Prophylactics, Pig Heads, and Preservation: Chicago’s LaBagh Woods

The following essay provides a street-level history of one of my favorite ‘secrets’ in Chicago: the LaBagh Woods. I wrote this at the beginning of 2013 and am putting it here because, fuck it, it’s my website and I can do what I want. Plus, I couldn’t find a good place to get this published. So here it is, Internet. Enjoy.

It’s not every day you find a pig’s head in the forest. And it’s not every day that forest is within Chicago’s city limits. But there I was, on my bike; a lime green, single-geared off-road beast built by me to weather Chicago’s most disagreeable aberrations. It was late summer turning to fall, and I’d been exploring the LaBagh Woods on Chicago’s northwest side for months by that point, and then, an overcast afternoon, muggy. Deep within LaBagh’s 600 acres, somewhere along the banks of the North Branch of the Chicago River cutting through the forest, a cadaverous vignette: Pig’s Head Atop Tree Stump. Not exactly a Carvaggio.

I was used to the broken bottles, the condom wrappers, the rotten rubber tires, the pseudo-Latin King graffiti, and the other urban ephemera coloring the forest paths, but the pig’s head was a new sort of eidolon. I imagined a cold breeze, and misty cover from an obscure 1980’s C-grade horror flick. I U-turned and took a fast way, but on my ride back, I kept looking back to see if the head was following me. And then I realized, no, that’s just a bus.

By that point, I’d not been in Chicago long. A year-and-a-half, tops. I was (and am) a suburban expat. I came to Chicago for school and since stayed to live. My university was in the North Park neighborhood (home to around 18,000 Chicagoans), where Foster Avenue meets Kedzie, roughly two miles west of the LaBagh Woods. I was studying philosophy, and most of my nights were filled with Ramen and Kierkegaard. And, inspired by Kierkegaard (as strange as that seems), I’d take study breaks and walk around the neighborhood, which was then still new to me.

I lived across the street from a place called Ronan Park. Not much happens there, which is why I usually walked over there to clear my head. Sometimes there are pick-up soccer games, impromptu track meets, or occasional stabbing, but that’s it. Most people go to Ronan Park to watch the waterfall, which is the best word us Chicagoans have to describe the six-foot-high concrete spillway where the serpentine North Branch of the Chicago River dumps into the unnaturally linear North Shore Channel.

It has been a few years since I’ve visited Ronan Park, but in the brume of my memory, a scene at the other side of the confluence, opposite the spillway. There, a weatherworn man with paint-stained jeans palming a brown-bagged 40-ouncer and watching the ducks bob amidst the Styrofoam cups and river foam. For a moment, with the sun hanging low and glowing orange over the city, I envision a Rockwellian picturesque, but the man soon reaches the bottom of his drink and chucks the empty glass at the brace of mallards. The bottle falls three strokes short and the man cursed the Universe, and his mother. The ducks pay the man and his malignancy no mind, because, really, what’s one more piece of trash in the river?

But I enjoyed the solace I found at Ronan Park. It pulled me back to Earth, in a way. In the midst of that busy neighborhood, Ronan Park is like a hole punched in the urban fabric. Sure, it has the city grit and dollar-store shrapnel, but birds gather there—sometimes a blue heron, sometimes a swift—and it’s quiet, too. I suppose it’s a more conceptual or microcosmic calm than you’d find in, say, rural Colorado, but still, there’s quiet, hemmed with dissonance though it may be. Lending to that is the idea that here, you have what the city is, and in the same place, what the city is not. The simultaneity is disconcerting: in its myriad forms, life somehow manages to persist and coexist in spite of itself.

A picture of the LaBagh Woods, for the hell of it.

