Thursday, July 7, 2011

Unnatural

Originally written in April 2010 for a grad school magazine writing class

Last weekend I took a bus from Boston’s South Station terminal to the Port Authority in New York. During the 200-mile long, four-hour trip, I looked out the window perhaps two or three times. I can tell you more about the young boy sitting next to me than I can about anything that rushed by as the bus rumbled along the interstate.

The boy was Jewish, and had dark, curly hair. He was a Red Sox fan. He carried with him in his blue backpack a book of Garfield comic strips and a 2010 sports almanac. He ate matzo and was excited about Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s 70 stolen bases in 2009. While the Red Sox were his favorite team, he liked the Yankees, too, especially Derek Jeter. He was traveling with his father and brother to Pennsylvania.

Of the world outside the 45-foot-long bus in which I sat, I saw thin, stick-like trees alongside the interstate, still bare from winter. Some evergreens. A number of small creeks and ponds that may have had names, though I wasn’t in any position to know them. It was a bright, crisp morning, the sky cloudless and almost painfully blue. A chill in the air I thought would burn off by the afternoon. And that’s it. That’s all I can remember.

Nature is an abstraction to me. I’ve always fancied the idea of it, and liked it in a general sense. I have nothing against Nature. But when it comes to actual real-life experience, I demur. I used to tell myself it was for no reason other than lack of opportunity to be around Nature, even though I knew that wasn’t true. I’ve had plenty of chances to enjoy all that Nature has to offer, from offers to go camping with my brother and his family in the Badlands of South Dakota to all the times I’ve driven across the country.

On the last family vacation I remember with any sort of clarity, my parents piled my brother, sister and I into my father’s sedan and drove us to South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore and Deadwood, a once-bustling mining town turned old west tourist trap. We stood in silent awe of the great stone faces of presidents’ past for a few minutes, maybe as many as five or 10. We spent more time indoors, in the museum.

The last time I drove the 1,500 miles from Omaha to Los Angeles, I took pictures through the dirty, bug-smeared windows of my beat-up ’99 Dodge Avenger. I propped the camera on the steering wheel or pointed it out the window beside my head and snapped photos of cloud formations, of the wide-open prairies and cornfields of western Nebraska, of the distant mountain ranges of Colorado and the dry, arid desert of Utah and Nevada. I dubbed the collection of 107 photos, America @ 80 MPH.

Aside from pulling off the road for gas and bathroom breaks, it never once occurred to me during my eight-to-12 hour driving sessions to stop the car, to get out and walk around. I had places to go, people to see. I cared only about my destination, the journey be damned.

When I’m driving, I can only move forward. Deviating from the endless asphalt path is anathema. I don't pay attention to the Natural world around me, just the highway in front of me.

When I tell people I’m from Nebraska, their eyes light up with thoughts of vast acres of cornfields and cows, roosters crowing, signaling the start of a new day, farmers plowing fields before dawn. And this pastoral scene is true of much of the state, but not Omaha. I was raised in the suburbs of an honest-to-God city, with rush hour traffic and skyscrapers, street gangs and drug problems.

Omaha has its fair share of parks and green open spaces, and a “world famous” zoo, but mostly there are roads. Streets paved with asphalt and concrete in constant need of repair. I remember the field behind my middle school, tucked away behind West Center Street, lush and verdant, before it was bulldozed to make room for a shopping mall. And later a movie theater. And a Best Buy. And numerous other big box stores.

There was another field alongside L Street, stretching between 120th and 132nd streets, not far from my house. Driving past, it almost looked like a miniature forest. Tall oak trees bunched together, nearly 12 square blocks of grass and shade. The land was owned by some technology company that had its office park hidden away behind the trees. Then, a few years ago, the company sold the land back to the city, which promptly designed plans to rip up the trees and drown the field in acrid black tar.

Now, where the trees once stood, sit even more box stores, selling you anything and everything you could possibly desire. Nature once again forced to give way to commerce.

Of course, I never went to either of those fields before they became shopping centers.

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