Early on as a photographer, without knowing much about what directions to take in life (both physical and metaphysical), I learned to have faith in the lands protected by the U.S. National Park system. If it was a national park or monument, I was to discover, great things were almost guaranteed to come from my being there. Every single one I’ve ever visited had not and has not, to this day, let me down. They were stupendous, memorable, peculiar, could be inspiring, invigorating and temporarily displacing–you couldn’t stand there, sometimes, viewing some of these places, and help but think you were viewing the landscape of a different planet. Especially if you grew up where I did.
Chicago is one thing: a virtual oasis of glass, metal, brick, sandstone, concrete, cars, people and high life among a vast, continental sea of prairie land and smaller, industrial and rural towns. And there are certainly parts of it that seem extraterrestrial, in some manner of perceiving them. But Illinois, I’m afraid, is not something else. At all. Despite the reputation Illinoisians seem to have among other Midwesterners (check out FIP’s or even FIB’s in the Urban Dictionary if you haven’t already) Illinois really is nothing special. There are many metrics I can use to say more about it, but all I need is one: look at a map and tell me how many national parks you find in the state, or even how much protected, recreational land you see to exist. Relatively speaking, the answer is next to none.
Inside the suburbs, thankfully, dense patches and ribbons of green still color the maps; preserved areas of the flora that used to grow wild, prior to urbanization, are found running beside and around the few creeks and rivers–particularly the Des Plaines River–and if one heads far enough into the southwest suburbs, a quite countrified, massive plot of trees, lakes and sloughs can be discovered, one that serves as a gateway to what you’ll encounter all over the rest of the state: frogs, crayfish, bass, croppy, lightning bugs, mosquitoes. But you won’t find a single national park or monument or forest, even, in all the state except for one (sorry, Lincoln): the Shawnee National Forest, encompassing a total of a little over 250,000 acres, or 415 square miles on the state’s southern border with Kentucky. That’s in a state consisting of almost 36 million acres, or 56,000 square miles. It factors out to not even one percent.
Now, it’s no fault of the Midwest for the arguable lack of exceptional sites it yields, topographically speaking. It’s just the lay of the land. Geology isn’t a pissing contest, and it doesn’t give a crap about some idiot (me) and the pictures he wants to take. But greatness is out there. Unfortunately, most of it you’ll find west of the Mississippi River. Most of it. Not all. But most.
It wasn’t until I’d been in Oregon for over a decade that my faith in the National Park System began to seep outside the box. I’d looked at geographical maps and always seen asymmetrical blotches of green all over Oregon, Washington, California and every other state west of the Great Plains, but I’d never really thought much about it. Being the particular product of my particular environment, and having been so awestruck by places like the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, The Dakota Badlands, The California Redwoods, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Grand Tetons, the Great Sand Dunes or the Rocky Mountain National Park, among a whole host of others, you could probably understand why I was so spoiled, or why my interest was so heavily skewed in that direction. Back then, if it wasn’t a national park, it meant next to nothing. It wasn’t until I really began to spend time in that greenery, particularly around Oregon, mainly around Eugene, and then to take pictures of it, and then look closely at those pictures and see that what I’d been seeing was quite amazing in its own right, that it finally started to dawn on me: the closeness in relation of the national forests to the national parks and monuments in America.
Say what you will about the federal government, its policies and what it has historically done with parts of the land it had once seized, stolen or “purchased.” In protecting many of these areas from drilling, excavating, mining, grazing, logging or any other form of invasion-for-profit, peace of mind, a sense of awe and the individual freedom and right to explore this country of its citizens have been preserved for all who can make the trek.
And I hope that the pictures here show everyone who looks at them that the trek is almost always worth the while.