Once I’m done scrambling to make deadlines each week, I take some time to decompress. More often than not, this decompression will come in the form of visiting area bookstores and browsing the shelves, waiting for some moment of serendipity when my eye catches a title that leads to an insight or irony.
Last week, while browsing the shelves at The Book Stall in Winnetka, I stumbled upon Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror,” a book of essays that I’d been wanting to read ever since reading one of her essays in the New Yorker a few months ago.
I’m attracted to Tolentino’s prose because of sentences like this one, from the essay “Always Be Optimizing,” which is included in the book.
“When you are a woman, the things you like get used against you. Or, alternatively, the things that get used against you have all been prefigured as things you should like. Sexual availability falls into this category. So does basic kindness, and generosity. Wanting to look good — taking pleasure in trying to look good — does, too. I like trying to look good, but it’s hard to say how much you can genuinely, independently like what amounts to a mandate.”
And this one, from the essay “The I In The Internet,” which is also in “Trick Mirror.”
“In the run-up to the 2016 election and increasingly so afterward, I started to feel that there was also nothing I could do about ninety-five percent of the things I cared about other than form an opinion — and that the conditions that allowed me to live in mild everyday hysterics about an unlimited supply of terrible information were related to the conditions that were, at the same time, consolidating, sucking wealth upward, far outside my grasp.”
I gleefully paid the roughly $20 for Tolentino’s book and left the store before deciding to drive aimlessly around Winnetka, voluntarily ensconcing myself in this land of wealth that was both within my reach and beyond my grasp.
After about 10 minutes of driving down a road flanked by gated estates, I lost the urge to wander, in part because I feared that I might be found out, perhaps pulled over by a police officer who knew that I had no place or purpose here.
I consulted my iPhone for the nearest Starbucks and headed, with all deliberate speed, to my newfound destination. But on my way there, I spied the entrance of the Chicago Botanic Gardens and, on a dime, took a sharp left.
The security guard at the gate asked if I’d scheduled a visit and, if I hadn’t, to simply register online. I did so promptly, reluctantly paying the $20 parking fee.
The gardens were mostly bare, the crowds sparse. Where roses and fruit would be if they were in full bloom, there were only patches of dirt. Nonetheless, I hadn’t experienced this kind of tranquility in a while. I found a bench on a platform overlooking an expanse of water and stared at a duck going about its day.
In “How To Do Nothing,” the author Jenny Odell writes that she came up with the genesis of her book inside of Oakland’s Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses, a pastoral urban oasis environment similar to the Botanic Gardens.
“I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one’s participation in history and in a more-than-human community,” Odell writes. “From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of ‘doing nothing’ is to wrest focus from the attention economy [the economy of social media and the internet] and replant it in the public, physical realm.”
I marveled at the Botanic Garden’s Bonsai trees that seemed off to themselves on an island and walked plaintively in the English Walled Garden. At the top of a grassy hill, I could see a wall separating the Botanic Garden from the expressway and marveled that such calm could run parallel to such chaos.
The expressway the garden so effectively shuts out takes you to the balkanized urban garden of Chicago in about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the traffic; to the West and South sides, where space for contemplation and decompression is a rarity and a privilege that relatively few Black and Brown people get to enjoy.
In “Crabgrass Frontier,” his pioneering history of suburbanization in America, Kenneth T. Jackson explains that before the American Revolution, the wealthiest residents lived in the central city while the suburbs were populated by urban outcasts, such as Blacks who “sought spots as far removed from their masters as possible, which meant retreat beyond municipal boundaries. Thus, the first Americans to flee the suburbs for racial reasons were Black, not white.”
After about an hour at the Botanic Gardens, I headed toward the exit, but not before spotting an imposing statue of the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus, famous for creating a system that classified all living things.
The placard near the statue smartly acknowledges that Linnaeus “also applied this system to humans entirely without scientific basis. He categorized humans based on race and assigned negative behavioral traits to Africans and other nonwhites. This system has been used to promote slavery and other racial injustices throughout history.”
Ironically, the Linnaeus statue is surrounded by dense clusters of Japanese spirea, yet another signal of the overwhelming influence of Asian culture and heritage on these gardens, at a time of overwhelming anti-Asian sentiment in this country. A few feet away, another placard announced the presence of Black Cohosh, a woodland herb native to North America.
Despite his achievements, I would not advocate for removing Linnaeus from the garden. In this moment, it’s enough for me to sit in the silence of this beautiful, mongrelized tragedy and struggle to find my place in it, however difficult and risky the endeavor.
Moments before seeing the Linnaeus statue, I came across a bronze statue called “The Sower.” It was a gift from the Art Institute of Chicago.
“At seven feet tall, this classic male figure captivates the viewer with its height, strong gaze and form,” the depiction on the Botanic Garden’s website explains.
The placard on the ground in front of the statue, which depicts the Western world’s ideal person (male, white, able-bodied and ready to conquer), describes the space where the statue sits as the “Stower Alcove” before presenting four lines:
“The world before us, the world after us, our actions foretell … We reap what we sow.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this column incorrectly identified Carolus Linnaeus as Swiss. He is Swedish. This post has since been updated. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.