A few days ago I took a hike through the concrete jungle of Washington D.C. where invasive weeds–highrises that blot out the sun–are expanding their foothold unchecked everyday, and so called “nature paths” are a lawsuit waiting to happen.
In the shadow of a twenty-story condominium, my children and I read the trailhead sign, “Caution: proceed at your own risk; this is a nature trail.” We glanced suspiciously around at the watershed area protected–or maybe contained–by a chainlink fence and ventured forth. This was the shortest part of our hike. If I had been texting my partner at the time to ask if I should enter this apparent natural hazard, I would have missed it.
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One of the most beautiful aspects of the forest, though, is that it never ceases to move me toward lighter and freer thoughts. Leaning on the black iron railing that ran the length of the nature trail, my children and I were overcome with laughter as we faked slipping off the path to our death or pretended to be ravaged by mutant squirrels. To be fair, we did identify one spot where a natural outcropping of tree roots would have caused Stephen Hawking to slow his wheelchair as he passed over them. We even took a photo in case we wanted to sue later for the emotional trauma we suffered.
Another part of my D.C. hike included a forest I couldn’t see for the tree. In the middle of a construction zone, workers had sectioned off a space the size of a vending tent and posted it with signs that read, “Forest Retention Area.” Here I am forced to look up the word ‘forest’ to make sure I’m not crazy. “Forest: a large tract of land covered with trees and underbrush; woodland.” Ah, but what can I expect in a country that gives us names like “Citizens United,” a Koch family-funded political action committee that supports corporate interests in our government. Or The “USA Freedom Act” that weakens our rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.
A few days before, I couldn’t wait to get to D.C.. As a hobby-anthropologist–otherwise known as a writer–I find D.C. a beautiful melting pot of every culture on earth, a pot that one can be nearly starved for while living in Vermont’s homogenous gene pool. D.C.’s taste in clothing aside–which ranges from gray to black–our nation’s capital is not just diverse, it’s an inspiration to principles that seem in short supply. In the Library of Congress, I found a plaque that gave me hope because it wouldn’t be easily removed no matter how many times our Bill of Rights or scientifically proven facts were gutted by political and religious agendas. It said,
The idea that the search for truth is the highest ideal of humankind will need to be remembered when our current political wave has been sucked back into the dark vacuum from which it came.
Despite its good points, hiking in D.C. can be annoying. When I left, I was ready to cinch my boots tight and hike without waiting at a traffic light or standing in line for a bathroom. I wanted to be immersed in frigid temperatures as I marched up a hillside and felt that I was stronger than the weather, bolder than the mindset induced by fear mongering signs, and more clever than the fog of mistruth that surrounds our government and media right now.
My time in concreteville told me my thick skin was more translucent than I thought, though. I needed a break from the human dream that we are collectively imagining. Carried forward by our herd mentality, we humans have a need to join and be like others in a way that seems far more influential than our need to be clear about what is real and what is not, what is good and what is not, what is ultimately fulfilling and what is not. We have no grounding point in a sea of ideas other than the dynamic general consensus. When that sea is being bombarded by people with self-serving agendas that we–in our human condition–are predisposed to trust and believe in, what do we firmly hold onto that tells us if we are okay or not?
Me? I hold onto the forest. Among the trees, I find peace and solace in an upside-down world. So just remember, if you’re daring to venture into a Forest Retention Area, you fail to do so at your own risk.