I am not a fan of Mother Nature.
On a beautiful September morning, my usually homebody boyfriend suggests a ‘nature walk.’ This is early on in our relationship, when he is far more eager to entertain me and to show off the wonders of his city.
“A ‘nature walk?’ In Philadelphia?” is my politely curious response. (If he made this suggestion now, I would hold my hand to his forehead to check for fever or ask him if he double dosed on his med’s this morning.)
“Sure!” is his enthusiastic reply. “There’s a nature preserve, by the airport.”
Even as I am writing this now, so many years later, I can remember how ridiculous this sounded. Because it still sounds ridiculous. A nature preserve. Sandwiched between South Philly and PHL, the 12th busiest airport in the world. Impossible.
But he convinces me it exists, and I dutifully don my strongest walking boots, my thickest jeans, a long sleeve shirt and a hat and off we go.
The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is immediately north of the airport just across I-95. It takes about twenty minutes to get there from where I live, near the entrance to the Ben Franklin bridge.
Well, I am here to tell you, regardless of the inherent absurdity, from the moment we park the car, we might as well be a thousand miles away from civilization. It think it has to do with the trees. There are a lot of trees. Trees have an odd effect on me. They make me want to whisper. And tiptoe. (It’s because of all those fantasy books I’ve read containing vindictive trees.)
From the parking lot to the human refuge, I mean the visitor center, there is a winding path. You can’t see the visitor center from the parking lot. We are lost already.
Luckily for our relationship, my boyfriend thinks my fear of nature is hysterical. If he took me seriously, my gasps and overall jumpiness for the rest of the day might have become annoying. I might be writing a story about my ex-boyfriend.
We make it 300 feet to the visitor center without mishap. Inside the building, I relax. There are lots of books and things to learn all of which makes me happy. I hint, half-joking, that this has been a great trip, and maybe it is time to go find a restaurant?
My boyfriend gets a map, picks a trail, takes my hand, and we are out the door before I get a chance to convince him he is hungry.
To be honest – for most of the walk, I am fine. The weather is beautiful, as only a September day in the mid-Atlantic states can be. Squirrels scurry around in utter panic, making me think they know something about the coming winter that the rest of us don’t. And the birds are freaking fantastic.
A word about my relationship with the avian kingdom. I saw the Hitchcock thriller, The Birds, at exactly the wrong age. Just old enough to understand the plot and just young enough for it to make an indelible impression. When I hear the sound of a bird’s wing flapping, I crouch into a ball and cover my hair with my hands. It is an uncontrollable gut reaction I’ve had all my life. BUT I have learned that wearing a hat is all the protection I need. My fear is entirely to do with the image of the birds tangled in Tippi Hedren’s hair.
So with my trusty hat in place I was free to indulge in my fascination with these unpredictable creatures. And they are fascinating. There is nothing in the world sadder than a bird in a cage. The very thing that make birds wonderful is their wings. What is the point of a bird that doesn’t fly?
Anyway – the best thing about the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is the variety and abundance of bird life there. I am not going to list or describe any of them, because to be honest, I would only be quoting from Wikipedia and you can go there and look it up yourself. I don’t know anything about them, I just like watching them. I like all their strange shapes and sizes, all their varying levels of passivity and ferociousness. I could watch a hawk circling on a thermal for hours and never grow bored.
We follow the trail and marvel at the bird life and the frogs and fish we see. We try to identify all the trees by using a guide-book we bought at the visitor center. We pass his father’s old binoculars back and forth and ooh and ah over the colors and shapes and crazy amount of cool naturey stuff there is to see so close to our city home.
We are thinking about turning back when my boyfriend suggests taking a path that is not on the map. I am feeling comfortable and I want to be flexible so I agree, and we walk the unmarked, unsigned, unpaved path for a little while. We come to a curve and my boyfriend stops for a moment to examine a large and ugly bug he sees on a weed.
And then I hear it. A noise. A large noise. I don’t mean a loud noise, I mean a noise made by a large animal. An animal that outweighs me. Somehow, at some deep level in that part of my brain that is still connected to our far distant apelike ancestors, I know the thing making that soft, shuffling sound is bigger than me, and I need to get away. Quickly.
I squeak. I rise up on tiptoe and start running back to the paved path. My boyfriend calls after me, “What are you doing?”
I yell back, “I hate nature!” It is my only coherent thought.
I’m not sure if it is his bark of laughter or my sudden flight, but we startle the doe and its two fawns who have been sheltering in the brush nearby and they bound across my path and disappear further into the woods. My LARGE animal was nothing more than a dear. Something I’ve seen in my suburban New Jersey backyard and as roadkill a million times.
It is ridiculous to hate nature, of course, humans are a part of nature as much as those deer are. But there is nothing wrong with liking the walls and roofs that keep the more uncontrollable parts of nature at bay. The wind and the rain and the birds. And the deer too. I like paved roads and paths. I like feeling safe and warm in my controlled environments.
I will never be a naturalist. I will never go on a camping trip. I even think the trees they plant and re-plant on my street are more annoying than pretty. But I am glad there are people out there who do care about that stuff. Because, occasionally, it is good for me to go out there, into the wilderness, if only to remind me why I love the city so much.
Returning home from that excursion, I strip out of my bug and pollen infested layers and take a long hot shower. The shower is a hundred times more enjoyable than the shower I took this morning because I actually notice its heat and convenience.
It’s been a few years since that ‘nature walk’ and while I have been in other naturey type places since then, I don’t seek them out. I can appreciate them from a distance, and be glad they are there for the birds, and the deer and for the people who like that sort of thing. But I don’t need to go back. Not anytime soon anyway. Well, maybe this fall. Just to see the birds. But this time we will stay on the path!