Despite the quietude, the version of Chicago at Ronan Park is hardly a picture of The City As It Used To Be. But using the North Branch of the Chicago River as a guide, one can begin to understand the peculiar sort of life thriving in this simultaneity. The farther you travel upstream, this energy darkens, intensifies, and—in its own atavistic way—compels. It arouses a clairvoyant break from the banality of city life. And, part-time-employed and low-waged as I was when I lived in the neighborhood, banality abounded

North Park is a stolidly lower-middle-class neighborhood, and an ethnic hodge-podge to boot: large concentrations of Eastern European, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Korean, and Caucasian folk filling out the generic streetscapes of walkup apartments, bungalows, and low-rise storage buildings. Aside from Ronan Park, the only feature breaking up the scene is the river running through the center of the neighborhood. There’s not much else happening there, and the more time I spent living that, the more my wanderlust itched. It might be the bleakness of the shuttered storefronts or the constant wail of a distant ambulance sirens, but when you look at the river, humming and swelling behind restaurants and repair shops and single-family homes, a picture forms: a prairie, spotted with wildflowers and maple groves, watered and whetted at the marshy riverbanks.

It was this pastoral scene that first attracted non-native settlers to the North Park area, then part of Jefferson Township, in 1855. With their agrarian senses tingling, immigrant German and Swedish Dream-seekers saw some prime, fecund potential in the land and promptly set up camp. And though there was busyness and progress and murder happening in Chicago nine miles south, Jefferson Township—and its little burgh of North Park—enjoyed a bucolic life until the area was subsumed in 1889 during a fit of gerrymandering by the City of Chicago as its politicians established an auspicious bid for the 1893 World’s Fair.

The gerrymandering, and the Fair itself, led to an exponential population boom in Chicago. Between 1890 and 1910, the city’s population doubled from 1.1 million to 2.2 million. The numbers looked good on paper, but the city’s infrastructure was weak, as evidenced by the growing pollution program and resulting sickness emanating from the Chicago River. Raw sewage was being dumped into the Chicago River, which was itself emptying into Lake Michigan—the fresh water supply.

The solution? Reverse the river. The effort, completed in 1900, utilized the Sanitary and Ship Canal (SSC), constructed on Chicago’s south side between 1892 and 1889, to cause the Chicago River to flow away from the lake, rather into it. All of the waste would be sent via the SSC to the Des Plaines River (a longitudinal river running parallel to the lake twelve miles west), and then the Illinois River, and finally the Mississippi River watershed—a bona fide American solution.

Though there was all this vivisection happening to the southern appendages of the Chicago River, the passage and flow of the North Branch running north of Ronan Park has remained relatively undisturbed since it was first ‘discovered’ by early, pre-19th-century, pre-Jefferson Township, non-indigenous Chicago settlers. They named the branch the Guarie River to supposedly honor a French trader who had a roughrider reputation in those sepia-hued days.

The eight-miles of Chicago River between Ronan Park and the Loop is still called the North Branch, but it’s swelled by the North Shore Channel, which connects to the river at Ronan Park. The channel was dug between 1907 and 1910 to complement the river reversal by drawing lake water from eight miles north in the suburb of Wilmette and sending the flow downstream (nowadays, it’s mostly used for kayaking and body dumping). Taking its Cartesian cues from the Chicago city grid, the channel runs a straight line, whereas the North Branch, upstream of Ronan Park, describes a more serpentine, northwesterly path. Its form is first used to shape the border between the neighborhoods of North Park on the north side of the river, and Albany Park on the south. From Ronan Park west to Pulaski Road, there are only a few areas of exposed riverbank, most of which are accessible by fence hopping or trespassing. But even if you were to risk the $250 fine, you wouldn’t find much in these havens aside from the debris of teenage debauchery and Krylon’d professions of everlasting love.

Where the North Branch meets Pulaski Road at the intersection of Foster Avenue and Pulaski, it forms the centerpiece of Gompers Park, a 39-acre park with crushed gravel paths and rainwater lagoons that straddles Foster Avenue. And then, it is beyond Gompers where most northsiders lose sight and thought of the Chicago River, as it leads past the northwest corner of the park.

There are two reasons us city-dwellers stop thinking about the river beyond this point. The first is that if you try to use Foster Avenue to loosely follow the direction of the river, you’ll hit Highway 94 after a few blocks past Gompers Park, and then beyond that, there’s endless residential sprawl all the way to O’Hare Airport. The second reason, and one that likely reflects on the disquiet of my own imagination, is that if you stay on the bank of the river and follow it through Gompers Park, you’ll eventually hit the shaded boundary line of the park, loosely indicated by a felled tree stump, fungal detritus, and a rusted chain-link fence being overtaken by an alien, slimy heath. A hole is cut in the fence, and beyond that, along the banks of the river, a rocky path wanders into the darkness of the sallow dell (flashes of Stand By Me).

