Spring in the Garage

I live in a deeply urban area; the buildings are several stories tall, parking is hard to find and often underground, and I have to drive to find a green space that I can’t see across. But as I was going to my car in the underground garage, the house sparrows that live there were singing up a storm, and the sound spoke of the onset of spring.

This wasn’t just a reminder that nature is “out there” somewhere in a pristine wildness independent of the urban density. This is my nature; this is my world, my bit of earth, my ecosystem. When I ground and center, tendrils of my roots twine around the rails of the Metro; I notice changes in the seasons in terms of the shops and businesses on my daily walks as well as in the plants and animals. I know the people at nearest stores, and waving a greeting to them gives me a sense of home just as checking in with the nearest trees does.

My home area is a wonderful example of the way that “nature” and “human areas” are not mutually exclusive; they are everywhere interpenetrating, coexisting and adapting, competing, cooperating, and thriving.

One of my friends was writing recently about how some people see anything that they don’t control as “weeds” or “vermin,” that is, things that need to be eliminated. I know some people think that way, but I simply can’t wrap my mind around it; it’s impossible for us to “control” our environments completely, even in the most monitored and managed areas. The house sparrows are a reminder of that, too – they love to live in conjunction with humans.

It’s true that most of the plants around here are cultivated, landscaped or manicured, but that doesn’t mean they’re controlled. They have their own lessons to teach me as spring starts to break out all over.

The plants around here are living within limitations; they grow and bloom, but they’re trimmed, too, shaped and directed in ways that they don’t get to choose. Even within those limits, though, they don’t just survive: they thrive. They live, fully and extravagantly, and even when they come up against those limits, they don’t let it stop them. They adapt, they cope, they manage, they deal. And frequently, they surprise us with the creative ways they do so; spring’s resurgence of vitality simply can’t be contained completely.

This is something I need to be reminded of, because I’ve been coming up against hard limits rather frequently lately. I need to know that it’s possible to be verdant and vital even while constrained.

The sparrows and the plants show me, over and over again, that life can find a way, and life will find a way.

So mote it be.


Shout-outs via the Humane Society

The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association awarded Dr. Lori Pasternak  its Direct Practitioner of the Year award. Dr. Pasternak works at the Helping Hands clinic in Richmond, VA, a low-cost surgical and dental clinic. I’ve taken animals to Helping Hands before, and I can’t say enough good things about the clinic and about Dr. Pasternak. I’m delighted to see her getting the recognition she deserves. From the article:

“Surgery happens to be my talent. We should all use our talents to make the world a better place,” said Dr. Pasternak.

Well said!

Second, this month’s All Animals magazine has an excellent feature story on how humans and bears can coexist safely and peacefully. As the tag line reads, these strategies and examples prove “we can live in and with the wild without destroying it.”

Among other things, this article and the ideas behind it are a great example of framing. We don’t, for example, have to accept Bryan Fischer’s framing and metaphors that it’s “humans v. bears.” Environmentalists who accept that framing can potentially end up seeming like they support the bears more than the humans. By reframing the question as one of coexistence – even a potentially difficult coexistence at times – instead of unremitting aggression, a whole slew of different approaches become possible.

Finally, the article also provides some good perspective:

[Fatal bear attacks] average fewer than two per year. More people are killed by bees. By spiders. By dogs. By lightning.

“More people are killed in vending machine accidents,” says Andrew Page, senior director of The HSUS’s Wildlife Abuse Campaign.

These are interesting counter-examples of what fringe Christians don’t tend to interpret when they try to divine their god’s will. As far as I know, Fischer hasn’t yet claimed that a vending machine falling over was a sign of God’s wrath. I really loved C&L’s suggestion of a “wall of separation between church and weather.” Could we extend that to other extremely unlikely imputations of divine wrath such as earthquakes, bird deaths, and bear attacks?


I saw a deer and a great blue heron on Teddy Roosevelt Island yesterday, and both encounters felt like a form of recognition.

I hadn’t visited the island for several days, and really needed to refresh my spirit with some time in nature. I went to my favorite spot, and even before I got there, I was really angry to see a couple of plastic drink bottles and some other trash littering the rocks. These weren’t things that had been washed up by the river; they had to have been accidentally dropped or carelessly left on the trails.

I was angry. I thought, I don’t want to deal with this. I came out here to be in some tiny corner of nature where I could, for just a few minutes, be a little more alone, a little away from the urban density, or even just pretend.

But people littering my favorite spot to connect with nature mean that even there, I can’t just sit down and look at the river without having bright orange reminders that a lot of people don’t seem to care about nature. The cleanup I helped do this spring was to try to fix some of that, to make up for other people’s lack of care and concern. But no matter how much effort I put in trying to help, to heal, those unconcerned people will keep making it worse, and I can’t keep up. I felt exhausted and even a tiny bit hopeless.

Those feelings were so similar to the ones I came to the island to get away from that I simply had to let them go. I picked up the bottles and stuff, put them by the trail I’d be taking out, and went to greet the particular spots I know best, marveling at how they seethed with life, noting how the river level has changed and that Arachne’s daughters are busy in the forest. Slowly, gently, I felt my soul relax.

As I continued down the trail with my hands full, I pondered my emotions. I had managed to let go of the anger; I wondered if I could replace it with something else. Compassion? Yes, I could feel compassion, for the island and its life forms, and focus on that compassion as the reason for my actions. I could even, after I contemplated it, feel compassion for people who drop plastic bottles in one of the most wild refuges to be found in our urban sprawl; people who do that probably never get to experience the deep refreshment and reconnection that I had just felt, and that makes me sad for them.

What about gratitude? And suddenly it blazed up in my heart: yes, I could feel gratitude. Not that people were so stupid as to give me the necessity of cleaning up after them – again and again – but if not for them, then at least for the place, for the circumstance. As I walked, the uncomfortable plastic seams cutting into my fingers became an occasion for gratitude, because I had the opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to TRI, my relationship with it and its ecosystem in a tangible, meaningful way. I relaxed further and widened my gaze beyond the irritating bottles.

As I did, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and froze. A heron was wading in the swampy wetland off to one side, and I’d almost missed it. If I had stayed angry, with my shoulders hunched and eyes narrowed, staring at the bottles and muttering about stupidity and laziness and petroleum, I would have walked right by the bird, only 15 meters away, much closer than I’d ever had the chance to see one before. The heron and I regarded each other, and as I walked away quietly, I gave thanks for the reminder.

After I reached a trash can and threw away the bottles, I walked a little more quietly, and it was not long before saw a family on the path ahead of me staring intently to one side. A shaft of sunlight caught the golden-brown gleam and just the edge of the white patch of a white-tailed deer, who was otherwise well-concealed in the vegetation. The deer didn’t seem to be nervous, so I cautiously came up to the family’s vantage point, and was able to make out the deer’s head and face. They said that several other deer had just crossed the path; they were probably heading uphill for a place to sleep during the day, in a more thickly forested space further from the perimeter trail. I’ve seen deer on the island a few times before, but it was still a magical experience, especially since the deer didn’t seem to be startled.

As I left, I couldn’t help but feel that the encounters were almost a form of recognition. Not exactly a reward, but the result of the time and effort I’ve spent building a relationship with the island and its life. I probably would have seen the animals if I hadn’t picked up the trash, but the fact that I have a relationship with the island was why I was there in the first place, and was why I did pick up the bottles. If I hadn’t gone, even on that hot and sticky day, I wouldn’t have had the chance to be in the right place at the right time to have those encounters.

It’s glorious to feel that my effort and actions have been recognized, even – especially – by Nature herself.