As I contemplate the New Year, I’ve been thinking about manmade semi-wild places and what they mean to me. I’m about to teach a class called Religion and the Environment. I’ve watched with interest the debates this year about protecting wild places. And while I love the wild places, lately I’ve been thinking about the sort-of wild places: parks, orchards, and places the canal on which I take my daily jog. Do they matter? Do we need such places in or near our cities? There are deep complexities and competing rights and needs with these little islands of plants and animals. I recognize that. Yet so often, we side on economic concerns rather than the spiritual benefits that accrue though these small semi-natural places so easily forgotten as spiritual reservoirs.
Here is an example in which I had no rights in the matter. I have no right to complain even. Yet, I feel loss. Like watching someone you love, who you have no control over, do something stupid and dangerous and all you can do is watch in sorrow as they exert their freedom.
The large apple orchard across the street from my house was cut down to put up a few very large houses—the bulky, very ugly, monstrosities that go up all over Utah Valley. The orchard had been a calm and beautiful place, filled with green and complexity. I had no right even to be in it, but my daughter and I would explore it often. It was full of wild things and provided a chance to spend time among trees and grasses that harbored a surprising abundance of wildlife even in the middle of Pleasant Grove.
But now, the deer and pheasants that used to wonder by the house and use the orchard are gone and my daughter and I can no longer stroll through the trees, capture insects, follow the stories told in tracks and scat. Of course, it wasn’t my orchard. The owners can do anything they want with it. But even though it was a completely man-made bit of green, it held the strong presence of nature’s grace. I’m sure the owners made a killing on the development of the orchard. I have no right to complain. But something is now missing that has diminished my community and made it poorer despite the new gianormous house’s increasing the economic value of my own house. Oddly I know my reaction is irrational. In fact, an orchard was destroyed to build the housing development I live in! I’m being hypocritical and unfair. I know, I know. But I miss that orchard. I mourn it’s passing. I sorrow without rights, without an ability to complain. I know. But I mourn anyway.
Little pieces of nature matter to our communities, but they don’t seem to carry the clout or interest that warrants the protection that true wild places do. I don’t know how to even form an argument that they should be maintained. They are owned. I can’t buy them. But they bring such rejuvenation to the spirit. I just returned from my year’s sabbatical in Vienna. There were parks everywhere. Little pieces of nature that were manmade but biologically rich. There were forests maintained on the edges of the city that were old—from the days of Little Red Ridding Hood. The Weinerwald was protected and maintained by the decision of forward-thinking people and it’s still a wild and wondrous place.
One of my favorite places in North Carolina was Schenk Forest. It was a forest maintained by the North Carolina State University. The oldest trees were only about 100 years old. It had been created out of farmland as a research site for the Department of Forestry at NCSU. There were footpaths that wound through the hardwood deciduous forest. A gate at the entrance followed a dirt road for a couple of hundred yards to a little park-like area with drinking fountains with such high water pressure you would invariably soak yourself trying to get a drink. Great fun for the kids. My two oldest would drench themselves regularly. At the park you could continue down the dirt road as it made its way down to a river bottom If you stayed on the road, you came through an area of large sparsely spaced trees with almost none of the typical underbrush found in other forests. The openness of the place I found very mysterious and compelling as if I had entered the Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
On the paths in the forest we passed small wetlands. Sometimes we would see turtles, dragonflies buzzed up and down and the path gave a feeling of being utterly alone. The boys would walk and we would talk. We called these “Journeys of Discovery” and it was more than just a walk in the woods. We would stop and turn over rocks, peer into streams, peal back loose bark and go off the trail to investigate a giant wasps nest, watch the birds, snakes or whatever we happened to see.
I loved the rivers that ran through the forest. They were only about a stone’s throw across but in most places ran slow and brown through the soft sandy soil it cut through. The river often slowed to spread out over a wetland where suddenly the number of birds and insects would seem to blossom and it was here that many denizens of the natural world would revel themselves to our gaze. There was a feel to these places of calm mystery. They were largely inaccessible for further scrutiny because we were too far into the forest to carry a canoe or other boat to the place, and given the swampy tangle of fallen trees, emergent vegetation clinging to the muddy bottom, and the obvious fear of running into a snapping turtle deterred me from wading out in fly-fishing waders. So the place seemed untouchable, a promised land to be viewed from the shore, but never entered. It exuded mystery. One time I took the older boys on a long mountain bike ride through the forest. We rode far and in some places road knee deep in culverts when the river passed under a road. Riding through water like that is just fun! It seemed an adventure to me and the boys. I hope they remember that ride. For me Schenk forest was one the magic places of my life. Although artificial in some ways, nature had yet invaded it deeply.
I have not forgotten how much I loved the place and the pivotal role it played in allowing me to spend time with all my kids. I remember catching insects for my entomology classes there and having fun letting the children participate in my hunts and searches for rare beetles, elusive butterflies, and odd flies of every sort. Could I have glimpsed how wonderful those memories would be to me now? How full and rich those memories were? Could I have guessed that they would help me heal in so many ways? I hope it still exists. I hope it stays in the hands of those who can protect and preserve it. How sad I would be to find it no longer there. But it is not mine.
I hope all these little places don’t go away. They are worth a lot of money, I know. Why grow apples or maintain an artificial forest when you can retire on proceeds of a housing development. What would I do?