For a time, I saw this boundary line as an end point. A place where the city stopped, and nature—or my citified notion of it—began. And for reasons callow or dogmatic, I felt no pull beyond this safety of the familiar. A city like Chicago penitently observes the ordered decorum of modernity, and I, its citizen, grant this as the natural order. The streets are set up like a grid, ordered alphabetically and numbered small to large. Electricity, gas lines, sewage, and fiberoptics run underfoot like bodily systems sheathed in a skin of concrete and steel. I have an address, a social security number, a tax ID number, an employee ID badge, a library card, a credit card, a driver’s license number, a passport; all of these the alphabetized and numbered effluvia of metropolitan self-consciousness.

Order of this sort is a semblance; a massive Potemkin framework. What we call order is nothing more than nature laid out in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Much like the mind, nature abides by a more cryptic logic. The fearful call it chaos, but even this is a type of imposed order. It’s one thing to recognize the exoteric mystery of nature, but it’s another to dismiss it as mere pandemonium. Theological generalizations occlude wonder and violate the a priori structure of the natural world, which is and will forever be a mystery. This is the mystery drawing us into nature (or in my case, past the boundary line of Gompers Park), as if some vestigial fragment of our psyche longs, hears, speaks, and communes with this hidden world. It’s a conversation held at some pituitary corner of the subconscious; the place where awe is culled under the ancient dome of a Redwood canopy or sunset Rocky Mountain shadow.

There’s nothing in Chicago as grand as that, but even along the urbanized stretches of the North Branch, there’s a sense of the sublime, as if the boundary line where the city stops and ‘nature’ starts isn’t as dichotomous as us pseudocartographers would like it to be. Early in my Chicago days, I felt no curiosity beyond the boundary line, but I was still shedding my suburban skin and that dogmatism soon lost itself to gravity. I wanted to see what else the North Branch had to show, and that’s when I realized my bike could have value beyond grocery portage and beer runs. I threw on some knobby tires and splash guards, and kicked it into high gear (or, single gear, rather).

My bike, the ‘Nature Boy’ by All City, looking fly in the LaBagh Woods.

It’s beyond Gompers Park where the LaBagh Woods begin. Infrastructurally speaking, the woods comprise a remote and somewhat isolated arm of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Fifteen or sixteen versions of Gompers Park could fill the six hundred-acre forest, and though some rural Illinoisans might have backyards this size, in Chicago, undeveloped land is a rare commodity; especially a tract this large. The FPD has cut a few small groves and shaded picnic areas in the woods, but due to LaBagh’s proximity to the highway and relative isolation from neighboring residential areas, the public areas aren’t conveniently accessed and are underutilized as such. The parking lots adjacent to the groves are usually occupied by Toyota-driving, mid-level managers and unemployed state-college graduates seeking sylvan congress (link is NSFW).

And though it seems it, the location of the LaBagh Woods is not entirely incidental. At the turn of the 20th century, as neighborhoods and businesses on the northwest side of the city continued to grow, the woods (yet unnamed) were starting to shrink. Illinois legislature didn’t form a forest preserve district until 1915, and as such, land conservation went unregulated. The responsibility for that thus rested on the public, and it was in this conservationist spirit that in 1901, Ella LaBagh, a Chicago resident and small-time philanthropist, was riding her bike (!) along the North Branch and witnessed firsthand the destruction and shrinkage of the forest. As an active member of the Irving Park Women’s Association (est. 1888), LaBagh began photographing and presenting her concern. Her grassroots campaigning, as well as the efforts of other Illinois conservationists, led the Illinois legislature to create a forest preserve district in the following years. However, it wasn’t until 1940, when LaBagh was 85, that the forest was named in her honor. LaBagh died in five years after that, and though there is a stone erected at the edge of the woods with an etching honoring LaBagh, “as a pioneer in establishing forest preserves,” hers is a name relatively obscure in the annals of Chicago history.

