Terror en Terra – Mixed Messages in the Eye of the Storm

Returning to Manhattan a few days following the atrocity that took place at the World Trade Center, I found myself juxtaposed between the horror to the south of the island and an unexpected source of restoration to the north. Watching ominous smoke and ash still rising from the space where the Trade Towers once stood was, for this New Yorker, a deeply troubling experience. We had come to the foot of the George Washington Bridge on an overgrown path that skirts the eastern shore of the Hudson River.

It’s a scruffy urban sort of nature there, full of invasives, litter and no doubt out of ecological whack. A fitting place for a species such as ours: creatures who would participate in, or be subjected to, outrageous acts far beyond the natural constraints and capacities of all the other inhabitants on this planet. Yet, such places present rare opportunities for city dwellers to experience at least some semblance of reality. Pavement, brickwork, traffic and the frenetic energy of city life are, after all, a fabrication. They screen us from that which truly sustains our existence. Throughout my life, most of it spent in New York, I’ve identified with such islands of the natural world. They are like small gardens of refuge, not quite parks, but not mere weed piles either. While the flora and fauna seem distant and out of balance with their intended biological context, these places exist as bridges to Creation. They flourish in spite of the adversity.

But, any sense of relief gained from our walk through the weeds was soon buried by the site of that frightening vacant space downriver. The view was haunting. Some 6,000 human lives were lost down in the Battery in a matter of an hour or so, all in the name of a concept, be it political or religious. It was an assault on human lives and their constructs, but also on Creation itself. I was born in this city, raised in its suburbs, and have always identified strongly with it; even while knowing it to be a fabrication fraught with error. The tragedy of September 11th felt as if there had been an strike launched upon my own history, as well as the more obvious one directed at living, breathing people and the structures which house them. How would I deal with this crisis and the confusion and dismay surrounding it? Unbeknownst to me, part of the answer lay further uptown amidst some of the oldest trees I have ever encountered.

I have traveled in and around Manhattan island for over half a century, often passing by its wooded northern end without actually entering it. It was always gratifying just to know some of the once verdant woodland that covered what must have been paradise centuries ago, remained in place. I have read that the word “manhattan” means “island of general intoxication” in the Algonquian language. Surely the temperate climate, babbling brooks, abundant wildlife and deep wooded glades were once a source of awe, a general intoxication. Today, for the most part, that elation has been transformed into the excitement of city living; an entirely different form of inebriation. Be that as it may, there remains this small enclave of the original Manhattan at Inwood Park, a place that appears to live on somewhat as it was when the Wappingers dwelled there. In fact, local legend has it that the infamous deal struck by the Dutch to purchase Manhattan for twenty-four dollars worth of trinkets took place beneath a tulip tree at a Wappinger village here. That would have been the first recorded international trade to take place on this land. Curious that we should now, in the wake of such a cruel act as the one visited upon the World Trade Center, finally enter beneath the giant canopy of the ancient trees after all those years of worshiping them from afar.

We had not walked more than a few hundred yards when I realized how old most of the trees around me were. As one who has spent the past decade involved with efforts to defend the few remaining old-growth stands in the northeastern US from destruction by the forces of greed and ignorance, I’ve had the privilege of being in the company of experts like Bob Leverett who helped me understand the science and sensibilities that define our rooted elders. At Inwood Park it seemed I’d found myself among them once again. The girth and height of the oak, tulip, sycamore and other species was awe-inspiring. Their majestic presence drew me out of my earlier bewilderment into being in conscious company with the primordial emissaries of wilderness. The transition was literally stunning. We scaled the western most heights, past caves said to have been inhabited by Native people as late as the 1920s, and passing more giant trees, we reached the ridge overlooking the ever-flowing Hudson River. From here the destruction downtown was no longer visible. All one could see was a vast panoramic sweep of the river and the palisades on its far side. To our backs stood those giants of the eastern woodlands, still rooted in the polluted soil of this ancient land, still breathing this now tainted air, still living as testament to the power of Creation, even while suffering from the ills of our so-called civilization. If those wondrous specimens of life can prevail here and now, then why not us?

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