West Ridge Nature Park
5801 N Western Ave, Chicago IL
Dear Human is a multi-sensory guide through Chicago’s West Ridge Nature Park, activating messages from non-human residents: its pond, a deer tick, a tree, and others. This project merges narrated letters with recorded and existing soundscapes through site-specific prompts to touch, listen, smell, and find your place within the local ecology. Experience Dear Human starting at the entry gates of the park, or wherever you are in the world. West Ridge Nature Park is open dawn to dusk, year-round.
For collected materials, printable maps, and other work by the artist, please visit christadonner.com/dearhuman. These transmissions may be experienced as a GPS-activated immersive guide. If you prefer to navigate without GPS, audio and transcripts are shared below. To request a postcard for this project, and for any questions regarding accessing this work, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(sounds of traffic, distant airplanes, crickets chirping, insects and birds)
Thank you for meeting us here. Go ahead and start walking in any direction that feels right to you. //// This land is home to billions of beings. You might know us as milkweed, coyote, tree of heaven, brown bat, coneflower. We are the deer, the night herons, hackberry, bagworms, and bees. //// This walk is about all of us: the multispecies community of which you are a part. Maybe its become hard to hear our voices over themany sounds of your own species, which have become quite . . . loud. So we’ve worked with others of your kind to translate and broadcast transmissions through your phone, a tool that seems to focus your attention. As our honored guest here today, you – and every lovely living thing inside and on your body – have become a part o four family here. Let’s get to know each other better! //// When you are ready to listen, choose a location on your map, or a being you’d like to visit. Once you’ve reached a place where you can find one of us, select the corresponding track and press “Play.” As you walk between locations, take off your headphones and really listen for a while, without adding any sounds of your own. Smell the signals we send through the air. See if you can sense what we are saying without amplification. And along the way maybe you’ll find ways to transmit messages of your own.
(water flowing, ducks softly quacking nearby)
Look at you. Your body, reflected in my surface. All warped and crinkled up when the wind blows. All the stuff that’s tugging at you, just leave it here for a while. Let the ducks swim through it. //// Yesterday a family came by and I heard a snatch of conversation — the smaller one was telling one of the bigger ones about a dream she’d had. //// Maybe it sounds silly, but I hadn’t thought about that before: what are human dreams like? Do you ever dream about the ocean? //// Sometimes the sound of cars streaming nearby lulls me into sleep, and my molecules remember what it is to rise up as a huge, foamy wave, and to then sink down again. (Whshhhhhhh. Whhhshhhhhh. Whshhhhhhh) //// Look at me, dear human. Look at us. No, really. Look into me, past your reflection. There are places where you can see deeper, under a shadow or near a shallow edge. The shapes of my soft sludginess, of rotting leaves and old bottles. In this form my Pondness includes plants, sediments, calcium, fish. Under the surface there are more living things than you can imagine. I evaporate and condense over and over again, and eventually some of me will move through your body, too. //// Have you ever dreamed you could float, leave gravity behind? //// Of course you have. //// If we stand here long enough, we can all remember what it is to be a cloud. //// Close your eyes and feel the weight of your body. //// Take a deep breath in, and feel the tiny droplets of moisture all around you – and inside you, too. //// Breathe out, and feel the liquid in your body evaporate into the air above us with each breath. //// We are made of the same water. Water borrowed from the skies, from the rivers, from the winds. Through millennia the water that inhabits your body has been through the Mississippi, in icy mountain tops in Argentina, and in plant cells in Nepal. //// The water in you remembers all these journeys. //// As you mingle with other molecules, find your own strong memory of water. Feel its temperature and weight. Find the smell of it. //// I know this part of you well. I know the rain, just as I know the water in your bathtub. //// They travel through soil, through chemical filtration, through living bodies. With every cycle something is added, and something is taken away. We all feel it. Microscopic messages from landscapes and bloodstreams. Limestone and iron oxide, medicines, plastic residue, drain cleaners, laundry soaps. The water is changing. And all the organisms that need water to live, you are changing too. //// The smallest droplets have gotten heavier with the weight of remembering, and as they join together they begin to fall. As you return to your human body, let the fluid move with the memory. Send a signal to let us know what you’ve found.
