I went to the Lurie Garden for the first time with my dad the April before last. We visited from Tucson, Arizona, leaving the heat and cacti behind for a cold front in Chicago. I was trying to decide if Chicago would be my new home. The truth was that this was already decided. I had been accepted into my first pick graduate school and the city was an after thought. I was now trying to prove that the city could be the perfect place for me.
We walked quietly through the garden’s unique pathways, filling the silence with intense scrutiny. My dad watched the water and the plants while I stared at the skyline. I couldn’t look down at the plants in front of me. My eyes would not move from the alien horizon sharp with skyscrapers.
My dad mentioned how much my mom would love it here. I imagined her visiting next year for a moment, her standing with a camera forgotten in the grip of her hand, while she excitedly motions at a bird with a splash of color on its chest. It was a foreign image and the thought placed a weight in my stomach. I could feel distance in the skyline and the water; these things were so different from my hometown. My dad could feel it too. This place was foreign and it would soon be a part of me in a way he wouldn’t experience, in a way that Tucson had once belonged to both of us.
* * *
The next time I went to the Lurie Garden was five months later. I had moved into an apartment nearby. My whole life had been in Tucson and I didn’t handle change very well. I ended up in the Lurie Garden again for the reason I left home: school. Even though I walked over with classmates, I felt separate. There was something about the thickness and the height of the grasses that muffled the sounds of other voices, emphasizing my isolation.
The garden was full of transitions. There were sharp lines between flower buds and tall bleached grasses, lines between trees and shrubs, blooms and decay. I watched the wind flush through the leaves and flowers, but the skyline was inescapable and still unfamiliar. This place still wasn’t home. Home was wildness with jagged cliffs. It was tenacious, floral weeds clawing their way through gravel, cacti broken but reborn in a sudden and random release. I was cheating on Tucson, watching these carefully constructed flower beds.
I watched bees and the shape of individual petals. Several branches had bent, their leaves dipped in red and curled, edges charred and brown. The tangled appearance of the dying leaves drew me in. I reveled in the inch of chaos I had found. Entranced, I leaned closer but then felt my phone begin to buzz. I stepped back from the plants and read the caller’s name.
My little brother, Benny, was calling. A vague uneasiness swept through me. I rushed to the main path, feeling a strange urgency to keep this place separate from my brother, even across the phone line. I wouldn’t answer his call until I left the garden.
* * *
A month later, I returned with two friends from out of town. I knew they would want to see Cloud Gate and the garden was too close to go unnoticed. I braced myself for the alienation that I had previously expected. But the feeling didn’t come, instead everything was so entirely different.
A cold front had come in and changed the surface. Petals dropped and leaves were paling. The summer thrivers had become brittle shades of beige. Plants seemed to tangle instead of rise. In the midst of change, I found a random splash of color. What looked like an ornamental pomegranate tree stood in the middle of the garden. It was the only thing that seemed alive and I wondered about its origin.
That evening I searched on my computer to find this thriving tree. I found the official website and looked through trees and shrubs, but couldn’t find the one I was looking for. Desperate, I began to search alphabetically. I wanted to learn more about things that grew in the cold, that survived when others began to decay.
As I continued to scroll the list, the origins began to jump out at me. Dusky Cranesbill from Russia, blooms in summer. Catmint from Japan that grows about eighteen inches.
Country after country popped up. Every place was in this garden. A deep longing pulled the air from my lungs. Where was Tucson’s inch? Where was my inch? I still hadn’t found the tree but I no longer cared, finding my own in that garden was more important. Slowly, reading name after name, my hope waned. I grew desperate just to see the word “Southwest” on the list, and then finally I found my state.
There was a plant native to my home, Indiangrass. Just a grass, nothing flashy, that shoots four feet into the sky. Its flowers are red and brown and must be protected from “excessive winter”. I may need similar protection, but at least I knew one thing from Arizona that could thrive in Chicago.