City Song Walk

A weekend of song-walking in northern Wisconsin inspired me!  Simply put, this Native American tradition is a way of connecting with nature by looking it in the eye until it looks back.  How easy to do in the autumn woods!   Each step on the trail, every drop of rain, from the lowly tree stump to the tallest birch, the rich reds, umbers and oranges of the leaves, the white cumulus adrift in the azure sky – I embraced them all with wide spread arms and Mother Nature bear-hugged me right back. 

Back in the city, enveloped by concrete and asphalt, I ached for the wilderness.   The precise lawns, boxy hedges and manicured trees saddened me.   So carefully orchestrated yet their music is muted, clipped to a shadow of their true potential.   A cobblestone path traverses the courtyard garden outside my window, a warning to look but don’t touch during one’s morning walk.   I could head down to Lake Michigan to take in its expanse and yet, there too, man exerts control with an unnatural shoreline of concrete and iron. 

I am grateful for my home, this place I live.   And I am grateful for the bits of nature it offers me.   But my heart yearned for the tangle and mess of the woods.   No longer satisfied with my surroundings, I stepped off the porch determined to reconnect with Mother Earth.  I slipped along the sidewalk determined to song-walk the city.   I had no destination in mind.  I would look until something looked back.

Usually I pass the Maxwell Street Market by, but this day I turned into the crowd thinking I would take a shortcut on my way to wherever I was meant to end up.  A little girl caught my eye, her head a mass of little braids tied with orange ribbon, hand sticky with licorice.  She peeked up at me with a shy smile. The scent of roasted corn teased my nose and I turned to see steaming flautas and tortas offered for sale next to sweet cinnamon churros.  An old man in a matted wig, stinking of sweat and urine, sat on a box coaxing tinny music from a handmade guitar.   I dropped quarters in the cup at his feet and was rewarded with a toothless grin.  His happiness surprised me.

At the end of the row, I stopped before a double wide booth.  Box after open box sat on the ground brimming with Mother Earth’s bounty.  A Latina offered her wares, a rainbow of spices, tea and medicinal herbs.  The Spanish names excited me!  I pulled out my notebook and wrote them down.  Manzanilla for chamomile tea, tamarind spice, pimento, and garlicky ajo malicki stood row to row with origano, pickled cactus, and romero or rosemary.  Cartons brimmed with hoya acuyo, cuacic and arnica.  I recognized the tangy heat of balsamo de tigre, tiger balm for the joints. 

The sights and smells sent me back to my long ago garden, burying my fingers in the damp earth, planting seeds and babysitting sprouts, grateful for their growth.  I cleared the ground, I raked the rows, I set out my vegetables in a neat pattern, I controlled nature and made it conform to my wishes.   And nature complied and I understood.  My garden was not the tangle of the wild, but it was my connection to Mother Earth.  She knew it.   And she embraced me and loved me back.  No matter what we do to the Earth, she continues to offer her gifts.

I walked back home, arms full of palo dulce, shea butter, and romero, strawberries and pears.  It was a day full of gifts, a day of city song. 

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