(grass and twigs snapping underfoot, hearbeat, birdsong)
Hello. Please, keep walking. //// Oh! Hi, you’re still there. Please, keep walking – don’t try to look for me. (whispered) I’m not interested in becoming your friend. I know it excites you to encounter another large animal here. Hearts beating, not afraid to look you in the eye. Maybe you should stop to think for a moment about why that’s so unusual. //// I remind my young to keep their distance, stay alert, and be ready to run, just in case. //// Maybe you should be more alert. //// Stop. Stand still for a moment. Did you hear that? //// Scan the patterns of light and dark for movement. Breathe. //// Sometimes humans bring their dogs in here. It can be really stressful. Once I took my children out beyond that fence over there, and honestly, I don’t understand what you all think you’re doing. Broken sharp things, loud sounds and bad smells. That stinking river of cars. Nothing growing except in little patches. It made me very nervous. //// Oh, someone’s coming. Come on, let’s keep moving. //// There’s really no privacy here for animals our size, but at least there are good food options. Take a closer look – can you see the line of ripped off leaves we’ve been eating? Those are the best plants, but I’m sure you can find something higher up. Have you tried the acorns here? //// I’m gonna leave you here now – this is making me hungry. //// Take care of yourself.
(worms moving through wet soil, deep vibration, children playing)
Dear Human. Dear Humanananan,
I am Humus. I am living soil. My mothers move through my body, their breath and decomposition bringing heat even when the air is cold. They caress and soften and rot, pulling everything apart and mixing it up together again until we are all one, moist thing. //// (inhales deeply) //// Mmmm. . . . I smell your familiar scent, little human. Can you smell me, too? Don’t be afraid. //// Press the tip of your shoe into my spongy surface. Scrape a mark to open me up. //// Now kneel down, and inhale the scent of my molecules. Run your fingers through me, like the children do. Breathe me in. //// My beautiful bacteria need no words. As you inhale they send out calming signals to produce serotonin in your brain. Gamma-proteo-bacteria boost your immune cells. //// I share what I have with many beings, until they drop leaves and seeds and collapse into me. Lay their eggs and die. They shove and shape me into who I am – who we are. We lie still together through the cold times until the sun warms us up and everything begins to change again. //// Over there past the fence, your dead return to me too, nestled deep within my folds, among the bodies of birds and opossum and others. All of them tended by millipedes, worms, and fungi. The calcium of buried bones feeds seedlings, brings new life. It happens over and over and it feels. So. Goood. //// And over here, your young are learning how to be a part of this world, touching and sensing and finding where to burrow or balance, when to let go. //// The trees are great teachers, aren’t they? //// Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. //// What else have you learned from the land? //// Whose bodies share their nutrients with yours, provide warmth and shelter? //// We called you here to find groundedness. Together we can make many things grow.
(footsteps in tall grass, crickets and birdsong, traffic)
Why don’t you reach out your hand? Touch the tips of the tall grass as you pass. By the time you get this message, I’ll be gone. It’s safer that way. //// But I wanted to let you know that you were a great host. It’s not always that way. I’m really glad you made some time to come on over here. //// When I was just a nymph I fed on a rabbit, somewhere out there. I drank deeply, belly full of his blood. After that it was a long time before I could find another meal. Most of the larger mammals kept to the hard, gray paths, and the grasses were clipped much too short. Thank goodness for mice and their wanderings, you know? Somehow we wound up in this park, which seems like a fine place to settle down. //// Do you want to know my first memory of you? I was hungry, and I was waiting. Just hanging out at the top of one of those tall stalks of prairie grass with my forelegs in the air. Then I caught your scent. “Wow,” I thought. “Wow.” //// I figured you’d just stay on the path and walk on by. I tried to put you out of my mind. Thought about other animals who might wander along if I just waited a few more hours. And then, suddenly, there you were – leaning in for a closer look at a bird or a plant or something. I stretched out and grasped your body just before you moved off. (sigh) So lucky. //// So. Did you have a good walk? As we moved on together, I dug in my mouthparts and had the best meal I can remember. And not just because your blood is delicious . . . though oh my gosh, it really is. My eggs are almost ready now, and I guess what I want to say to you is - Thank You. Thank you for sharing what you have. With me, with the next generation. Just being here you’ve given back more than you know to this ecosystem, and I bet to many others as well. //// I want you to know that you are appreciated. I hope you have a great day.
