey and since Bailey first bludgeoned me with this point three months ago, I’ve been trying to live more contentedly with the weather as it comes, but the exception to this rule is bitter cold days like today.  I tried to go exploring last week on a day when it was almost this cold and I lasted about 15 minutes.  Maybe I am such a creature of comfort that I just can’t handle the cold, and certainly people like my friends in Minneapolis brave much colder weather than we do here in Indy.

Bailey later emphasizes this point further:

The person who has never been caught in rain and enjoyed it has missed a privilege and a blessing. I never want to live in one of those featureless climates that cannot get up spunk enough to raise a storm. Give us the rain and the hail and the snow, the mist, the crashing thunder, and the cold biting wind!  Let us be men enough to face it, and poets enough to enjoy it. In “bad” weather is the time to go abroad in field and wood. You are fellow then with bird and stream and tree; and you are escaped from the crowd that is forever crying and clanging at your heels. [Outlook to Nature 47]

Maybe after work today, I will muster up the courage at least to get out and shovel the snow off our sidewalk!

A couple of days ago, I started re-reading Liberty Hyde Bailey’s book Outlook to Nature, and I was struck by how well these essays struck at the heart of what we are trying to do with this experiment in urban naturalism.

[ Outlook to Nature is available for for free through GOOGLE BOOKS: CLICK HERE.  Although as a bibliophile, I have concerns about the scope and intention of the GOOGLE BOOKS project, I am quite thankful that they have made this gem of a book available again.]

I invite you to read this excellent book along with me.  As a starter, here is his plea at the outset of the book to recover the beauty and splendor of the “commonplaces”; the places that become so familiar that we take them for granted.

So great has been the extension of knowledge, and so many the physical appliances that multiply our capabilities, that we are verily burdened with riches. We are so eager to enter all the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us that we overlook the soil at our feet. We live in an age of superlatives, I had almost said of super-superlatives, so much so that even the superlatives now begin to pall. The reach for something new has become so much a part of our lives that we cease to recognize the fact and accept novelty as a matter of course. If we shall fail to satisfy ourselves with the new, the strange, and the eccentric, perhaps we shall find ourselves returning to the old commonplace and the familiar, and perhaps we shall be able to extract new delights from them because of the flights we have taken. Perhaps in their turn the commonplaces will be again the superlatives, and we shall be content with the things that come naturally and in due order. Certain it is that every sensitive soul feels this longing for something simple and elemental in the midst of the voluminous and intricate, something free and natural that shall lie close to the heart and really satisfy our best desires. [3-4]

The essence of the city is the heaping up of “the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us.”  The city — Indianapolis or any other city — runs on the power of the new, the fashionable, the avant garde.  The French social critic Jacques Ellul notes in The Meaning of the City that since Babel, the mythological first city, the spirit of the city has been marked by a rejection of tradition, the “making of a (new) name for ourselves” — to borrow the biblical language.  Thus, where better to start to reclaim the commonplaces than in the heart of the city?  It is compelling to me that Ellul reminds us that arc of human history — according to the Judeo-Christian tradition — ends in a city, the so-called New Jerusalem, but this city is marked by the recovery of natural spaces — and indeed Bailey would likely call them commonplaces — of rivers, and fruit-bearing trees and gardens.

Yesterday was a mild day with temperatures in the mid-30’s, so after work, the kids and I went exploring.  From our backyard, we crossed the alley and the church parking lot and headed to lot’s entrance off Rural St., near which I had seen a nice bird’s nest that was seated on a low branch (below).

Miriam wanted to see the crab-apple tree in front of the church building again, so we headed back in that direction.  However, on the way, Alex found a tree that he wanted to climb.

That boy definitely loves to climb trees!  There’s a tall spruce tree right in front of our house and he will climb so far up it that he will be level with our second story windows.  It definitely freaks his mom and I out a bit, but I guess its good that he’s fearless in that way.  Maybe I will soon write more about tree-climbing as an important part of exploring the urban landscape.

While Alex was climbing the tree, Miriam found a holly bush close by, which she was really excited about.  Over the holidays, we had visited my uncle and aunt in northeast Ohio and they had a holly bush which they showed to the kids, and gave them each little clippings complete with berries.  So, Miriam was quite pleased that she recognized the holly bush, and all the kids were excited that we had a holly bush so close to us that we did not know about.

We finally made it back up to the crab-apple tree (a distance of less than 100 yards from the tree where we saw the first nest!), and Miriam spent awhile jumping up in efforts to catch apples on the lowest branch.  She finally did get a couple and wanted to get even more, but we had a conversation about how the crab-apples are important food for the birds, and how I had been observing that on this street (Rural) there seemed to be more birds in te winter than on some of the other streets, a fact that I attributed to the several crab-apple trees along that stretch of the street.

