Monday, May 5, 2008

Finding a way

By Paul Gordon Emerson

Of trees, birds and a few metaphors.....

We've been focused on trees for months now. From "Revolution of the Butterflies," the dance Isabel Croxatto has made for us and which is featured throughout earlier video, photographic and text postings on this blog to our commitment at CityDance to create a carbon-neutral office through better practices and through an offset charge payment channeled mainly into the donation of funds for planting trees, trees have been a "thing" with us. 

Apparently they're a thing with most everyone right now. 

That's not a bad thing (well, except for the endless allergens floating around the DC/Metro area now that the "things" are in full bloom). But its a funny thing. Not "hah-hah" funny, but funny in that, as with so many things in Western society we are "discovering" trees and realizing that -- oh, wow, these things are really beneficial. We have this tendency to chop things down, or up, and then, years later, discover them. Its that "Everything old is new again," thing. 

The entire enterprise of "rediscovering" trees is much harder than it at first seems. Major metropolitan areas around the US, and the world, have embarked (there's a pun in there somewhere) on massive tree-planting campaigns. New York is looking to plant a million all by itself. But as it turns out, there's a limited amount of available space in which to do the planting, and where you need it most its hardest to achieve. There's no space, the soil is completely denatured, and the people in neighborhoods without trees sometimes have to be persuaded to accept them. That despite the fact that trees in heavily populated, and cemented, areas tend to yield far more benefit than those planted rurally (that's not including the billion slated for planting in the Eastern Amazon). We are in that crazy place where every tree has a carbon value, a dollar value and a real estate value. Oh, and they're nice to look at, too. 

The birds part: In the past 14 days, randomly, I've seen three astonishing things. All of them have something to do with birds. None to do with dance. Directly.

At 8:15 on a working Wednesday morning I entered one of the biggest and busiest traffic circles in the endless melee of Washington/MD rush hour. This one, at Connecticut Avenue and Western Avenue, represents the dividing line between DC and Maryland. Its a madhouse. 

Pulling up from a side road on the Western edge there was no traffic coming towards me. None. That doesn't happen. Except that on this day there was a woman standing in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. For a family of ducks. One mamma duck and 7 ducklings, who were, somehow, someway, crossing from a nest somewhere by a local church to the center circle, in which there is a fountain to drink from and a pool to learn to swim in. These ducklings were not making their first trip. And somehow not only were they alive, but traffic had stopped for them. In DC. At Rush Hour. Hopefully that has happened every day since, and will happen for so long as they choose to cross. 

Second: the hawk. I live in a house at the crest of the highest point in DC -- in a neighborhood named Mt. Pleasant. I have a south facing deck that looks at the entire southern side of the city. And a few weeks ago that deck had a visitor -- an exceptionally large and remarkable hawk, who appeared to be looking for a meal of pigeon or squirrel, both of which frequent the deck as well. A hawk. In the middle of DC.

Third: the vultures. Aside from the completely ill-informed view of vultures as foul (yes, another pun in there somewhere) creatures, the idea that they thrive in DC is hard to grab onto. But on MacArthur Boulevard the other day there were two, in the median, munching on a breakfast of a squirrel that hadn't made it to the other side. They scavenge, and there has to be enough scavengable food to survive -- and here they were. 

Now -- trees and birds rare and birds doing things seemingly involving a death-wish (as Kathryn said today, people die crossing traffic circles, so what chance do baby birds have). And dance.  The point is that given a chance, life finds a way (to quote, somewhat inelegantly, Jeff Goldblum in, egads, "Jurassic Park"). Trees grow. Birds find a way to coexist with man if man gives them even the most remote chance to do so. And everything is the healthier for it. Birds are a vital indicator of the health of an ecosystem, and as these birds return and thrive, its a measure of what happens when nature is not plowed under at every opportunity, even in the midst of a major metropolitan area.

Its not so different for the arts. Given a chance, given the opportunity to take hold, it does. But it takes effort -- sometimes dedicated and sometimes benign. We plant trees, sometimes over the preconceptions and opposition of those who will benefit most from the planting. We allow birds to live -- not nurture; not help. Just allow. We leave spaces for art and artists, whether in the form of housing in which they can live and studios in which they can work, and they, too, thrive. Sometimes you act. Sometimes you choose not to act, which is in and of itself an act. And things get better. 

Seems simple, but, like the "discovery" of trees, it turns out we have to re-learn it. That's not a cynical statement, but one of encouragement. While we might wish we'd never forgotten in the first place, the point is we figure it out. It just takes someone who will stop in the middle of a four lane road to let a family safely make the journey. 

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