There is a small nature park in my town that consists of a cluster of trails. It sits just outside the noisy traffic of rush hour and the light rail is nearby to take commuters to and from work. Even though it’s not totally in the wilderness, I enjoy walking these trails from time to time, and yesterday I got the urge to put myself back into that little pocket of nature.
There is ample parking space for visitors. Small families, outdoor classes, and the occasional joggers hustle down the shaded trails that are bordered with swords ferns and old growth trees. It brings me joy to see young children with their parents, racing each other down unpaved paths, kicking up dirt with their Nike tennis shoes. There was a father trekking about with his five kids yesterday, all of them had to be under the age of nine, but although their dad let them run ahead, they would still snap out of their playtime to listen to his cautionary command of “Make sure I can see you.” Even the smallest of the kids, a little girl with red frame glasses and long brown pigtails, stomped to a halt and pivoted with her brothers when they ran back toward his voice.
I acknowledged them as I smiled through my cloth mask, and even though my greeting was concealed, the dad still smiled back. I’ll be receiving my second vaccine next week and have been outside plenty of times without my mask (especially on this trail), but I’m always careful around children. As I made my way to the big pond at the end of one of the paths, I heard the familiar rhythm of sneakers running on dirt as the kids took the other trail at the fork, their father patiently keeping up with them at a trot.
I admire parents that let their kids run around in nature. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the piney woods of East Texas, romping between the tall trunks of pine trees, pressing my fingers into their sap, knowing that it would take forever to wash off later.
The urge to touch tree sap is still with me and that childhood thrill lights up when I put my hand on a bare stump or a fingertip underneath a piece of bark. It sticks just the same and I flex my sappy fingers as I walk, as if to remind myself that I’m in a wild place with no rules.
Well, there are a few in this particular piece of the world. Don’t pick the wildflowers, don’t antagonize the squirrels, and try not to step on the slugs.
I will admit that I picked a couple of dandelions full of seeds just ripe for the spreading. Blowing dandelions is a past time for everyone and it’s a hard to ignore the urge when I see one. However, there wasn’t much wind yesterday and the fluffy seeds just fell to the ground in one big lump. Oh well. At least there will more of them next time.
What I love most about this particular nature park is that I am surrounded by birds. I have always been drawn to animals and mythical creatures with wings. Owls, bats, eagles, dragons, Pegasus. I don’t know if it’s some underlying desire to fly myself out of the situations that I’m in, good or bad. I wish that I had wings. I wish that I could feel the cool air against my skin as I fly. I would bolt through a rain cloud even if it meant that I would end up soaked to the bone. It would be an invigorating feeling.
I go to the woods to be alone but I’m not truly alone. Even though I can’t see all of the birds above me, I hear them. They’re being cautious, watching my every step, unsure if I’m a threat. Yet, they still sing out. I feel they sing for me, like they can sense my envy of their ability to fly and of my wish to sprout bright feathers and sing my own song.
My reverie was interrupted as I got closer to the end of the path when I heard the digitally enhanced sounds of anime, and I stopped at the end just behind the only bench in front of the scenic pond. I saw a man and a woman, both were maybe a few years younger than me, with a smartphone propped up on the fence in front of them. Among the ample sunshine, birdsong, and flapping ducks, they sat in dull silence as they watched Attack on Titan.
I walked past them and the guy only glanced at me. I didn’t look at them though. Go ahead and call me a snob, that hey, maybe it’s their way of relaxing. I don’t care what you call me, but I’m selfish with nature.
We should go outdoors from time to time to escape the things that try to keep us inside, so that we can block out the manipulated sounds and the distorted colors on our screens. This couple trekked all the way to the pond, one of the most isolated places in the park, just so they could ignore the nature around them by gluing themselves to a phone.
Okay, maybe they weren’t ignoring it, and maybe it just irked me because I was outside to escape my own screens. They’re human just like I am.
I stood for a moment to watch the two mallards on the pond and spied a blue heron through my binoculars. There are many in this park and I see them all the time on the trail near my apartment, but I still get excited to see them. Herons and cranes are modern dinosaurs, just like all birds; but there’s something regal about them. The way they stand confidently in the water, how they take their time putting one long leg in front of the other as it soaks in the rays of the sun. Their days move slow and patiently.
The anime was suddenly getting too noisy for me. Don’t get me wrong. I like some anime and Attack on Titan is a good one, but it’s also quite violent and the sounds of people being eaten alive by giants was beginning to drown out the birds.
I walked past them again, still not looking at them. They wouldn’t have noticed anyway. Besides, we all know the lure of digital media. I continued my walk, stopping every now and then to look through my little binoculars at the blue jays, orioles, and finches. I could swear that one beautiful robin with a bright scarlet chest was posing for me as he stretched his wings on a hemlock branch.
Two hours had passed when I finished walking and made it back to the parking lot. I blasted the A/C when I got in the car and chugged back cold water I had brought in my metal Starbucks cup. I was reminded of the sap on my fingers when they stuck to said cup, but my hand sanitizer helped clean up the mess.
I had two more walks that afternoon close to my apartment, and I although I slept soundly, I had a headache when I went to bed. It could have been the pollen in the air as spring is changing into summer, or maybe because I spent most of the day taking in as much sun as possible (don’t worry, folks, I have strong sunscreen). I did watch TV last night, telling myself I should read a book instead. But like I said: the lure of the screen is strong.
I try to do better every day with my habits. When I wake up, I leave my phone on the side table and give my cat the cuddles he expects in the morning. One of these days I’ll keep my phone in the living room, just like how one of these days I’ll be able to fall asleep without listening to the digitized sound of rain and thunder from my tablet.
I’m not trying to make digital media the villain. It’s helped me connect to a lot of people from all over the world, and I enjoy reaching out on social media groups to those who share my interests.
But we can’t forget that the real world exists outside our door. You don’t have to go to a secluded forest in the middle of town or even to the top of a mountain. Just going around your block can do wonders for your mood, and your body will thank you for getting if off the sofa or away from your desk for a few minutes.
I realize that I am lucky enough to be able to go outside when I want to, and that not everyone has that privilege. Therefore, I take advantage of the luck I have at being just a few steps away from trees and grass.
It’s amazing how it’s become more of a haven now that I’m an adult. I took it for granted when I was a kid. There’s still time to reacquaint myself with nature. I just have to take example from the blue heron and from the birds that sing.
Put one foot in front of the other and take flight.
Cover photo taken by the author at Tualatin Hills Nature Park, Beaverton, Oregon.