I’ve been walking in our neighborhood’s woods for years now. What started out as hopeful curiosity in a forest behind our house, led me down a path towards becoming a Forest Steward- trained in local flora and fauna, urban forest restoration and community activism. I wanted a trail upon which to walk my dog; I found homeless encampments. I wanted a place in which to refresh and recreate; I found prostitution base camps. I wanted a place in which to be quiet and still; I found needles and sex toys. The sacred place I wanted didn’t even seem like a possibile hope; the English Ivy and Himalayan Blackberry covered the promise of this land with its dark invasiveness.
In 2007 we commenced our commitment to hosting monthly volunteer work parties for our neighborhood. We believed that the fear, filth and felonious behaviors could be combatted to reveal the great gift Earth is always offering us: LIFE! In the context of these first-Saturday-of-the-month gatherings, we began the slow, inglorious effort of hand removing the ivy and blackberry. We became master garbage collectors and bore witness to the very real social tensions of encampments being told [repeatedly] to vacate. We became versed in our City’s shelter programs and at which pier personal affects can be collected. We canvassed the neighborhood looking for support and interest in changing something that was into something unimaginably better. We were committed to the long-term work of restoration and transformation. We wanted to transform this urban soil into a sanctuary.
The work of bringing down heaven to earth is no easy task. And it always takes time…and a lot of it. This is the epic work of pilgrimages and journeys, deserts and dreams. There is always such fanfare and exhilaration when one picks up the walking stick and marks, and crosses into, the beginning of the journey. The vision of the destination is so clear, so lucid–it seems you could just reach across a short breadth of time and realize every desired detail. But soon you find your arm is tired from being extended for so long…for so very long. Your hand clutches that walking stick with a deepened sense of understanding that this stick is with you to uphold and offer stability when the road gets longer, instead of shorter. For sacred destinations always require time and long processes; the meaningful meanderings are necessary to bring you to that place where you are able to see and hear with a clarity that simply doesn’t exist at the beginning.
We have hosted over 75 work parties in our 10 acre parcel of urban forest in the last six years. We have painstakingly picked up invasive plants and planted more than 1500 trees and shrubs. We have written for and received grants to fund an urban forest trail system to connect neighbors and neighborhoods. I have sat in Council members chambers in City Hall sharing our story of forest transformation and restoration. The heaven that I thought was just one-shovel full away has taking me years to begin to see. I have leaned on that shovel-and on the arms and hearts of committed neighbors and friends-in fatigue and frustration, wanting so badly to be done and to realize the destination for which I had set out for…so very long ago.
I long for free social weekends and open evenings not requiring correspondance with local organizations. …And then I have to make the choice–the choice we all have to make on our journeys. When we have been on the road for a bit of time, the enchantments and sparkles of roadside attractions become great. They call for us to stop, rest and even consider them a favored substitute over the sacred destination. We can choose this…or we can look to the “imaginative, active encounter with the place” (P. Cousineau). At this point in the journey, we must look all the harder and request for a renewed power of vision.
I went up into the woods this week and came across a beautiful, seemingly-spontaneously-built, road side alter of rock, wood and fern at the trail head into the woods. I was startled and stunned by its presence. Everything about its quiet appearance shouted reminders to me of what these woods once held. For at one time-at this very spot, I had uncovered over 200 hypodermic needles…and now there was just this free, intentional, beauty. This organic gathering was a blessed statement of how far along the journey we had come to seeing this forest as a place of community refreshment, a place of collective comfort. We certainly aren’t there yet–the destination is still a long way off. But the meaning that is being collected along the whole long way is going to make this little piece of heaven one helluva place!