Friday, October 25, 2019

Musings of a Country Mouse in the City

 I emerge from the “Robin Williams” tunnel in California’s Marin County, and there she is: Mt. Tamalpais. The mountain that taught me how to love a mountain. Always there in my growing years and now, as I return for my yearly hometown visit, she is there to greet me. I’m home. Known in Miwok Indian lore as “the sleeping lady”, her curvaceous verdant slopes give life to fragrant redwood glens and hidden lakes, while her southern face descends to meet the Pacific Ocean.

Driving north to my hometown of San Anselmo, I’m comforted knowing that the mountain stays. Yes, there are changes in town – the row of decades-old elms along the Miracle Mile is gone to be replaced by a landscaped garden, the windows of a favorite shop are papered over, Phoenix Lake picnic ground, where we’d gather on summer evenings, has a new look. But the mountain stays, as does the lake rimmed with flowering tarweeds,

 the creek winding through town, my aging elementary school and the nearby hilltop seminary, whose grey stone walls are over a hundred years old.

I always go by my hillside family home. For as long as I can remember, a magnificent old eucalyptus tree grew on a bare lot across the road from our house. At night I loved the rustle of the wind through its leaves, the rhythmic call of its resident owl and its pungent scent after a rain. Some years ago the tree gave way to a multimillion-dollar home. I’m glad I wasn’t there when they took it down. The creek at the back of the lot, where I played as a child, now flows through large concrete pipes.

I’ve come from a Chilean spring to a California fall. There will always be seasons, I think. Or will there be? Seasons already are undergoing change. On a drive to the coast with friends, I delight in the first fall colors and the tangy scent of centuries-old redwoods.

 We stop and walk along a dirt lane, marveling at how the sunlight illuminates each dappled leaf of the mixed forest– a palette of greens and burnished yellows. Then we return to the road and wind through familiar, rounded hills before arriving at the Pacific Ocean. It hasn’t gone anywhere – yet.

I realize that my home county is unique – possessing unsurpassable natural beauty and a population which protects that legacy tenaciously. I have no doubt that, because I grew up here, I became a lover of landscapes. Now, surrounded by the trees and hills of my childhood, I turn to Barry Lopez’ book “Horizons.” His thoughts take hold of me, deepening my understanding of the natural world. I pull this thought-provoking thread from his writings: “Whatever one finds in front of her at the moment, is what the given situation is. …The pristine landscape of a former time is no longer available….a person must make peace with that.”

I must make peace with living in the city of Santiago, my home for forty-seven years. I often recall Aesop’s fable “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” in which a proud city mouse, shocked at the meager meal offered to him by his country cousin, invites the cousin to visit the city. There the humble cousin, at first impressed by the bounty provided there, is terrified by the presence of humans and a prowling cat.  The little country mouse decides it is best to live with little and in peace than with abundance but in fear. I’ve always felt like a country mouse destined to live in the city.

Here, in Santiago, change is drastic and abrupt. Perhaps that is true of all Earth’s metropolitan areas that two-thirds of the world’s population will call home by 2050. My journey back home while reading Barry Lopez created a backdrop against which I view our modern society and its culture. I watch the lines of cars, swinging demolition balls and swaying yellow construction cranes as if from a distance, feeling I’m not a part of that.

 I am disturbed by many of the changes I’ve observed over the decades. Passing by a massive mall, I remember that there was once a tree-lined, tranquil field with grazing horses, a scene I’d enjoy on my way to my teaching job. The city is climbing into the foothills of the Andes. Cerro Alvarado, over which I’d spot eagles circling, is now weighted down by luxury condominiums.

Perhaps, because a city dweller is more removed from nature, she is less aware of the wonder of the natural world and of the interdependence of all living things (including Homo sapiens). Nature gives us lessons in harmonious living from which we city residents may draw, if only we’d pay attention. Countless species and their rich habitats have been lost due, not only to natural forces like climate change, but also to our lack of respect for and appreciation of them.

Santiago residents are demanding a voice in decisions affecting urban development. Our architects and city planners are recognizing errors of the past, in which the quality of life was given little consideration. I’ve joined with others to protect our small neighborhood, where the corner fruit store and shoe repair shop can survive, where a park lies in within walking distance.

 With this sharpened awareness of what constitutes a more benevolent habitat and a more equal and humane distribution of resources, city inhabitants can live more dignified lives.

I’m reminded once more of Lopez’ wisdom: “It is impossible, biologically, truly to “restore” any landscape. Humans aren’t able to reverse the direction of evolution, to darn a landscape together.”

I am at peace with evolution but not with the mindless destruction we are imposing on Earth’s landscape.