In Search of Adequate Beauty

I spent most of my childhood in South Florida in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Apparently, the development of that part of the world (Dade and Broward counties, anyway) at that time consisted in bulldozing all vegetation off of the utterly flat landscape and then building various small houses each surrounded by its own lawn of crabgrass (which was the only kind of grass that would grow on the sandy soil remaining on the ground) and a couple of palm trees. Throw in a hibiscus here and there, and a few real trees, maybe two or three per block. Not much green. A lot of yellow in various shades. Not much shade. That development must have happened right after WWII, apparently in response to a lot of veterans who had been stationed somewhere in Florida during the war and were now interested in moving their families back there. It was, after all, warm all year round, and seemed cleaner and better-managed than the Northern cities. In retrospect I can see how that would have appealed to people who had grown up in apartments in Buffalo or wherever. At the time, it made no sense at all to me. The sun hurt my eyes, I sweated perpetually in the heat and humidity, and every prospect displeased.

I moved away from there as quickly as I could, and went to college in Boston. Which I fell in love with almost immediately. The landscape was non-Euclidean. It had ups and downs. And it was green. Deep rich shady green all over (except in the fall, when it was red and orange and yellow, and in the winter, when it was black and grey and white, but still not yellow, and fascinating.) It’s hard to describe how that affected me. I was, of course, an adolescent at the time, so everything affected me strongly, for better and for worse. Life was full of firsts and mosts and onlies, all of which bowled me over. But the actual place was one of the two or three major, positive mosts.

Ultimately, Mr. Wired and I moved to Chicago, where I have since lived for most of my life. Unlike New England, it’s flat. The highest point in our neighborhood is 90 feet above sea level; it’s a hillock in the park where the local dogs have their play group twice a day. I still miss the ups and downs of New England, but I can live without them, because even Chicago is green. Right now it is so lushly green that every time I drive down a street or look out the window or walk to the store, I am overwhelmed with how lucky I am to be here. Many of the trees I walk through are elms, and therefore seriously endangered by Dutch Elm Disease. There are other tree plagues around here too, most notably the Emerald Ash Borer. And in major storms, like the one we had last night, there are always trees knocked over, probably victims not only of strong winds and lightning but of their own age and internal rot. But no matter how precarious the greenness is, it is still here, and I am still in love with it. Even Chicago, hog butcher to the world and so on, mile after mile of concrete and asphalt, is green enough to keep my soul alive. Boston would be better. Vermont would be better still. But Chicago is green enough, and even beautiful enough.

Paradoxically, I have been back to Florida several times since moving away, for family visits. And it seems to have gotten a lot greener in the intervening years. Is that just a matter of time enabling stuff to grow which was just barely planted when I left? Or did the local developers actually get smarter, and start planting stuff other than crabgrass and palm trees? I suspect it’s a bit of both. As I get older and have more trouble navigating the sidewalks and streets in winter, I find Florida more attractive, though probably not to the point where I would ever move back. It certainly hasn’t sprouted any hills in the meantime. In fact, most of it may vanish under rising sea levels by the time we start seriously contemplating moving south. Given the potential for meteorological catastrophe looming over most of the country, Chicago actually seems surprisingly safe, unlikely to succumb to flood, earthquake, volcano, hurricane, or sinkholes. And, now that I think about it, it is beautiful enough.

Jane Grey

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