I often forget there’s a lake. People reference it, and I see it every time I pull up Google maps. But to see it requires walking, all the way over there, across campus, beyond the tall shady trees. It isn’t like where I come from.
Where I come from, instead of saying that the clouds have lifted we say “the mountains are out,” as if they had been playing coy behind a mottled grey curtain, then decided to bless us with their majesty. When the mountains are out, all one has to do is look up to see them. Certain street corners are better than others, but it doesn’t take long before even a half-caffeinated gaze wakes up to the nature just there, peeking between the buildings: snowy peaks, rolling foothills, the salty water lapping at the piers below. You’re never out of earshot of a wailing gull, nor off their radar for lunch scraps. To be confronted by nature in my city is simply to look up.
Living in the Puget Sound region forms a kind of contemplative practice of perpetually seeing nature. You learn to look for the bald eagle sitting atop the highway light that overlooks the estuary. Or watch the waves for the round bump of a harbor seal’s head. Every season yields its own icons. As a kid, I remember thinking what a hot summer it’s been when the Olympic mountains lost their snowy shawl by August. We could count on one week of glorious sunshine and buttercups in May, before a late spring chilling rain set back in until the 5th of July. Backyards and roadsides processed like clergy with their entourage—February pussy willows, March scotchbroom, April daffodils, May azaleas.
In June the salmon start the inland return to spawn, then die. First the Chinook and Sockeye in June and July, then Coho and Chum in August and September. They are the blood of the region, the pulse of the rivers. The waterways and arteries swell with hoards of silver and ruddy scaled creatures following some mysterious internal compass that directs them back to the very stream from which they hatched. This year a total of 58,585 Sockeye salmon navigated the fish ladder at Ballard Locks in Seattle. In the last decade, according to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the numbers have ranged from 418,016 (2006), to 21,718 (2009).
Where the salmon run, there is life. When they are well, we are well. When they are in danger, we know it’s probably our fault. We move dams for them, provide ladders for them to jump. They feed our souls and our communities, blessing our tables and streams.
I moved from my city of Seattle to Chicago in 2015 for graduate school. While, technically, I remained within the same country, the landscapes and vegetative visual culture are utterly and completely different. There is no backdrop, but only foreground. Culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what you are used to.” In this new land of Chicago tree names escape me, the birds and creatures scampering over the branches whistle question marks at me. Walking through the park sets me in a dizzying state of nature shock.
But the worst is when I go to the lakefront. I’ve heard folks use the term “third coast” for Chicago’s waterfront areas and beaches. That’s cute. Where are the kelp beds, the endless tangles of seaweed? Where are the jelly fish, the barnacles clinging to rocks and muscles exposed on the pier at low tide? Do sea lions bark out of boredom on a ship lane buoy in Lake Michigan? Perhaps my sea otter friends at the Shedd Aquarium can speak words of comfort.
I know, biologically and theologically, that where there is water there is life. Yet it still shocked me one day to look down at the lake shore sand and see small, perfectly tear drop shaped shells. Suddenly I felt gripped to know more—what do people call these little darlings? Are they native to the waters or hitchhikers? Whose mouths do they feed? Shells mean mussels, and mussels are mother nature’s wondrous filtration system, and filtration draws in creatures great and small to breathe deep.
Looking up and out across the water, the clouds jostling one another atop the lake, I see a hint of the Olympics amid their cotton peaks.
This essay was originally written for the Zygon Center Fall Seminar in Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago.