The Accidental Forest

I can’t get used to the cement in the city. Buildings grow from the sidewalks like carefully tended crops of leafless bamboo; sometimes it gathers in heavy clumps like spilled pieces of store-bought cake. In mid-town, it’s difficult to imagine there’s anything else; trees are random anomalies rounded up like cattle into enclosures. A few escape, to be sure, but they stand out like weeds in concrete fields: mistakes, I suppose -resting spots for eyes, scent posts for dogs- but they are decorative, not utilitarian; the exception not the rule of cities.

For me, though, trees are oases in the coagulated desert: candy stores, however infrequent. I do not travel to the city from the country often; perhaps that is why the contrast is so jarring, the absence of green so noticeable in the all too pervasive artificial stone. In fact, I find myself wandering off the trafficked streets whenever possible, looking for wooden houses with asphalt roofs -or better still, with cedar shakes that remind me of what was once alive: lawns, however small and brown; token trees, or bushes shading little porches with people sitting on them, ignoring the roar of trucks just streets away, pretending they are peering through foliage filled with birds that they could hear if it weren’t for horns and sirens in the almost-distance.

There aren’t too many leafy enclaves in heavily commercial urban districts, and yet I search. The heart needs hope, the eyes need rest, and the innumerable store fronts do not promise much respite; artifice is everywhere on display as if the world could be portrayed honestly behind glass; as if the forest was a fairy story only told on benches in a little park. And yet I search…

I almost missed it in the stubbled shadows of the copse -the hidden, overgrown trail winding silently through some tall urban bushes between two buildings. I think I would have continued along the fractured sidewalk, had it not been for the cheeky waving of a leaf in the wind’s tiny breath. I was walking in a neighbourhood a few blocks distant from a little mall I occasionally visit -I’m not sure why I wandered that direction from my usual route to tell the truth. I suspect I was simply bored with busy streets too often taken.

I marvelled at how such an untamed wilderness could continue to exist so close to everything I had seen so far. The only green had been the grass which grew between some sidewalk cracks, or amongst the occasional faded colours of discarded fast-food wrappers that wind had forced against the wooden telephone posts -there were few trees to do the job. Actually, I’d seen a peeling wooden door close by and it had traces of green in patches, but whether it was by design or weather was hard to tell from the sidewalk where I felt safe to walk. It was not a wealthy neighbourhood, judging by the potholes on the asphalt road that hobbled past, and there was no one else that I could see -but I could feel the eyes: eyes hiding behind ragged curtains; eyes without faces watching through unwashed windows -curious eyes, perhaps, and yet eyes trained to spot the slightest movement near their doors.

At any rate, I couldn’t resist the invitation; it was almost as if the leaf had been waiting for someone special -a believer perhaps. It couldn’t be only chance – it seemed too significant for that -too… magical, I suppose. The moment I stepped into the green, I was surrounded by rustling leaves, and sudden stabs of sun that filtered through the branches like tiny spotlights following me across a crowded stage. Perhaps it was a stage, but one with a floor of dirt that meandered lazily between two brick walls I could barely see behind the deep-green shadows.

Animals hunted here -I could see their footprints in the soil; butterflies flittered here and there, startled by the noise I made pushing through the trail; birds twittered and looked down their beaks at me thrashing safely out of reach. I’m sure I was a surprise. The trail I made was not a path for creatures on two legs -even children would have to crawl in spots- but I was happy to brush the leaves from my face, untangle the brambles from my shirt, and fight for the slow but steady progress through the urban jungle I had found.

The route was difficult, but isn’t that what makes us want to press on further, to persist until the prize is won, or the mystery is solved? It was an urban trail; I couldn’t get lost; I felt no need to mark my route -it was all too apparent glancing back. In fact my backward glances were more to check that I wasn’t being followed -a stranger in a strange neighbourhood does not go long unhindered by the wary and suspicious eyes that had continued to track my progress along the street.

Suddenly, I sensed there was a marked change of light ahead; the walls had stopped, or crumbled maybe -they were still too hidden behind the chaotic growth of foliage for me to tell. I hoped I hadn’t fought all this way to find myself in the back garden of some apartment block; I doubted that trespass would be lightly tolerated around here.

But, I needn’t have worried I suppose -except, perhaps, of being trapped. The bushes ended suddenly at a chain-link fence, that guarded the buildings from a drainage ditch -or, judging by its odour, maybe it was simply a stagnant creek where unwanted things were tossed, or partially consumed things were left to float away. I saw a broken tricycle partially submerged, and close to it a plastic doll, headless and obscene, neglected and unloved, splayed like something drowned might look if it ever made it to the shore.

It was enough for me; there was no treasure island waiting to greet me beyond the ditch, no Shangri-La where I could rest. So I turned to retrace my journey through the bush, now aware that every scratch and bruise I’d thought were worthy trophies for my struggles, were no more than injuries to be tended to when I reached home. The watching eyes behind the curtains seemed mirthful now, the broken slabs on the once intriguing sidewalk served only as warnings not to trip. The busy traffic down the block was waiting patiently for my return, and the neighbourhood shrugged away another trespass as indifferently as it had for years. Its forest was of a different kind: an accidental forest…

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