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Sep 2012 24

by M. J. Johnson


[Havoc in Restless]

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

– excerpt from Walden: Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

I went into the park because I wished to read my book. What could be better than spending a warm afternoon with my back to a tree, a good book in hand, a cup of coffee next to me, cool grass and dirt under my butt? Well, apparently, I’m the only one who was thinking that way.

I recently moved to Iowa City; it’s a funky little college town, sort of a mini-Portland. On one side of town is this HUGE city park (cleverly called “City Park”), which is roughly the same size as the village where I grew up. There are pavilions and playgrounds, ball-diamonds and soccer pitches, and even a little train kids can ride. And the place was PACKED! Every pavilion had a family reunion, and the playgrounds were humming with giggles and screams. The walking trails were full of serious runners and leisurely walkers. There were even people using canoes to annoy the ducks.

But only I was on the grass. There weren’t any signs telling people to stay off the grass; in fact, there were benches and grills scattered all around under the trees. There just weren’t any people off the paths.

Hundreds of people, gathered in this tamed forest, and only I walked on the grass. Only I sat under a tree. Only I dared to leave the concrete or wood-chips.

Carl Jung talks about the Collective Unconscious, a sort of racial memory (where the “race” in question is “human”), which forms our psyche and explains why people in different cultures have similar stories and fears. Based on fairy tales and stories, forests are a place of human fear. Hansel and Gretel? Little Red Riding Hood? Any knightly quest, all have scary things hidden in the wild places. Our ancestors learned to fear the woods because all those trees give predators a good place to hide.

Has this translated into a fear of leaving the concrete path? Are we all so afraid of the wild that we don’t want to even walk on the grass? When I was teaching, I had to laugh at students who went far, far out of their way to get from class to class, simply because that’s where the sidewalk went.

Do we quaver at the feel of uneven ground under our feet? Does the thought of getting our shoes dirty terrify us? Are grass-stains scary? Do we think a mountain lion is lurking in the trees over our heads? Do we still fear the witch in the woods?

Or is it something else? This park did not have “keep off the grass” signs, but many do. People spend millions of dollars every year to create lawns to see but not walk upon. Shoe companies create specific shoes for running on roads, dirt paths, or sidewalks, but the human foot is designed to run on grass, to step where no one else has stepped.

When Thoreau went into the woods, he wanted to wake up knowing that he was surrounded by nothing but nature. He reveled in squirrels who invaded his home, and spent hours just studying a war between black and red ants (scholars like to debate whether he really saw the ant war or not). He spent chapters describing the quiet.

When was the last time things around you were really quiet? I open my windows at night and listen to people in the parking lot, cars on the road, fire engines, shouts, motorcycles, and some annoying brat with a whistle. We buy white-noise machines to play static so we can sleep. We have televisions and radios and ipods playing at all times, and claim its because we “live for music.”

Humans have never been all that comfortable in the wild; we’re fragile when compared to lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), so we build caves (houses) and cut down the trees, then complain that all the wild places are disappearing.

We’re supposed to be a part of nature, not separated from it. So, there is no reason to walk on the sidewalk.

Except for the bears.

M. J. Johnson is the professional name of Coyotemike. He has written a moderately bad e-book called The Bastards Club and is working on getting more serious work published.

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