We re-traced our steps back past the holly bush, the climbing tree and the tree with the nest where we had started.  We also saw a couple of other crab-apple trees that still had their fruit clinging to their leaf-bare winter branches.  A few houses down, we saw a low-lying bird’s nest that apparently was made up in large part of plastic Easter grass.

This nest, of course, speaks of its maker’s resourcefulness, using the materials it had at hand, but I wonder if nests like this one that are made in large part of debris of human origin are more common in the city than in more rural places?

At this point, the batteries on my camera died and we finished our trek without any more pictures.  Miriam found a bunch of seed pods that she plans to put in her nature book, and we found another tree that all three kids wanted to climb.  There is a nice little pocket of trees that I had never noticed before right behind the Village Pantry (convenience store) at the SE corner of Rural and New York Streets.  It will be interesting to see what this area looks like in summer.  As it was starting to get dark, we walked pretty briskly to the corner of Oxford and New York Streets and then down Oxford to our house.

Here’s a map of the Englewood neighborhood, which might be helpful for those of you who are reading this from afar.  Clicking on the map will take you to the GOOGLE maps website where you can zoom further, or look at satellite photos.

Most of my explorations here at the beginning will be on Rural and Oxford streets, between Washington and New York.  Here is a satellite view of that area from Google maps (maybe I soon will make a copy of this and annotate it, which will further help the readers to navigate this place in their minds.

The kids and I spent a couple hours outside exploring on New Year’s Day, which was mostly sunny and temperature-wise, pretty mild for this time of year (30’s).

The kids played in the community garden, while I did a few things that needed to be done there: re-securing the tool shed, storing a tent that we had used in the fall on one of the beds.   Then, we headed over to the corner of Oxford and Washington Streets, where I shot the photo that I am using for the header above.  Heading back up the alley toward the library, we saw a bird’s nest in the tree at the back of the garden.  I shot a bunch of pictures of it from every angle I could imagine — including climbing as far up the tree as I dared without putting myself or the camera at risk! — but the nest was so far up that I didn’t really get any good pictures of it…  Here is probably the best one:

We kept walking up the alley toward Rural St. looking at trees and watching for birds.  We picked up several nice leaves from a Ginkgo tree, but since all the trees in that area were barren of leaves, I’m not sure which ones were the Ginkgo trees.

We also saw some birds, chickadees I believe, but they were so small and we were never able to get too close to them.  I tried taking pictures of them, but never could zoom in too close (are you sensing a theme here?)  Once we got to Rural Street, we headed north toward the church building, and saw a number of birds, including a male robin that was quite cooperative with my camera:

This picture was taken in the crab-apple tree at the northwest corner of the church property.  It had all kinds of its fruit still on it (but withered, of course) and I thought it was a cherry tree at first, but my friend and next door neighbor, Debbie, later told me it was a crab-apple.  I need to find out what variety of crab-apple it is.  Debbie told me at our friends at the community-formerly-known-as-Bruderhof make a fine jelly from crab-apples.   If these fruits are edible, it sure would be worth the try to see what kind of jelly they make come summer!   Last summer, we took a risk and made jam from the huge mulberry tree in our neighbors’ yard and dang, was that ever good! (We’ll definitely be doing that again this summer!)  Some other friends made mulberry wine, but I think that is still aging, or they drank it and didn’t tell me…

Here’s a close up of the fruits of the crab-apple tree in winter:


Chris Smith here, this blog will be a place for me to record my adventures in urban naturalism in the little Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis, in which I live, work, worship and explore.

I’m currently working on an essay that describes exactly what I mean by “urban naturalism,” but until that is finished and ready to post here, let me launch this blog with a poem from Liberty Hyde Bailey that has been kicking ’round my head for the last three months or so, and that lies at the heart of my inspiration for these explorations.  [Liberty Hyde Bailey is probably the preminent botanist of the early twentieth century, who was also a farmer, a philosopher, and would later become an inspiration for Wendell Berry.  He wrote one amazing little book of nature poetry entitled Wind and Weather, of which I have had the distinct pleasure of writing the introduction for the current edition.]


TELL me, 0 Poet, where thou dost live

Show me the place whereon thou dost stand

Lead me to the crests that give

Those wondrous scenes thou dost command

And let my waiting soul enwreathe

The rarer airs that thou dost breathe

Upon thy diamond shore.

He took me by the hand

And led me to my own hearthstone

We paused upon the wonted floor

And silent stood alone-

Till all the space was over-pent

With a magic wonderment;

And I found the Poet’s store

On the threshold of my door.