Saturday, June 17, 2006

My Half Acre

I believe that the mark of a fantastic park (or any piece of land, really) is its ability to make you feel like you belong to it and it to you. It’s that feeling of breathing in concert with the wind and the certainty that you’re integral to the rhythms of the place. My favorite park, where I take my dog most days, is not large, nor does it have good views of mountain or lake, but when I stand on large, empty fields, I can imagine that the pup and I are the only ones in the world and that the land, the trees, the swallows all claim me as I claim them.

Each year in early spring, they burn the fields at my park as part of an effort to maintain the reconstructed prairies. And each year, like magic, green scabs grow over deep scorched wounds followed by flourishing life. A nice, nature-provided metaphor that proves that even total devastation can be followed by the miracle of recovery. Within short weeks, the ground is one uniform blanket of nascent prairie grasses, and you can’t tell where the paths and trails used to be and where the wildflowers used to stand with stalks and stems several feet high. In the depths of summer, I can stand on one trail, unable to see over Sunflowers and Black-Eyed Susans to the trails that cross only feet away.

After this spring’s burning, I was on a walk with the dog, and I noticed that, though there was not, at that point, any discernable difference between trail and field, people still stuck to where they knew the trails to be. I walked along the path I’ve walked a million times, while Bug, my pup, romped uninhibited over ground usually too thick with weeds for him to penetrate. I saw others walk carefully over familiar ground and look out over the fields and I imagined that they, like me, were appreciating the transformation, while keeping an eye half-full of the way they knew it would be in a few short weeks.

So while I was walking today, I was wondering why it was that we didn’t, as a group of park users, take over the ground a little bit more, try paths unknown to get from top of hill to bottom and back around again. I don’t for a minute believe it’s because we’re all so well-conditioned, afraid to break rules, make our own way, etc. etc. Mostly because I think that’s crap whenever it’s invoked. Instead, I came to two conclusions. The first conclusion involves that mind’s eye view of what we love. I love that park. I love the way that I can stand hidden in plain view and pretend no-one is there. I persist in believing that my fellow trail-users share the same reverence that I do for the ground around us and that it is, in part, an appreciation of the sacred that keeps us watching and waiting for the summer explosion of flowers from the cinders of the prairie.

But the other reason I decided held water, at least for me, is that as much as I love the wildflowers and the fields erupted, I also love my trails. The bottoms of my feet know the way they feel, know this dip and that twist and the way that on the down slope ten minutes in the balls of your feet slap over and over, fifteen times, until the ground begins to rise again. My body, my soul, has claimed those trails, loves those trails, believes them mine. I could find them in the dark. I don’t need wildflowers to show me where one love ends and another begins.