Want to Get Close to Nature? Stay Home!

While the countryside was getting paved, drenched, and denuded, nature had decided to move back into town.
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For a highly evolved species, we humans can be pretty dumb. At least I can. Case in point: last Sunday my husband and I drove to a park by a scenic river, 60 miles from the city where we live.

As I should have expected, the scenery had changed since the last time we took this trip, some ten years ago. Farms had morphed into housing developments. Instead of orchards and cornfields, the sides of the road were planted with alternating rows of Target, Wal-Mart, and Quiznos. Scattered here and there were large glass buildings that might have dropped from outer space, except for the signs indicating vacancies in Corporate Tower West. It was the creeping sprawl we hear about all the time, but I hadn't been listening.

A smarter person might also have noticed the weather, which had included nothing but rain for the past ten days. Now the sun was shining, but it would take a long time for the ground to dry. A gigantic roadside water park, closed because of flooding, was an early hint of troubled waters ahead.

Still, we pressed on. When we arrived at our destination, there was a squishy quarter-mile hike down to the swollen river, along whose muddy banks we would not be stretching out to picnic, nap, or watch the clouds. The mosquitoes were out to greet us at the trailhead, along with notices advising full-body immersion in DEET. Otherwise, the park was damp, deserted, and--let's be honest-- boring.

Did I mention the heat? Now that the rain had stopped, it was blazing hot, one of those days that make you contemplate the relationship between muggy and mugged. Apart from the mosquitoes, the only creatures that seemed awake were the folks racketing along the river on jet skies, making what I would not describe as a joyful noise. Cutting our losses, we had lunch at the local diner and headed home.

After two hours of stop-and-go highway traffic, I took a walk to stretch my legs. That's when I finally wised up to what was going on. While the countryside was getting paved, drenched, and denuded, nature had decided to move back into town.

My neighborhood park is not a pristine site. Built on landfill, it has a pond that's entirely man-made, though you can't tell if you don't notice the bubbling aeration system. But if its not virgin land, it is attractive, and not just to the people who live nearby. On this steamy day, the pathway around the pond was shady and cool, even in places where a newly arrived and highly controversial family of beaver had been busy thinning the trees.

The beaver were hidden in their lodge, but just about everything else was out doing its thing. On a branch hanging over the water, a black-capped night heron shared a perch with a mallard duck. Red slider turtles swam happily below, weaving amid the bluegills and the carp.

Bushes of pale pink roses were blooming at the side of the path, along with clover and daisies and deep red columbine. The blue flag irises at the water's edge were fading, but the milkweed flowers were almost ready to open and release their heady fragrance. Rabbits hopped around the shrubbery. Dozens of Canada Geese grazed on the lawn, their goslings looking as awkward as any other adolescent.

It was like the opening scenes of Bambi, but without the hunters. Instead, there were bikers and picnickers and parents pushing kids in strollers. That's when I realized what a rare scene this way. Plants and animals and people had decided to tolerate each other. Nature was in balance.

Balanced is different from idyllic. The herons were after the fish, after all. The rabbits were eating the flowers, the crows would probably take out a baby bunny if they had the opportunity, and the geese were creating their usual mess.

For that matter, so were the humans. The garbage cans were overflowing, and beer bottles floated in the reeds. Since I can't say anything good about the warm-hearted types who bring sacks of bread to stuff the already perfectly healthy geese, and bags of seeds for the hardly starving pigeons, I will merely note how interesting it is that so many people share this particular kind of madness.

But then a man who looked like he had taken a few hard knocks from the school of life came to the edge of the pond to greet his friends.

"Hey, you turtles," he called in the friendly tone of a camp counselor rousing the kids for volleyball. "I know you're in there! Hey, guys! How are ya? How's it goin'?"

While he waited for his answer, beaming down into the water, a young mother waddled past, baby strapped to her chest, looking a lot like the mother duck waddling with her charges down to the water's edge. In the distance, a fisherman cast his line into the water under the watchful eye of another heron. Somewhere to my left, children shrieked on playground swings. To my right, pigeons cooed.

Equilibrium. Balance. No driving. Plenty of flora and fauna. Paved paths. Water fountains.

Next Sunday, I'm staying home.

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