When you live near wilderness- even the semi-curated wilderness of a small town- the woods and fields become a resource, an extension of your supply basket and your pantry. It becomes easy to take them for granted even as you revel in them.
In Michigan, I once lived in a house with massive grapevines growing up the trees in the backyard, and I made the smallest, sweetest batch of wild grape jelly from the tiny fruit.
In Michigan, I could stop on my drive home from work and fill my trunk with goldenrod and queen anne's lace for dyeing and when I pulled away it would look like no one had been there at all.
In Michigan, the river was always walking distance from my porch (I had a porch), and I had front yard gardens full of kale and heirloom tomatoes and fresh herbs and irises. Lemon balm grew at the end of my driveway, planted by some previous tenant and spreading wildly. Black walnuts fell from the trees like hail, and when a friend and I decided to make dandelion wine, we drove to the farm that she worked on and picked buckets of no spray, weedy dandelions.
In Michigan, I once dragged a frozen wild turkey off the side of the road, and we feasted on it like it was Thanksgiving.
It helped that I worked on a small organic farm surrounded by woods. It helped that my friends were fermenters and foragers, and that I started working at the Food Co-op when I was newly 18. It helped that I grew up there, was taught plant names and uses from an early age. It helped that I loved the land and knew it and trusted it.
When I moved to Chicago I planned to use my skills in much the same way. The city is full of wild corners, leafy ditches, sidewalk crack gardens. I figured I would do all of the things I was accustomed to doing, just in alleys and three stories above the ground. I was moving in the name of art over farming, love over familiarity, new over old- surely I could find some goldenrod and june berries to feed my foragers heart and fill my dye pot.
But I hit a roadblock. I didn't want to make dandelion wine with frequently mowed dandelions from pesticide sprayed city parks. I didn't want to take any of the goldenrod growing up around the postal buildings by my work, because then no one else would get to see them and appreciate them. I didn't want to knock on the very fancy door of my one neighbor with a black walnut tree and ask if I can scan their lawn in the fall.
So what now?
Now- I'm still dyeing up here above it all on our kitchen stove. I've got an indigo vat in the basement, and I do from time to time bring alley plants home, but never to eat. There is a burdock patch near us that surpasses any I have seen before, but those taproots are tapped right into the highway runoff, so I just appreciate them and the work they're doing in the ground. There are elderberry bushes by the off ramps, but they exist in a perpetual haze of exhaust, so I just admire them and feel thankful that I can eyeball an elderberry bush from 20 feet away.
Chicago is not rich in boundless wild growth. Chicago is rich in people. That realization has shifted who I am as a maker. My practice no longer revolves around reflecting the natural area I live in, and while I miss that, in a way my work now reflects the city I live in. I've traded black walnuts for bags of anatto seeds at the Mexican grocery store. I've stopped trying to cook traditional German dishes with foraged fruits and greens and started trying to cook them with the things I can get at the Korean grocery store. My fabrics come from thrift stores- boiled wool jackets repurposed into cloth pads, linen button downs made into quilts. My walk to the source is cement, not packed dirt, and the view is untamed rose bushes in the corner of the parking lot, not ferny grottos hovering above the river.
The scenery has changed, but the work has not. It is now a stitched picture of a crowded place, with personalities and lifetimes crammed together, and a big indigo blue sky reflecting in every window.