Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Makeup Posts for Songpath at the North Park Village Nature Center and Songpath at the Hegewisch Marsh

Once again, the Chicago Park District has seen fit to invite me to re-visit the Songpath at the North Park Village Nature Center on Chicago's nouth side.  This year, they have also invited me to create a new Songpath for the Hegewisch Marsh on the far south end of Chicago.  A very great contrast to the experience at NPVNC.  Whereas NPVNC is located in a very bustling area of Chicago with a ton of traffic noise and other things happening in the park, the Hegewisch Marsh seems almost remote and out of the way.  This seems almost counter-intuitive considering that when in the center of NPVNC, one almost feels completely removed from the city whereas at the Hegewisch Marsh, the proximity of factories and a rail line that services them makes it so sound from trains and the factories themselves are very present in the park.  However, the sparse nature of these sounds, and the constancy of them, almost give them a meditative quality as if they were a part of the natural landscape rather than an interruption to it.

But before I go too far into the Hegewisch Marsh hike (Coming up August 29-30th), I wanted to address a loose end.  Those of you who keep track of this blog may have noticed the absence of individual hike blogs from last summer at NPVNC as well as those this summer.  My only excuse is that I have been extremely busy these past couple of years and the time for reflection post hike has just not been present.   Whereas in Minnesota I was living and working there for 2 months for the sole purpose of creating and leading the hikes, my life in Chicago is a bit more filled with the usual routines and I have discovered that sitting and reflecting on each hike took a significant amount of time that I failed to carve out for the hikes last summer.  So instead of individual blogs, I am going to just summerize a few things regarding both last summer's and this summers hikes.

First, a few general reflections about the space.  North Park Village Nature Center is located on the
far north west side of Chicago and borders two very busy major streets with very little on them in terms of commercial businesses, so although cars routinely drive by in large packs at rather high speeds, there is very little in the way of other city noises (like large crowds, ambient sounds of music or conversation from restaurants, etc).  This creates a regular drone surrounding the park that rises and falls with the flow of traffic and occasionally a noisy muffler or larger vehicle starting or stopping rise out of the constant din.  This sound then blends in with the general ambient bed of bug noise coming from the tall grasses and swamps of the park itself.   As the park is on a direct flight path from O'hare, on days the wind is right, the park is serenaded avery 2-3 minutes by a low flying plane that overtakes all sound in the park and then slowly dies out into the drone of cars and bugs.  That said, there are many places in the park where a sense of almost complete silence and isolation occur.  At the crossroads of the savanna trail and the main loop, or at the quite pond in the midst of the entire park, the thickness of trees almost blocks out the constant drone letting through only the occasional high pitched squeak of tires or brakes.  Then, rounding the corner onto the north side of the Main loop, the sound of traffic goes from being almost inaudible, to the major sound feature of the space. Of course, nothing stops the sound of over flying planes, but in these spots, one can almost forget where they are. In general though, the tone of the first summer's hikes is one of drones overlaying one another depending on your location, and what is happening around and above the park.  There are also many places where bird noise dominates the space such as spots along the Savanna Trail.  So in general, a very good variety of sounds.

Last summer, I created and conducted the hikes at the end of the summer.  However, this year, I chose to do the hikes earlier.  The first thing I noticed about that space during that time was the complete absence of my string section: the bugs.  But in high contrast, the birds were going wild!  Of course, the spring and early summer are mating season for birds as well as the season before the eggs hatch and tadpoles become frogs to create the bed of sound I had grown so accustomed to.  This factoid completely changed the nature of the hikes and in fact made it an extremely different piece.  Instead of the bugs being the basis of the ambient soundscape, I had to focus the hiker's attention on more distant drones of traffic.  It also made the traffic noise a bit more audible throughout the space as the prairie grass was also a bit lower so the places that had been more shielded from the noise the summer before were now harder to find (though not at all impossible).  In essence though, the hike actually seemed to have a "faster tempo" as it became more about individual "sonic events" like birds singing to one another in particular patterns, or individual traffic noises interjecting into the space.  The wind also played more of a major role as the particular kind of leaf present on the more dominant trees in certain areas of the park are quite firm and make almost a crackling sound when the touch together so the space created a really nice outline for the wind.  I noticed the audience more often noticing things like frogs, turtles, and other individual animals that would periodically make noise in the space than I had the previous summer and found that our attentions would be more often pulled out of a particular sonic space to notice a far away individual sound rather than us getting lulled into a more constant sonic space that the drone of bug and car tents to create.  Despite the differences though, both hikes were quite satisfying and successful and I hope to explore them further in the future.  Such an unusual space.

The Hegewisch Marsh is a very different story.  First of all, it is MUCH harder to get to and a bit more obscured.  When I first visited the site in the dead of winter, it seemed like it would be the perfect place for a Songpath and I was not disappointed when visiting it again in the summer despite the wildly overgrown paths (which, I should mention, the Chicago Park District has done an amazing job grooming since then).  The Hegewisch Marsh sits in the midst of the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago among a series of very large factory plants including the Ford motor plant and a cereal processing plant.  It is also adjacent to an extremely large land fill and a river lock along the Calumet river.  I think its pristine condition is ironically partly due to the fact that it is surrounded by large factories.  Nothing else can really occupy this area and there are no residential or commercial neighborhoods within a mile of the space, so in a way it is one of the most "remote" feeling locations in the city of Chicago.  The factories really do provide a kind of noise shield while themselves interjecting a very steady drone of their own into the space.  The presence of some large buildings in the distance also provides a very natural reverberation off of which some distant high pitched squeals of trains on the train tracks reflect making the whole space seem quite distant and ethereal when stimulated by such loud but distant sounds.

I have been down to Hegewisch Marsh now a number of times and have found some very consistent sonic features to it, though many of these are quite invisible to the ear unless they are invoked by some kind of sound happening in just the right place.  I don't want to give away too much about the hike, but I do believe that it is going to be a very special occasion and special event.  I also hope to have a moment to reflect on these hikes and perhaps more opportunity to reflect on the hikes at North Park Village Nature Center.  If you are in the Chicago area (or even northern Indiana or Western Michigan) you should try to come out.

The Hikes are taking place August 29th at 11 am and 2 pm and on the 30th at noon.
Hegewisch Marsh is at 13000 S Torrence on Chicago's South Side
You can make a reservations by sending an email to Samantha.Chavis@chicagoparkdistrict.com

Hope to see you there!