Thursday, August 12, 2004

Lake Michigan

Every day at dusk I run a few miles along the lake. Now that I've been here almost a year, I've seen four seasons' worth of sunsets. And it's true: each one is different. You'd think by now I would have internalized that cliché, but no. The changes keep taking me by surprise. Some part of me still thinks that after a couple hundred evenings on this same stretch of beach, I ought to know it. I haven't grown used to seeing things I've never seen before.

I never bring a camera, but every single day I have reason to wish I had. Fleeting effects of light, tableaus of beach goers. Before I come back, they'll be gone. But because I'm running, I move past before the scene changes, and so I perceive a series of snapshots, or possibly paintings.

First -- the residential street where I live, brick and trees and decorative windows. I can tell when I'm getting near the lake because the houses grow more expensive. Usually around eight there's a cop standing at this end of the street. I don't know what he's doing there, but sometimes I wave.

Then I can see the water, across a little stretch of public park. If I have started my run early, and it has been a particularly fair day, the lake will be two completely saturated hues of irridescent blue-green. I like to think the word "ultramarine" was invented to describe the deeper shade, which belongs to the deeper water, out toward the horizon. The nearer distance has a little more gold in it, because the sand shows through. Both colors are flecked with reflections, sunlight scintillating off the surface. But if it is cloudy, the water will only be a metallic green and gold. Or if it is twilight, then it will be any of a thousand shades of pale purple. All of this is the more remarkable since it is so startlingly transparent, clearer than my windows, when examined close up.

The sky is always tastefully color-coordinated, of course. You can see a lot of sky when there is nothing but water between you and the edge of the world. In the evenings the sun picks out the tops of the clouds in white, and the backdrop glows translucently, greenish gray or lavender. Then the clouds burn down to embers, and the light is orange.

After the sun goes down, the sky is still orange. Or really, sodium yellow, 584 and 589 nanometers. That's the color of Chicago's streetlights, which prevent night from ever quite falling. There's always a blush behind the skyline of the city.

I know it washes out stars, but it's such a perfect velvety setting for the buildings themselves, which seem to be made out of light, crystalline, otherworldly, when all you can see are their shining windows... Or the brightly lit spires (radio antennae) rising from the top, in the case of the Hancock building and the Sears tower. They are meant to be beacons, after all.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let us say it is still daylight, as I get to the end of my street and catch my first glimpse of the water and the sky and the city. The views I am describing come later, further along. At first I just satisfy the suspense -- what color is the water? -- and then turn my back on it, and keep running. Through a series of small parks bordered on one side by sandy beach. Usually there are children here. Sometimes family reunions, grilling out. Occasionally a wedding party, posing on the rocks. Or a less formal couple, leaning against one another and looking at the view. Kids and parents playing catch or flying a kite. I love how trite these scenes are, sort of multi-cultural Norman Rockwells. It's good for a person to see a little innocent pleasure every day, helps ward off cynicism.

There are always other runners. I run a little faster if a fellow jogger is nearby. There will be volleyball players on the beach, probably, and bicyclists, and inline skaters. And some people who have come to just sit outside and read, especially around the fountains.

I leave the park, pass the sailing club's boathouse. At this time of day, the boats will be heading in. All white sails, dyed by the setting sun to match the clouds.

Now I cross a little bridge onto a (man made) grassy penninsula. In the little sandy cliff across from the bridge, some species of bird has made a honeycomb of bird-house sized holes. They don't seem to be living there any more, but in the spring, you could watch them bustling in and out.

We also have ducks, and gulls of course, which remind me of the sailboats, when they're in flight. Sometimes they just bob on the lake in flocks. Once they settled on the soccer field, and I was unable to resist running through them, scattering them in three dimensions. They settled again on the field behind me.

Back in June, I was attacked on three separate occasions by birds I couldn't even see. They came at me from above and pecked at my head, and were gone before I figured out what was in my hair. I hope they were protecting a nest, rather than trying to build one. Then yesterday I noticed some other species -- starlings? -- swarming the way gnats swarm, above the trees. (Oh yes, we have gnats too. So many that sometimes they end up in my eyes and my mouth. You can't see them from a distance, but you can see other joggers react. Suddenly their faces contort and their arms wave for what appears to be no reason at all, as though they were having spasms. I was puzzled and amused the first time, until I ran into the same swarm... Then I was not puzzled, and found it a little less amusing...)

