Friday, November 14, 2008

Wake up

This past weekend, my wife and I joined some friends for a pseudo-annual trip to Shenandoah National Park. This was our son’s first such excursion, though in general he is no stranger to public parks, national or otherwise.
We generally make the trip this time of year, a couple of weeks after the leaves have done their thing. We find that the Sleepwalking Masses are no less ephemeral than the pumpkin-colored xanthophylls that paint the trees for a week or two. I like it that way.
Alas, this year they seem to have hung-on longer than the leaves. Who are they? They leave cigarette butts or spent Evian bottles here and there. They everywhere talk loudly on cell phones and complain how bad the reception is in the park. They drive, no matter how short the distance, including the 0.3 mile stroll from the lodge rooms to the dining room. They make snide remarks about Virginia wines and local accents. They encourage their lethargic children look up for a moment from their horde of electronics only to throw Skittles to the whitetails. They spend more time in the gift shops than on the trails, and when they do hike, they complain about how far the falls are from the parking lot. These are the people Ed Abbey loved to hate in Desert Solitaire. The chestnut blight and the gyspie moth are less of a scourge on the park than are the Sleepwalking Masses.
Understand, I have no ire for ignorance. We are a culture blinded by consumption and suburbia. It is a sad state, but an honest one; it is a state not to be insulted, but corrected with an open mind and an appreciation for great and enduring things. I don’t begrudge a new visitor trying to make sense of the savage order of nature, anymore than I would think ill of my infant son for trying again and again to crawl and feed himself, or a student for picking up a new book.
Indeed, I was quietly gleeful to see the curtain of ignorance pushed aside: My godson momentarily befriended another boy about his age, as kindergarteners will do. The other lad hastily disentangled himself from an iPod, and they both stood grinning with bated breath at the cartoonish celerity of a chipmunk darting in and out of a woodpile. The two positively cackled when the cheeky little beast acknowledged them and instantly rendered itself invisible. Children always understand chipmunk humor better than adults do.
I don’t aim to discourage anyone from visiting a park. Rather, I want to encourage those who make the trip to actually experience the place. This means watching and listening. It means extending courtesy to the other visitors to the park, including those who have yet to arrive. It means respecting the land and the living things whose lives are woven into it for more than the length of a weekend trip. It means submitting to power of western mountains devouring the Sun or to the subtle alchemy of green shield lichens slowly, slowy, slowly consuming a boulder.
Wake up, sleepwalkers.


Pat Jenkins said...

your plea could be lobbed at anyone in any "park" in life erd....

E. R. Dunhill said...

I don't disagree.