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Reveling in the wildflowers right outside our city doors

Wildflowers are an antidote to cyberism: the ongoing mediation of human experience by some form of computer technology.

Bee balm and black-eyed susans, both common wildflowers in Chicago.
Bee balm and black-eyed susans, both common wildflowers in Chicago.
Photo by John Vukmirovich

Although I spend a good deal of time outdoors, I realized, a few years back, that I hadn’t been spending enough time with wildflowers.

Wildflowers are green contradictions, as they are beautiful yet ephemeral, resilient yet vulnerable. I fear, however, that they (and nature in general) are overlooked by too many people.

It’s now summer in the city, the time for wildflowers to appear on the clock face of nature.

Close at hand to where I live in the southwest suburbs, there used to be a vacant, two-story apartment building. In spring of 2017, it was torn down and the plot scoured by tractor treads. Within weeks the browns and grays of clay and gravel were replaced by a patina of green. Wildflowers soon were striving for the morning sun and blossoming after early summer rains.

Field sow thistle, yellow-orange, was one of the first to bloom. Night-scented tobacco, spooky white, came next, followed by its violet cousin, cultivated tobacco. (Yes, the kind you smoke — now where did that come from?) Yellow sweet clover, with its subtle anise-like scent, also popped up here and there. (Break off a sprig — assuming you can find it — rub it in your hands, then inhale, deeply.)

Sundrops, a wildflower found in Chicago
Sundrops are another wildflower happy to make the big city home.
Photo by John Vukmirovich

That fall, delicate frost aster caught my eye on chilly mornings. Eventually, a new house was built there, and those wildflowers were gone.

Not far away, behind a nearby auto repair shop, a swatch of wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s lace, has been coming up over the past few years. Their heads are broad handfuls of small, tightly packed, white flowers, and some heads have a single purple blossom at their center. Mid-summer breezes cause them to gently sway.

Hereabouts, there are many other wildflowers, and I find them in thickets, abandoned lots, and other green niches, especially along roadways. The colors and forms are arresting. There are the tall ones, like Canada thistle, with its bright purple head; bushy Joe Pye weed, with its small, violet flowers; and sunflower-like Indian cup, with its large, broad, side-by-side leaves that form a “cup” where they meet the center stalk.

This last is a rare find, as I stumbled across two clusters of it along the Des Plaines River. The politically correct crowd might wince at the name, but “Native American drinking utensil” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

And then there are the short ones, like Ox-eye daisies, their soft white petals offset by their buttery yellow centers; powdery blue chicory, whose petal tips look like those of a paint brush; red clover and bee balm, that always seem to have a drowsy bee or two in attendance; ocher-yellow wingstem, whose flowers look like twisted propellers or a wrung-out mop; and black-eyed Susans that seem to brightly say, “Look at us!”

But do we? Do you?

When I’m out and about in the city and suburbs, I’m often perplexed, as I’m often the only one out and about. In a forest preserve, I almost always have the trails to myself. If on a sidewalk or along a roadway, no one else is out walking, and no one stops their car to put a nose over a fence or into a thicket.

The benefit to identifying wildflowers, apart from reveling in their beauty, is that one is out walking, hiking, sweating, getting sunburned, bitten by bugs or rained on. All healthy activities for the body, the mind, and the imagination.

Wildflowers are, thus, an antidote to what I have come to call cyberism: the ongoing mediation of human experience by some form of computer technology. In the age of the PC, tablet, smart phone, the app, and the Internet, too many people live their lives as two dimensional entities sitting in front of some type of two dimensional screen.

But what transpires on any given screen isn’t real, isn’t life, but is merely, with a nod to W.B. Yeats, a “ghostly paradigm of things.”

If I had a favorite wildflower, it would be the prairie sundrop. At a fairly busy intersection, where a gas station once stood, prairie sundrops cling to the edges of the worn asphalt, and in places, they pop through where there are cracks. Sundrops open with the rising of the late summer sun, and their yellow, four-petaled faces make anything seem possible.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.

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