17 January 2008

Harsh beauty

I said I'd try to find all my photos first, but I don't feel like waiting anymore. And I also fear I may have lost them, deleted them one night in a fit of despair. You see, it was the last time I felt truly happy.

Happiness, that thing we all say must be so hard to grasp and yet so easy to attain, is something I find myself lectured about quite often. Please, they implore, please, just be happy. Why aren't you ever happy? Why can't you ever figure out what makes you happy? But what they always fail to understand is that I've already figured out what makes me happy, and it's really quite simple--no regrets about the past, no fears for the future, a present that's exactly what I want it to be. What else is happiness? It only makes sense. And yet it's so hard to get the conditions right. So it's been a while.

It was a happy time, Labor Day weekend of 2005. I was but a year into my first real job, on my first real vacation, with my boyfriend. We had been together exactly two years; we were celebrating. We rented a cabin at White Pines State Park for the weekend, and from there we drove everywhere else. That's mostly what we did all weekend, we drove--as though the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina couldn't touch us--drove around and around all over the rugged unglaciated hills of northwestern Illinois and a part of eastern Iowa. The land that still haunts me in my dreams, inaccessible as it is to me now, car-free and alone.

One particularly memorable day we drove west toward a little town called Savanna, then north up the river to Mississippi Palisades State Park. It was my first time there--of only two in my life thus far, I must confess--and it was incredible. I hadn't imagined that a place so wonderfully hilly, providing such amazing vistas from towering bluffs across sloping forests and farmland, could exist in northern Illinois. The magnificent view out across the great Mississippi River from atop Lookout Point was burned into my memory that day. We trekked together through the wild woods up and down the rugged bluffs on a "short" loop hike that took us all of a glorious morning. To be sure, it was a land of harsh beauty. And I was happy.

[View of the river from Lookout Point, yours truly. From the 2006 GITAP.]

To use that label, "harsh beauty," to describe the dilapidated limestone revetment at Promontory Point here at home seems to me a mockery. Perhaps we understand that those tumbled stone blocks, those weedy crevices turned crevasses, those unrelenting waves eroding it all away more and more each year, are the closest thing we have here in our flat urban environment to the rugged, wild, scenic beauty boasted by the other corners of the state. So perhaps it's only natural to cherish the Point in its charmingly deteriorated state, to bestow upon it that fickle designation of "nature" and thus submit to our irresistible urge to preserve "nature" in pristine, untouched form, so that future generations can enjoy it just as we did.

But it's all a deception, and not even a clever one. There's nothing at all natural about the Point, except arguably the material--limestone, likely for lack of anything better back in its day--that was used to shore up the landfill used to create a respectable urban park. Harsh beauty? Hardly--it was designed to simulate nature, not let nature run rampant and tear up the place. I'm quite sure Daniel H. Burnham would roll over in his grave if he saw what we'd let happen to a significant part of the park that now bears his name. It's falling right into the lake, and for what?

Lookout Point is one thing, Promontory Point quite another. One is a natural feature and harshly beautiful in its own right, the other an artificial feature that's only so because we've let it fall so far into neglect. We'd be equally irresponsible in destroying both. But only the former was there to begin with, and thus deserves to be left alone. The latter can't, or nature in its proper sense will eventually take its final toll.

[No promenade left at Promontory Point, Elizabeth Fama at Hyde Park Progress.]

I was happy once, in that other place, that place of love and harsh beauty so far away now in space and time. I need no sad, artificial imitations in my own backyard to remind me of how far I've fallen from real happiness.

Please fix the Point.