True conservationists may argue that though LaBagh’s name doesn’t have a Daley-level notoriety, she nonetheless managed to help preserve some prime Chicago real estate. For them, that’s legacy enough; sticking it to the man in perpetuity. That the LaBagh Woods are there, rather than houses or highway—this means something, if only that the woods are there to provide a glimpse into the world that would be. But beyond this, the LaBagh Woods are also something of an anomaly. As the North Branch flows through the woods, transposing city scree, so too are the woods a type of permutation; not quite urbane, but not agrestal, either. What’s a gray zone like the LaBagh Woods supposed to say?

This question stewed. I’d ride my bike to various remote corners of the city: Douglas Monument Park in Bronzeville, the mansions of Austin, the Union Stockyard Gate in Bridgeport…all of these things interesting, but without the prescient beck of the North Branch. Perhaps there was or is some strange force in the river and the woods beyond Gompers Park, but for me, it was the lure of the question: what’s in them there woods? What’s that darkness?

By bike, I’ve found that getting into the LaBagh Woods the back way works best. Using Ronan Park as a starting point, I take Kedzie Avenue north to Bryn Mawr, and then take that west. I pass through a four-block area dubbed ‘Korea Town’ by locals. Past that, a solemn, pot-holed stretch of road running the north-end length of the sprawling Bohemian National Cemetery. There is a retirement village on the side of the road opposite the cemetery, which I have always found supercilious. The road narrows once you cross Pulaski, and there’s another graveyard followed quickly by a diminutive industrial park speckled with mid-century flourishes.

And then the road ends, as indicated by a foreboding Jersey barrier sheathed in yellow reflectors. In years past, this point would have marked the intersection of Bryn Mawr and the Weber Spur, a former Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way and part of the Chicago and North Western lines. The spur was used from 1897 into the 1980s, but fell into abandonment, with the tracks finally getting pulled up around 2010. In their place, a 20-foot wide gravel scar cutting through the heart of the LaBagh woods. The shoulders of the spur, as they open up into oak and hickory forest, are lined with goldenrod, milkweed, and aster, with teasels and saxifrage intermingled amongst the stacks of moss-covered ties and sun-bleached city trash left to decompose or disappear into the oblivion of earth.

Railroad tracks used to be here. Now there’re just vagrants.

A few hundred yards down the spur, the woods surrounding you will darken and obscure the fact that you’re in a city zip code. The forest diffuses the sounds of the highway, which lies just a few hundred yards to the west, and in place of this, a breeze ruffling through the treetops and the whistle of a passerine. But there also moments of reminder, as when the spur bridges the North Branch. The railings of the bridge have been plucked and pilfered, and in the dry months of the year, you can look 25 feet down to the river below. The spans of the bridge are covered in years of graffiti. Broken bottles, condoms, and rusted cans of spray paint pepper the steep riverbanks.

Various paths spin off the spur and wander into the forest. Some of these are used by cyclists or hikers, others by pleasure seekers and midnight partiers. But a human sighting in LaBagh is rarer than an encounter with, say, a deer. These aren’t the muscled deer of Northern Wisconsin lore, but the more cunning, auspicious cousins, who might snack just as well on a patch of clover as they would a bag of Doritos. I was once riding my bike through the woods on some sunny summer afternoon, and on rounding a sandy bend in the path, I came face-to-face with a six-point buck. He looked up at me for a moment, chewing quietly, and then pushed his nose back into his lunch. I told him to move, but his ears twitched; a deer’s version of a shrug. Eventually he let me pass, and I got the impression he learned this sort of passive aggression from other similar bipedal encounters.

The forest has the earthy smell of an older, pre-Chicago. I was never in this older world, but the woods somehow help me remember it, effervescing the vapors of the river life once teeming along these riparian riverbanks. Of course, life still teems along the North Branch, especially if you follow it farther north as it trifurcates at Morton Grove. But, that far north, the city gives way to the suburbs, and not far beyond there, the homogenous, agrarian expanse of the central Midwest. This progression reflects a type of transition, or blending, but it is microcosmic points such as the LaBagh woods that provide a more immediate evolutionary snapshot.