I'm becoming more familiar with lots of local wildlife, in fact. We also have fish, of course, big ones visible just under the surface, which people catch from the very tip of the penninsula. They stand on the haphazardly arranged concrete blocks which border the whole thing. These are graffiti'd with declarations of undying devotion, bad poetry, names and nicknames and dates, so you have something to read while waiting for a bite.

And among these artificial boulders a little further up lives a family of raccoons. I've seen them so many times now that I can tell the little ones have grown. They're just coming out for the night when I get there. Rabbits like the dusk too, of course. That's when they feed, I remember from Watership Down, "silflay." There are almost as many of them as squirrels.

When Andrew was here we saw, a little further from the lake, a baby possum. At first I wasn't sure it was really so young. I've never really seen on that close up before. Not ten feet away, watching us, from a tree. But later we saw a full-sized one, and then a whole family of them, so I know that one was really a possum pup, and not just unusually adorable. Huge eyes. I'm not usually out late enough for possums. (We also saw a pure black squirrel, which impressed Andrew enormously.)

He came with me on a run and naturally it poured. I run in the rain, if at all possible. Sometimes the puddles cover the tops of my shoes and my socks get wet. Everything sticks to me. I'm careful not to wear white. Any men foolhardy enough to be out in weathter like that will simply take off their shirts. I'm sure one of them, once, was running more slowly than he had to so as not to leave me too far behind... When I caught him, I said, "Nice weather, huh?" He laughed, sort of self-mocking, and I ran past.

Of course, stormy days involve the risk of lightning, but the reward is worth it: when the sun falls beneath the cloud layer you're almost guarenteed a rainbow. My understanding of the physics is that you're most likely to see rainbows when the sun in on the horizon anyway, which may account for the inordinate number that I've seen this year. The sun sets in the west, so the rainbow appears to the east, over the lake, one end passing behind the Chicago skyline.

All of this is so valuable to me that I keep running well into autumn. Forty degrees, I'm fine. It's only when my hands begin to chap and my nose turns numb and I can't see because of the hair blowing in my face and the paths ice over that I finally admit defeat for the winter and switch to reading books on the stairclimber.

I was more grateful for spring, this past year, than I can ever recall having felt before. I planned myself a longer route, all the way to the end of the path by the lake.


Anonymous said...

No comments yet, amazing:)

That was beautifully written.


Mary said...

See the thing is though, it's really the lake and the sunsets themselves that are amazing. A description can only be imitation-amazing...

Anonymous said...
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Mary said...
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Anonymous said...

But I've seen those things- I've been on that path, I've seen those hollows by the bridge when there were no birds in them and wondered what made them since I saw no rodents or anything else. I've walked on those rocks and I've laid on my back in the grass and stared at the clouds in the sky at that park*. And I've stood in the rain upon those rocks and watched the lightning hit the lake again, and again, and again - its purple forks lighting the sky brilliantly before disappearing from existence all over again. And I've watched the sun set in the opposite direction of the lake as the world strove to match the colors of the sunset. And I've watched the sky turn orange above the citylights of Chicago as the night turned dark, from that very park. And your apt description of the place and ways of the place that is so beautiful - that constantly stuns me with its changing; turning four seasons into 10,- is an absolutely amazing and beautiful description that I'm going to have to keep.

As per the racoons... I am completely in love with racoons:) I've even fed them a few times here (shhh.. nobody's supposed to know that, but they're SO cute!:)


Mary said...

Ashi -

It makes me nervous to have overly specific information about where I live (and where I run everyday!) available on the internet, so I took out the street names where the * is -- I hope you don't mind. (Not that it's impossible to figure out from other things I've given away, but at least it's not so easy.)

Your description is lovely too. See how easy it is when you have something fantastic to describe?

Anonymous said...

I never said it wasn't easy:) However, I'm going to insist that another person attempting to describe it wouldn't have done as brilliant a job as you.

And I'll keep the street names out. I don't exactly post my address or name online, but it would seem that you keep a tighter net than I do:)