(trees creaking and rustling in the wind, birds singing in the distance)
Hi there – it’s me over here. The large tree just next to the path. //// Listen. We have a quarter of our DNA in common. I think we might have some things to say to each other. //// Could you step a little closer? //// Place a hand on my bark. It’s hard to feel you over there. //// That’s better. //// I’ve got a question for you: How would you describe your relationship with Time? //// (pause) I’ve always wanted to ask that, but we seem to exist at such different speeds that usually you’re gone before I can get the question out. //// This has been a tough five or ten years. I’ve lost some good friends. We’d look out for one another – tip each other off when the bagworms were coming back, or if a polar vortex was moving through. Sometimes we’d just joke around. It’s hard to see pieces of them stacked up along the gravel road back there, their limbs cut off. //// You seem like a good listener. //// There are advantages to putting down roots. We share messages and memories across so many miles and thousands of years, in every direction. Lean into discomfort and feel it deeply. Consider which actions will mean something to those who’ll live generations from now, after our bodies have been turned into paper bags or mulch. //// I want to show you something. Just stand still here with me. //// Relax your limbs, relax your focus, and imagine that below your feet, tiny roots are burrowing down. Can you feel them? //// Close your eyes. Can you hearl the sound of my branches overhead? That’s all you need. Now let that reverberate down your trunk, and into the soil below your feet. //// Can you feel that? It’s like a mirror underground, branches reaching out into the layers of the earth. Traveling past rocks, and the remains of older and older things. //// Down here, time is only connected through threads of mycelia. There’s no light at all. The earth presses in on all sides. //// Extend a root tip toward that hard thing to your left. There’s a chunk of something there, centuries closely packed together. If you stay in contact long enough, it’ll tell you its stories. //// But for now, let’s return to the surface, traveling back up through your trunk, and higher, toward your crown. Lean your head back, and open your eyes. Look into me. //// Every one of my limbs splits into branching points, smaller and smaller. Every branch is a choice, a possible future. //// Spending slow time here, in between the past and the future . . . is kind of the point. //// When life moves a little too fast, I’m here. Feel free to come sit with me, if you need help slowing down. I can be a good listener too.
For many years the land that is now the West Ridge Nature Park served as a dumping ground for debris as part of one of Chicago’s oldest cemeteries. During its renovation as a public park in 2013, artifacts revealed it to be part of an enormous precolonial Native American village, and a center for trade, travel, and healing for tribes including the Potowatami, Miami, Kickapoo, and many others. Dedicated as public park space in 2015, the Nature Park is a 21-acre oasis in the heart of the city, supporting native plants, birds, amphibians, deer, and other wildlife including a dedicated community of humans.
Christa Donner is an artist and organizer whose practice combines material exploration and social exchange to move between the emotional architecture of our own bodies and the layered histories of the world we inhabit. As a volunteer at West Ridge Nature Park she helped to redesign its nature play area in 2018. Donner's work is exhibited widely, including projects for the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin, Germany), The NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (Singapore), Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus), and throughout the United States. For more information, please visit christadonner.com.
This work is a part of Navigations, a series of artist projects shared and realized in public/common space. This work is being shared at West Ridge Nature Park in alignment with The Available City as a partner program of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. An expansion of this work has been created for the Tryon Farm Institute in Michigan City, Indiana.
‘Dear Human’ Audio Tour Narrates West Ridge Nature Park’s Story From Perspective Of Its Non-Human Residents | Block Club Chicago - December 2, 2021