Thursday, January 17, 2013

Unnature Lover

I’m embarrassed to admit, even to myself, that it’s my favorite place. A small bend in the creek under a bridge alongside a running trail. No doubt it’s a pretty spot, thick with tall trees and ivy, and the soft steady sound of water making its way downstream. But there’s no denying the whole thing is man-made. Sure, the creek looks natural enough, but its true course was redirected decades earlier to make way for the nearby freeway. Less than a quarter mile upstream the muddy pebbled banks give way to the sloping sides of a concrete gulch. This pretty little creek is just a spillway for the nearby reservoir. The dangling vines that give the spot a lush look climb at an unnatural diagonal as they follow a power pole support. The flat cement walls on either side of the bridge have been stamped with a repeating pattern of reeds and ducks. It mimics nature, this place, but it’s not natural.

And still I love this spot.

Why here? Why not a breathtaking green and black valley in Hawaii? Or a peak of a mountain with nothing but the sound of the wind through the tall grass? Or the isolated beach along the Lost Coast where I hiked with Philip just two months after we’d met, where I realized – even without really knowing that I was in love with him yet – that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. No, I like this little bend in the river beside a trail that isn’t really natural at all.

In an effort to infuse this spot with meaning I took my children here. I pointed out the hushed sound of the creek, the snaking vines, the tiny pebbles perfect for throwing into the water. When I asked Lucas what he though of it he said, “It’s a place that makes you tired.” How poetic of him, to notice it was a spot that calmed the mind and brought peace. Then I realized he was just telling me he was bored.

But who am I fooling? I’m no outdoorsman. I grew up in a suburb, where the closest thing to nature was the empty field behind our house that was unceremoniously bulldozed one morning to make way for an office complex. For the next week field mice, rabbits and a beautiful red, white and blue San Francisco garter snake – a species now nearly extinct – sought refuge in our backyard. Our family went camping exactly once, in Yosemite, and we didn’t even pitch our own tents. Even the waterways near our home were artificial, a series of lagoons built from landfill to create waterfront communities. So why should the place I love most be something untouched by man when my whole life has played out against a decidedly man-made landscape?

Since moving to the mountains I am more aware of the natural world. But the Los Gatos Mountains aren’t exactly an unspoiled frontier. We have a bit more space than a suburban home but still have neighbors on all sides. We see more wildlife than our flatland counterparts, but not all that much more. I’m ten minutes from a 24-hour grocery store. We aren’t exactly shunning humanity. And I like it that way. I like screens on my windows. Ready access to bathrooms with running water. The camaraderie of a neighborhood community. The comforts of a man-made life. It makes sense that my favorite spot be not so different from the place I choose to live the rest of my life.

So this quiet shady spot is perfect for me. The trail serves a purpose. At any hour of the day people are strolling, running, biking, often with dogs or kids in tow. I like people. Like seeing them enjoying life. I can reach this spot anytime. I don’t even need to stop there to feel the peace it brings me. Running by is enough. Though sometimes I pause and sit on one of the benches perched by the edge of the bank. Just sit and breath and feel good. Yesterday I noticed a third bench, on the other side of the trail just beyond the bridge. A small memorial plaque noted it had been the favorite spot of a woman named Vi. So I’m not alone in loving this place. Not being alone is an important part of it. To be in place surrounded by the activity of people and still feel that quiet wonder, that wonderful calm. There’s a lot to love about a place like that.

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