Two Places in One
After summer is officially declared – and universally felt – Washington seeks refuge at the National Arboretum. There is room enough for all among its rolling parkland and exotic hideaways. If you’re looking for a special place of the imagination, you will find it there, among flowering herbs that draw the kinds of insects an urban environment would kill; trees that stand taller than they might in other places; rolling grasslands that would ordinarily be gouged with tire-marks or the leftover rags of the homeless.
If you’re in need, not of a merely special place, but of a place over which the very Spirit of Quietude hovers, seek out the bonsai trees, which are replica-sized hackberry and oak, olive and poplar, that are real, but quaintly miniature. Some grizzle-barked specimens go back to the 18th-century. Yet even among the ten-year olds there is a sense of an ancient art flourishing, an art much older, in style and spirit, than our measly hatchings on paper or hacked-into stone. It is an unostentatious art that is not signed, but donated. The names of donors acknowledge a human lineage. Otherwise, these acutely dignified beings exist independently. Any given tree could be thousands of years old. Might as well be; the bonsai is as timeless a creation as a cloud.
I used to run in the Arboretum. Not an easy thing, with so many plunges and switchbacks. The last time I did it, I had to stop after going the distance just twice. (I’d come to do three circuits and thought I was up for them. Nature giveth and it taketh away.) The open road provides an out and back course from which it is possible to see operatic vistas and calmly verdant fields. Three miles that wind through mystic groves, butterfly-rich enclaves, and knothole-crazy cypress.
Running there is so much better than running anyplace else that even a marginally spiritual person might be seduced by the atmosphere, which, in my view, is better than any civilization can offer. Why go to a gym when you can have this?
Yet because running not only gets you places, it gets you to them gradually, you’re likely to notice things along the way. Trolling around for a place to camp out – or for an overlook from which life on a more panoramic scale might be suddenly and breathtakingly available – is something you can do almost anyplace and has an almost-anyplace quality. Until you get to your spot in this particular place – which is touched by city life, but can be untethered at (or with) a glance – you’re not really looking. Stop at any higher elevation and the place rises up to meet you with all of its contradictions and yours. In the midst of nature – even if it happens to lack the traditional profundities of peaks and gorges – you feel obligingly small, as if to ask of nature something no other experience provides. Nature can be an amphitheater for the senses, which it may initially overwhelm, but comes, when one’s devotion is prolonged, to heal whatever it was that prompted a visit; activates ideas and enthusiasms that have been, without it, slumbering; puts life on the even keel from which it can so easily slip when we depend almost entirely on ourselves (we’re not big enough for the task) or on the somewhat debilitating routines which paradoxically extrude us.
Yet while The Arboretum is a Chamber of Quietude, it’s ringed by unrest. Whenever I go there in the summer, I hear radio rappers who are clearly dissatisfied with the way things are – even if rap has been a “way out” for them. The angst of these discontented souls reverberates through field and forest. What to make of this curious clash of cultures? In one, the wonders of nature can be celebrated, in a world without time. From the other world, where time – which is notoriously bereft of solutions – has run out for many of the people who inhabit it, opportunities to elevate the soul are scant and rarely taken. Its space-compressing soundtrack is a reminder that civilization as we know it is not a quiet place. All the more reason for it to be bracketed by those healing powers nature might bring to anyone who may be consciously seeking them, or might be lucky enough to stumble upon them and understand, as they begin to operate, what they are.
When I was at The Arboretum late last summer, some ostensibly dangerous kids were kicking around the raggedy parts, which I see in passing. They were wearing the regalia of their crew, and they sulked and postured, as if for an audience of squirrels. These were the Flower-Beheading People who descended upon a fragile place and spoiled it! How dare they ruin my personal Shangri-la! As I ran past them, however, they smiled at me. My own smile had to be dredged out of a great channel of suspicion, a cavernous hiding-place where one’s finer impulses are often buried. While I ran, I kept them in sight long enough to see one of them bend over and, with supreme gentleness, extract something from the ground. It couldn’t have been one of the cultivated things that grew in the small, plaque-segregated gardens that are sprinkled throughout the Arboretum’s many shady areas. Nope. It was just something that had caught the kid’s attention. I had been such a kid myself: a gatherer of specimens, an eager bender, a face-to-the-ground, geeky sort who might not notice that other people were staring. As I had once, this kid, and his fellows, had come to learn. They knew the difference between one place and another and were performing a sort of personal homage.
I ran on, thinking of my own lost selves, grateful that there could be such a place where they might be, if only for a moment, rediscovered.
Brett Busang was born to be contrary. At the same time, however, he is almost painfully diplomatic. It is out of this tension that almost everything he thinks and does arises, finds its way into the world, and is welcomed there as often as not.
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