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A Place Apart

June 13, 2011
By
Thatcher Woods Savanna: Thatcher Southbound Along the Des Plaines River: Regional Bike Ride Chicago

Thatcher Woods Savanna. Photo courtesy Flickr user juggernautco.


Alongside the elevated rail line that carries passengers nine miles into downtown Chicago, an unused road leads to a trail, which cuts through a forest of towering mulberry trees. The trail leads to a swampy bottomland that spills into the Des Plaines River. The river is captured in canals and dams before it joins the Kankakee River, forms the Illinois River, meets the Mississippi and flows out into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

As it curls near the village of Oak Park, it passes wild country, and although Chicago’s Loop is just 11 miles away and commuter trains rattle past with regularity, the forest itself, protected as a preserve since 1917, feels as wild as when Potawatomi passed through and Voyaguers steered birch bark canoes beneath the oaks.

“It feels like an enchanted forest,” Cristina said, “only haunted.”

As we followed the trail toward the river, we heard what sounded like boulders being hurled from the El tracks. Instead, we found a beaver, his face poking through the surface, slapping his tail against the water, asking for space.

This was Ernest Hemingway’s first hunting grounds. He shot pheasant among these trees and pulled trout out of the Des Plaines, and as a high school prankster, he’d drop them into the town’s water supply. A century later, some of that wild land at least still remains. Not enough for Hemingway. In 1935, Hemingway was already complaining about what was happening to Oak Park, as suburbs shot through the prairie that once surrounded Chicago.

In the forest where he hunted pheasant, Hemingway found a hot dog joint. In the prairie where he hunted snipe he found “a subdivision of mean houses.” In the town, “the house where I was born was gone, and they had cut down the oak trees and built an apartment house close out against the street. So I was glad I went away from there as soon as I did. Because when you like to shoot and fish you have to move often and always further out and it doesn’t make any difference what they do when you are gone.”

Actually, the house where he was born is still there on Oak Park Avenue. The oaks are taller than ever. Maybe the hot dog stand is fiction, too. Who knows? One of the things so confounding about reading Hemingway is that what he calls nonfiction often parts ways with the truth and what he calls fiction comes close to autobiography.

The subdivision is probably true enough, though. Since Hemingway was born in a gray Victorian in 1899, mere miles from Chicago and just blocks from the wild prairie, Oak Park has doubled, and doubled again, and grown a bit more after that, but it hasn’t lost the sense of being a place apart.