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36 Acres and the Beauty of a Day

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Morning Light: In that first hour after the sun washes the darkness from the night air, the light that spreads across the landscape contains a clarity and freshness that wanes as the shadows of the day grow shorter. Yet even after a lifetime of sunrises, I’m still uncertain if this early light is truly different or whether it is the optimism of a new day that colors the morning sky.

“Every time 36 acres of meadow, woodland, prairie or forest is cleared to create another subdivision or strip mall, we are losing a Reed-Turner Woodland,” says photographer and author Tobin Fraley.

The Long Grove resident, who owns Woodland Grove Gallery with wife Rachel, began his love affair with Reed-Turner Woodland in 1999. He has since photographed it thousands of times, capturing its endless moods in all seasons. Many of these photographs, along with Fraley’s poetic observations, appear in his new book, 36 Acres: A Portrait of the Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve, excerpted here with his permission.

“For me to state that we should just stop building new homes or offices would be naive,” concedes Fraley. “Even so, the idea that 36 acres of beauty, tranquility and biological diversity are leveled to build another bank, pharmacy, or supermarket, when those amenities already exist a few hundred yards down the road, is not always carefully thought through prior to breaking ground.”

Of the powerful impact the woodlands have on his life, Fraley writes: “There are days I want to just stop. When I want to grip the present and pull the plug on time itself, but the hours race by. The distance between dawn and dusk seems measured in blinks; a day that carried a morning’s promise is suddenly awash in a night sky.

“Yet there is a way to stretch time and slow the hands of the clock, simply by walking in the woods and watching. It is at these moments when I can actually see the day pass, when I can notice the shadows creep across the forest floor and follow an ant’s trek over giant twigs or hear the stream’s gentle murmur. Nature opens the space between the seconds and allows me to rediscover the beauty of a day.”

Fraley, who’s written four other books, also teaches photography at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Reed-Turner Woodland, 3849 Old McHenry Road, is owned by the Long Grove Park District. Learn more at www.36acres.com.

A few white puffs of lazy, easy snow float slowly through the air, then touch the ground and instantly disappear. The moment is magical, as if we had forgotten what snow was, and now here it is, created again for the very first time. Morning brings the sun and the glistening woodland beckons. It is a new world and I alone blaze a trail through uncharted territory, leaving fresh footprints that mark my progress. This will be a good day.

There are days when I find myself walking a woodland path only to be suddenly drained by a sense of melancholy that washes over me and colors the landscape. It can be brought on by some bit of nature that reminds me of the impermanence of my own journey and the tenuous hold I have on this thin band of life. This sense deepens on days when gray light filters through the overcast sky and the air hangs over the woodland. At these moments I try to remember that the preserve itself is not despondent and that, like all things, this too shall pass.

The very structure of ice is fleeting. Under the rays of a December sun that rides along winter’s horizon, the frozen landscape is constantly reshaped. Quiet pools of water construct thin-layered surfaces that crack like a sugar glaze when pressed with the tip of my shoe. As winter begins to grip the pond, each night the ice battles against the open water, advancing across the surface with its crystalline blanket.

Some days the setting sun eases past the horizon, leaving behind a vibrant array of color. Other times it slips away, hidden behind a layer of gray, indistinguishable clouds, as the daylight slowly fades into night. But no matter how the sun marks the end of our day, it will never repeat itself, for no two sunsets will ever be the same. It is as if the sun’s final light reminds us that our own day was unique and, for proof, it stamps the evening sky.

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