This weekend the cold of the past few weeks broke, and the snow started to melt. Saturday morning I walked the watercourse from Hummer Park in Downers Grove west to where it rambles through the no-man’s land between people’s backyards along Austin and Rogers Streets. Fences block the yards off from the creek, and rusty pipes or thick PVC send runoff from the rooftops into the creek. The water disappears under Rogers Street and then pops out again right behind PermaSeal, where it trails westward behind Eagle Storage Company, Particle Technology Labs, Tivoli Enterprises, places that I know only as names on a map, despite the fact that they are just a few blocks from my home. Behind the storage company, 100s of dollars worth of plywood straddle the rails of a railroad track whose ties are suspended in the air over the eroded banks of the creek. Coyote tracks moved purposefully through the snow on the plywood. On the other side of the creek run the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. A freight train rolled by. You would hardly know, looking at the attention we’ve paid this particular watercourse, that we need water to live. You might think this stuff wasn’t worth anything.
Sunday, my older son and I walked the west side of the Arboretum, and there was enough snow on Hemlock Hill and the trail around Sterling Pond for snowball fights. There were raccoon tracks and chickadees, a perfect day. We recalled having walked this trail perhaps half five times in the past years with his scout den. We typically went for a night walk in February, and we typically heard a great-horned owl. David remarked when I pointed this out that owls aren’t really so rare. I agreed with him. We often speak as though kids are the wonderers and grown-ups are the practical ones, but this is obviously not always the case.
This morning, my wife and I awoke to the first thunderstorm of the year. On my ride in, the rain was steady but hardly torrential. The snow had been completely wiped away, save for a few places where it was plowed up into piles at the edge of a parking lot. Inside the gates, the rain was sizzling against the high tension lines at the east edge of the Arboretum. I turned off my lights at Parking Lot 10 and walked the dark trail toward P8 and the oak collection. I half-expected to hear chorus frogs. The rain was not soaking, but steady, and the sound of I-88 and I-355 blended with the tapping against my hood. A truck came up the road from the west, pulled in at P8, turned its lights on full, and the person driving it hopped out to do some work on the portapotty at the edge of the lot.
As I biked the rest of the way in, the rain slowed down. My head was filled by now with fitted lines and correlation coefficients, manuscripts to revise, a lecture to write, a tutorial to revise, a question about generalized linear mixed models. This is the steady part of my work life, at times torrential. I’m teaching now, and I know that I’ll be distracted as I bike in most mornings till my class is over in early March. As I open the door and carry my bike up the steps, it’s a bit like stepping out from the no-man’s land between the backyards, and the watercourse I’ve been following drops down into some hidden storm sewer again. You might not know, looking at it, that I consider this most essential: walking around, seeing what’s up, writing it down. Isn’t it funny they way we let our favorite little watercourses hide behind factories and railroad tracks?