by Zoe Boyer
Having returned to Chicago for the summer, I spend most of each day curled on my parents’ couch, drifting in and out of consciousness as my brain powers down like a dying machine. The miraculous panacea of ketamine that three years ago gave me my first taste of life free from crippling depression has ceased working. I attempt a last Hail Mary course of treatments, trekking three times each week to the small, sterile treatment room of a strip-mall medical clinic. The prick of an IV needle sends me into a world of lucid dreaming: I conjure memories that flicker like old home videos, and drift through surrealist landscapes. Finally, I shake loose the cobwebs of hallucination, emerging with an air of sadness to a reality that feels far less tangible, less alive than the one I imagined.
The morning after my last treatment, I walk to the lake and along the beaches of Chicago’s North Shore—a daily ritual. The water has risen overnight, surging past the lifeguard stands, carving sand from beneath their legs, so they pitch forward, leaning precariously into oncoming waves. The plastic boardwalks leading down to the water’s edge dangle over a shelf of sand, rising and falling with the swell of each wave. A small inland lake has formed below the boat racks, mirroring row upon row of candy-colored kayaks, the image shirred by the rush of wind, rippled with concentric rings where beads of rain still drip from the bows of kayaks. The buoys that haven’t been swept to shore bob violently in the water, sucked up the face of rip-curl waves and swallowed at the crest, yanked below the surface as the buoys’ chains pull taut.
The water levels of Lake Michigan—of all the Great Lakes—are at record highs. Last autumn’s torrential storms stymied seasonal evaporation, and the rains have come again in earnest this spring. With the climate so volatile, water levels are shifting between startling lows and highs, bucking standard cyclical trends. The swollen lake has consumed break walls and jetties, leaving near-shore waters a minefield of submerged hazards waiting to shear the keels from boats. The shore is unrecognizable, disappearing beneath the creep of waves now lapping at sidewalks, sweeping lakeside strollers from concrete embankments, eroding the foundations of waterfront buildings.
Though I don’t believe in such things, it feels like a portent—this rising tide that threatens to swallow the world I knew. In a matter of days, I realize the last round of treatments hasn’t worked; already I’m slipping under. I can’t muster the energy to work or write, words lost within the murk of my mind. Daily walks to the shore become my only saving grace. I cling to them like a raft, finding solace in observing flora and fauna along the way. I catalog wildflowers, learn the names of insects, research the mating rituals of birds. In this way I remain in the world.
Flowers native to the midwestern prairie biome emerge from frostbitten soil. As always, lilies of the valley bloom just in time for my birthday, delicate white bells on slender stalks. The sweetness of their perfume belies the toxicity of glycosides within. It is the bittersweet scent of nostalgia—celebration tinged with the sadness of things past. The origami-like eastern red columbine flaunt their pentad of coral spurs like the regal spikes of a crown, a columnar cascade of stamen below, curling up at the anthers. These self-seeding flowers have been sprouting in abundance, adorning the untended patches of earth that limn the yard’s wooden fence. Ohio spiderwort bursts from cracks in the pavement, dusty green leaves arced elegantly like the jets of a fountain, tri-petal blooms massing in a tangle of indigo punctuated with lemon-yellow anthers. Though the world seems dull in my gaze these days, that brilliant blue still captures my eye.
One morning I catch the mating ritual of a red-winged blackbird. With lustrous black wings held aloft, he dances feverishly across the clipped lawn of a lakefront home, flaming red shoulder patches puffed out like epaulets. The female he is attempting to woo is far more subdued in manner and appearance. She turns the speckled brown plumage of her back in disinterest before taking flight. Undeterred, the male gives chase, trilling his distinctive conk-la-ree call. If successful, he will soon be the guardian of a nest, swooping at the scalps of trespassers with the swift ferocity of a stealth bomber.
I remain frozen on the sidewalk, enraptured by the spectacle of something I have only seen in documentaries. A hesitant smile cracks the somber mask of my face. It is this act of noticing, connecting to a world beyond myself, that saves me from slipping into the black waters of melancholy that threaten to consume me.
On one of the first nice days of summer, I take a book into the yard to read, but find I can’t focus. I tilt my head back and watch the sky instead. The leaves of the great maple tree are tatted like an emerald veil over the yard. A chickadee shimmies, preening on one of the branches. He splays his wings with the elegant flair of a maestro’s hand, conducting an unseen symphony of trills and chirps, articulating each feather from his rigid primaries, which cue the throaty guttering of gulls, to the downy tufts of his breast, signaling the soft coo of a mourning dove. His performance over, the chickadee flies off without so much as a bow as a curtain of cumulonimbi descends, and the spotlight of the sun flickers out. I head inside to take shelter, perch on the window seat as lightning illuminates the yard, and the drumbeat of thunder begins.
