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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

Editor's Note: Lori Upchurch is on vacation. This column first ran on April 9, 2006.

I spend a lot of time looking at trees. I like them all; the little ornamental flowering beauties in the spring, the overgrown shrubbery that dwarves the random bungalow, the towering giants that are home to migrating flocks of birds, even the weed trees that grow up along fences... all of them are beautiful to me, because I know they are all hard workers in our urban ecosystem. My kids like trees all right, but don't have the camp counselor-esque enthusiasm for them that I do (yet!). Because they are always with me, they have heard me say "Look at that White Pine, kids!" so many times that they barely even hear me anymore. They do know enough to at least give me the obligatory "Yeah, that's a big one," before returning to their more interesting companions in the lands of Gameboy and Calvin and Hobbes anthologies.

After a winter spent trapped indoors, it is always a pleasant surprise to open the door and find a beautiful day in full swing on the other side. April 4, 2006 was just such a day. The day clearly said "kites" and "picnic" to me, but it screamed "outside light saber battle" to the boys. Since we're the flexible sort, there was no reason that a trip to the park couldn't meet all three objectives.

Now, kite flying means one of three places to me: Cricket Hill (the grisly scene of a kite-flying injury I sustained in 1996), the forest preserve out west on Irving Park Road, or Riis Park. The breeze at the lake, not to mention the long drive east from our Northwest Side home, would have required a lengthy search for the proper layers of outdoor clothing and a much larger bag of food. The forest preserve is a place to go only with at least one other adult, due to the creep factor. So Riis Park won out. First of all, we could walk there, and secondly, we could walk home. We gathered our supplies and had the debate about which weapons we would be bringing. I eventually got them to come around to my side (that of of the pacifist and resourceful nature lover) by assuring them that there would be millions of sticks at the park, so many in fact that we could build a mansion of sticks. Or a spaceship, sure, whatever! We left the plastic light sabers and the handle of my cookie press (which does double duty as a futuristic silver gun) on the porch and armed with only a kite, a dog and some lunch, we stepped out.

It took the better part of an hour to get from our house to the top of the hill. We made a few stops along the way to untangle the dog from the kids, to get a drink of water, to scrape the mud off of the youngest, to be rockets. Once there, we climbed the hill and from the top could see the entire skyline, from the Hancock to the Sears Tower, as clear as a bell. It was one of those days where the air is so fresh that something 11 miles east looks like it's two blocks over. The kite practically flew out of the bag and I held my ground while it played out and headed up toward the visible daytime moon. All of the boys ran off to play 50 yards away, just far enough to be out of hearing range, but close enough for a visual. This caused the dog to bark out a continuous alert that our party was separated, and was I aware of this?! After a time I grew weary of solo kite flying, so I reeled it in — no easy task — and pacified the dog by corralling the lads and we headed for the best picnic spot in the city.

There are two huge old oak trees in the upper field of Riis Park; their trunks are about 10 feet apart. The ground under these trees is always dry, and oddly free of the items you warn your kids not to touch at the park — balloon colored condoms, tiny ziplocks, dead chickens, that sort of thing. I am guessing that these trees, and the neigboring grove of seven giant oaks to the north, are close to 100 years old. According to the park district website, Riis Park was developed in 1916, so that's probably when they were planted. Last year all of the trees in the park were pruned and thinned. We were worried that some of the oaks were going to be taken out, as there was a lot of cutting going on and the sound of the chipper could be heard all summer long. It was a relief to see that the trees were only given a much-needed pruning, and the ground underneath them prepared for them to take in what water they could during this drought. I later learned that the Riis Park job was given as a prize to the best forestry team in the park district. Those trees were in good hands.

We had a picnic between the two oaks, the two-year-old and I pleasantly discussing the workings of a fanny pack, whether or not pouring out the drinking water was an acceptable activity and collecting acorn caps. The older boys had bigger fish to fry. They spent their lunch arguing about the existence of fairies, the creation of Earth from the big bang, and whether or not that was God's doing, if there even is such a thing as this so-called God. A little "to each his own" intervention from the matriarch prevented a philosophical war from erupting. Boys who are six have a lot of heavy stuff to figure out and can't always go it alone.

After lunch, the kids found the optimal sticks, sticks worthy of the name Light Saber. The neighboring oaks, three of them, created space for the Jedi fortress and the battle against good and evil. The dog and I got to sit back for five minutes and gaze about at my favorite grove of oaks, the skyline, and notice how if you look out of the corner of your eye at this time of year, all of the trees have a pale green glow. They aren't leaves yet, just leaf energy, which is something else I learned from kids.

This was not our first picnic of the year. That title was unfortunately granted to a rather lame affair last Thursday night. I cannot deny the truth: warmish pizza and soda on the parkway outside of a play we were attending was the first actual meal eaten outdoors in 2006. I chirped to my tired, hungry and well overdone family, "Look everyone, it's the first picnic of the year!" which garnered a decidedly lukewarm response from the Team. They were right to be unenthusiastic. The sandwiches, apples and pretzels eaten under the still-bare limbs of a very old family of oaks, atop a glacial ridge that was once the ancient edge of Lake Michigan, on an early spring day in Chicago takes the grand prize of Best First Picnic.

Riis Park, one of Chicago's finest parks, is located east of Naragannsett and west of Meade, north of Fullerton and south of Wrightwood (2400 N and 6100 W). There you will find a hill perfect for running up and rolling down; a pond with geese, turtles, ducks, frogs (lots of frogs in June); and many many beautiful trees, including a grove of old oaks.

If you are in need of a kite, you can find directions for making your own here. Or if you are not the crafty sort, you will find a large selection of kites and accessories at Kite Harbor, 109 Marion St. in Oak Park, 708-848-4907. There is a perfectly good dragon kite stuck in a tree on the north side of Riis Park near the tennis courts, if you have a very tall ladder or are particularly good at climbing trees.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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