When my son was two to five years old, he attended a preschool/childcare center on the ground floor of a nine-story apartment tower a few blocks from my office. We commuted together by public transit and then walked from the bus stop across the parking lot that separated the building from the street. I find parking lots very ugly, unpleasant places to be, and this one was particularly disheartening: frost-heaved asphalt with puddles of gunk, crooked and crumbling parking bumpers, lots of hostile you-will-be-towed signs (the lot is shared by several businesses), a smelly dumpster, and in the center a few pathetic hostas attempting to grow in a scatter of hideous orange wood chips and discarded fast-food packaging. It was a daily struggle for me to walk through that space without feeling like I was taking my child someplace terrible.
One day in our first year there, as we left the school in the evening we saw a rabbit dart across the parking lot. Nicholas said, “Oh! A rabbit! It ran into the forest!” We looked through an empty parking space at the rabbit crouching under a bush on the steep hillside at the edge of the parking lot.
“I didn’t know that was a forest!” Nicholas said. “I never noticed it before.” We walked closer. The hill is only about 10 feet deep and high and maybe 80 feet wide, rising up to a tall fence, and is planted densely with basic evergreen bushes, most likely chosen to hold the dirt in place and require minimal maintenance. Yet the rabbit was not the only one taking shelter there. We saw a squirrel, a big ant hill, and several birds. To them, it was a forest–at least as much so as an efficiency apartment in a nine-story building can be considered a home for humans. It was shelter, with branches overhead and dirt beneath, and they were finding food there.
A year or so later, the building on the outer corner of that block–the corner to which we normally crossed after getting off the bus–was extensively renovated. The sidewalk was closed for several weeks. We began to get off at the next stop and walk back. After leaving Nicholas at school, I could not walk around that corner on my way to work, so I needed a different route.
The school/apartment building is at the edge of a cluster of several apartment towers, so I decided to try going around the side to see if I could find a path through there. The parking lot curves around the side of the building and connects to a parking garage. Near the back corner of the building I found an actual paved pedestrian path, with steps on the hilly section, leading through some trees and then between two buildings to a circular driveway that connects to another street, which then connected me to an efficient route to my office. The area of trees is small; you can hear traffic and see tall buildings from any point among the trees. But it said “forest” to my soul. I began looking forward to walking through that forest each morning and afternoon, looking at the falling golden leaves or the snow on the branches or the new baby leaves or the lush green growth, watching the squirrels and rabbits and groundhogs, listening to the birds sing, tracking tiny footprints in the snow.
It didn’t matter that to get from the school door to the forest I had to walk along the narrow, slippery lawn and then jump off a retaining wall. Adventure! It reminded me of walking home from school as a teenager. And then I was in the forest, which in just a few minutes refreshed me and put me in a happy, peaceful mood that I could carry to work (or to my journey home with Nicholas) with me. It’s too bad the bus route isn’t located such that Nicholas and I could walk through the forest together each day. I didn’t tell him about it until a day when the weather was beautiful and we saw our bus zooming by without us as we exited the school. Then I suggested that we walk from there to our second bus, using this short cut. Nicholas was astonished to realize where we were: “This is the forest we see from our playground! I didn’t know we could go here!”
In the end, the walk between preschool and my office was the hardest thing for me to let go when Nicholas graduated. Now I get off the bus near work and walk up a city street, which is a nice one with lots of interesting shops and people and even a cathedral, and at least it has a few trees–but it’s not a forest.
Now, though, I walk Nicholas to public school every morning and then walk from there to the bus through a very pleasant residential area. There’s just one place where it could get ugly, where the sidewalk is shut in right next to the whizzing rush-hour traffic by a steep hill. But on that hill is a forest. I think it’s just the edge of a large back yard for the big house up there. But from the perspective of a pedestrian looking up from the sidewalk, there is nothing to see but trees and fallen branches with ivy rambling over them. The green, the rippled texture of bark, the whispering sounds of the leaves, the shifting patterns of light all give me rest even as I am rapidly walking on concrete less than two feet from passing cars. I didn’t know that was a forest! Except for that one tree whose top branches look so twisty against the sky (which I photographed more than a decade ago), I had never noticed that little forest until I started walking on that side of the street regularly. Now I look forward to my forest moment every day.
I’ve mentioned that I disagree with Desmond Morris’s claim that cities are an unnatural environment for human beings. I love the urban landscape–but it needs some forests, too. Of course large old-growth forests are vital to the survival of many species, and it’s wonderful to spend some time in a really big forest where I can hike all day without hearing an engine. But on a day-to-day basis, just a few trees left together to do their thing create a place where the animals and I can find that forest experience.
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