The terns have the whole of the lake, but they’re squabbling over thirty feet of shore. Lusty winds send waves ripping along the breakwater, sweeping fish into the clutches of the near-shore current, primed for the picking. The terns circle overhead, svelte bodies motionless in glide, flame-orange beaks pointing down toward the water like compasses, tracing the swift arcs of the fish. The terns are grim reapers dressed in robes of white, save for their soot-stained wing tips and inky black masks.
They plunge, rise, plunge again, recalculating their angles with laser precision, stopping only to bicker among themselves as they jockey for position. I catch a few errant dives before one tern disappears into the lake. A moment later, she broaches the surface with lucent beads of water streaming from her feathers, a glistening silver fish wriggling in the triumphant grip of her beak. Before I know it, thirty minutes have passed as I watch this dance. Amid days that drag on with insufferable torpor, to lose half an hour in the blink of an eye—the argent glint of a fish—is a mercy. Though, not for the fish.
All week long the flowers of catalpa trees have slipped through the gnarled grasp of their branches, falling from lofty canopies of cordate leaves as broad and supple as the ears of a small elephant. Catalpa is derived from the tree’s Muscogee name, kutuhlpa, meaning winged head. I imagine all those leaves like great wings flapping in the breeze, shaking loose downy tufts of flowers that speckle the sidewalk below in a carpet of ruffled, white blooms. Upon closer inspection, the petals are striped with butter yellow, dappled with flecks of fuchsia like spattered ink. Once browned along the edges, the blooms resemble a scattering of popcorn, like the aftermath of an exploded concessions stand.
Walking farther, I find the gory remains of mulberries fallen from the tree. Trod to pulp by the heels of passersby, they ferment to sickly-sweet rotgut on the pavement. Certain animals will eat fallen, fermented berries as a means of pleasurable intoxication. In my desperation to feel pleasure, I wonder what the moldering berries might taste like, how the sugary lactic sting of them might bubble in my bloodstream.
After a day spent in bed, laid low, I finally emerge in the evening for a walk around the neighborhood. One of the neighbors, a landscape designer, has cultivated a spectacular garden bursting with all manner of native and tropical plants. I admire the large violet trumpets of double-petaled purple datura, with their fluted edges tapering to curled points like surrealist stars. Alien, tentacled seedpods are tucked below the buds, their seeds containing a deliriant capable of producing arrhythmia, hallucinations, psychosis, even death. Roses may have their thorns, but the beauty and treachery of datura are far more potent.
Wound around an electrical pole, the vines of Brazilian Dutchman’s pipe bear their first flowers—leathery sacks like the wings of a slumbering bat that unfurl into heart-shaped blooms, their mottled plum lobes veined with white. A bulbous chamber attaches the base of each bloom to the perianth tube, a daunting cavern into which insects must travel in search of pollen. I long to be so small that I could be dwarfed by the throat of a flower. I could hide among the foliage, caring for nothing more than the nectarous allure of the anther as I flit through a fast and focused life. Humans seem too large an organism, too psychically complex. I think I would prefer the single-mindedness of a pollinator—a life spent in fervid pursuit of one attainable goal.
I read a book called Nature, Love, Medicine, in which Thomas Lowe Fleischner has gathered essays from naturalists who find personal healing in nature, their experiences awakening them to the beauty and interconnectedness of the world. As I read, I feel the profound sense of peace that occurs when literature gives expression to an experience I haven’t yet voiced myself. My observations of nature adopt a new tone, no longer idle distraction, but focused toward a greater purpose, longing to join the chorus exalting nature as salvation.
As I walk, words form in my head, narrations of the images that flit by—cicada wings clattering plastically against pavement, shelf fungi protruding from tree stumps like plump slices of sandwich bread, poppies unfolding the crinkled silk skirts of their petals. Heading home, I turn the words over and over, worrying them smooth like the stones I gather in my pockets from the shore, polishing them into prose that I rush indoors to jot down, always fearful the words might slip between my fingers and descend back into the murk. At last I am writing again, sifting through all I have seen and studied this season to create an essay like the ones I have read—words that tell of a remarkable world waiting to enliven us with its wonder, to buoy us from the depths with its wild spirit.
Zoe Boyer was raised in Evanston, Illinois, on the shore of Lake Michigan, and now lives among the pines in Prescott, Arizona, where she recently completed her MA in creative writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Canary, High Desert Journal, Plumwood Mountain Journal, and The Hopper.