The North Branch is ligature from an earlier epoch, and the viridian tissues clinging to its polluted riverbanks, a testament to the obstinacy of creation, the surety of change. A white-tailed fawn dashing through a meadow of bluejoint grass shaded by a towering McDonalds billboard: what triumphs here? What will? Our interaction with nature, despite our ideological intentions, is one of arcane servility. Emma LaBagh saved the woods because she loved them. But why? Perhaps this is the same root emotion Christians have in mind when they equate love of God and fear of God.

In the LaBagh Woods, as I could feel at Ronan Park, I sense the insistence of life in all of its disconcerting simultaneity. Here and there an empty bottle of Olde English, and sometimes, somnambulant at the edge of the forest amidst the flowers and deer, a lonely, anonymous man. Not exactly the same one at Ronan, but his blood, and the blood of all, runs just as red. (I want to call this blood the ‘the river of mortality,’ because I’d really love to compare the North Branch to my own arterial flow. But the term sounds like it was stolen from a Star Wars novel, so I’ll keep it parenthetical.)

And now we’re back to that late summer afternoon. It was an uneventful ride into the forest, but that day, I took a different path, obscured by a shallow ditch of cattails and thistle. The path led to the riverbank, through a shaded glen. First, an anonymous man sat drinking a brown-bagged bottle (not uncommon on a summer afternoon in LaBagh). A dismantled, 35mm camera was slung incidentally or symbolically about his neck. He stared at me (or through me) in the same nonplused way as the buck. The sky overhead was glum and threatening rain. I rode on, following the path along the river, tires slipping over the damp, varicose roots cutting across the hard-packed dirt. As I approached the northern end of the forest, noticed what I thought was sand piled atop a small boulder near the apex of a trail spur leading to one of the public picnic areas.

I dismounted and went to investigate. I thought it might be sand, but the color was too tawny and the shape too unnatural. As I neared, it seemed that the sand was moving, as if someone had left a wedge of casu marzu cheese out to stew. But then rounding the boulder, the shape of a brow, the curve of an animal snout. A death smell. A pig’s head, its severed neck crawling with maggots and grub, its eyes plucked, mouth sagging and agape. Likely it was scrapped from a weekend barbecue, but I’ve seen enough movies to want suspect something more sinister. I looked through the trees for cloaked druids or naked Wiccans as such, but instead there was only the whisper of a mist beginning to fall and the ominous hum of wasps looking for a bit of ham-on-the-skull.

Casu Marzu cheese. Them’s maggots in that cheezus.

A century ago, pig’s heads might as well have been floating down the Chicago River like felled lumber sent to the mill. This encounter was uncanny, but likely not so phenomenal in this ambiguous realm. I think of writer and naturalist Loren Eiseley, at the beginning of his book, The Immense Journey, where he writes of his own encounter with an animal’s head. As he runs his hands along the walls of a dark sandstone crevasse, he finds a skull embedded in the walls of the canyon. He exchanges a blank stare with the ossified beast, and wonders, “The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?”

The pig’s rotten cadaver, perched on that rock in the gloom—it reminded me of Eiseley and his skull, but inverted: the creature had lived—and died—under human hands, and what’s in front of me that I’ll never understand? Two separate questions, maybe.

Since that day, the only other pig’s heads I’ve seen have been behind the meat counter at the Mexican grocery stores in Albany Park. And I’ve since moved away from North Park (but not to the suburbs, God help me), and farther from both Ronan Park and the LaBagh Woods as such, but I still walk to the river, and I still ride to the woods when the weather is agreeable. That tension is still there: the empty 40-ouncers, the used condoms, the water bottles, the diesel flatulence, the wailing sirens, the urban refuse. These things remind me of my place. And then there is river and the anomalies of its dissonant oases, the animals bathing on the river’s shores, the grasses and trees drinking from its damp shores, the soft whisper of it flowing through alleyways and parking lots, the obstinacy of its atavism. And in it, a rotten pig’s head; a convoluted mirror, this.

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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