Monday, March 23, 2009

Two Walks through the Valley

For the past eleven years, my sole surviving hometown newspaper, The Denver Post, has hosted a symposium of guest editorialists known as the Colorado Voices. I applied for inclusion in the group this time around and was rejected. I can't say I am surprised, as the paper takes a notoriously liberal point of view and I had made it clear in my cover letter that I intended to argue from a conservative and specifically Roman Catholic perspective. My two contest submissions, however, I believe to be of general interest; so what better way to take revenge on the Post than publish them here on my blog. Take that, mainstream media!

The two columns in question recount experiences had by me while walking around the local environs, observing and pondering. They are not altogether pessimistic, but they left me with the impression that Something Ought to be Done. To wit:

My first submission: In which I describe a walk taken around my neighborhood, and my meditations on the state of the children therein.

It was growing hot late one summer morning when I found myself walking along 96th Avenue just east of Federal Boulevard; a highly patched and pounded stretch of roadway surrounded by mobile home parks, and home to the very same Federal Heights Elementary School which I had attended some 20-odd years before. Clumps of children could be seen departing from there, the recipients of some summer school lunch program, I surmised. They all appeared too cynical for their tender years and not at all attired as children ought to be. Looking homeless and joyless, they scattered their separate ways. Failed social policies, I thought to myself. What on earth are these kids going home to? A pair of older girls dressed in gangster regalia walked stiffly away from me to the east; but my path headed west, toward the looming Westminster water tower and the familiar peaks of the Rocky Mountains, their grandeur diminished by the spiritual lowliness of that vantage.

By a design not my own I found myself walking abreast of one such clump, a ragamuffin trio looking orphaned on the pale sidewalk. The oldest girl seemed to be about 11, a surly creature who already had the look of a survivalist. I winced in pain when I thought of the experiences the next few years would bring her. Astride her was her younger sister, probably 8, a happier and bouncier girl about whom there was still wrapped many tendrils of childish innocence. Behind them a little boy of 3 bumbled along. Largely ignored by the others, he looked the most homeless of all; the eagerness with which he tried to keep up spoke forcefully of both tragedy and hope. He wants so badly to be relevant, I thought. I was seized with compassion, but also with the wish that I had never come that way in the first place.

It would have been too awkward to turn around now. My legs, on autopilot, had already bourn me into their midst. Not knowing what to say, not wanting to say anything at all, I simply tried to smile and be pleasant; but the younger two children were glad of my companionship. The boy entwined himself around my feet like a cat while the middle girl chattered on to me about things I cannot now recall. They clearly have no decent father-figure at home, I said to myself. It is my duty to do what I can. The older girl, though, was plainly offended that I was there. Many times along the way she drew her sister aside by the elbow, admonishing her to have nothing to do with me.

The middle girl didn’t listen. “Will you put him on your shoulders,” she said to me at last, referring to her little brother. “Sure. Come here buddy,” I said, hoisting him up. I had not gone twenty paces when I caught the acrid smell of urine: he had peed down the back of my neck. I was a gentleman about it, and said nothing to the boy or the others; I did, however, take him off my shoulders.

The eldest was getting restive, and I asked her why she disliked me. “You’re weird,” she said, “and your cologne really stinks.”

“I’m not wearing cologne,” I told her, repressing the urge to tell her what her brother smelled like. Realizing that she must have smelled my deodorant volatilizing in the summer sun, I began to wonder if anyone at her house was ever clean.

We reached the entrance to their neighborhood and the surly girl flatly informed me that I had to leave. She grabbed her sister and they departed without another word. I watched them go, for the boy was tottering along many yards behind them. Suddenly he stopped, ran back, picked a dandelion out of the median and gave it to me. I thanked him and continued to watch them all until they turned out of sight.

Later, as I was scrubbing my neck red in the shower, I did not need to wonder why God led me into such a circumstance. I was there so that a fatherless boy could give me a flower. By His grace, my heart was properly disposed that day to be Christ to him. The chief danger facing such children is not (as we imagine) the possibility of meeting a very different kind of man on the road; the danger is the godless world of despair in which they are already enveloped. “The dreadful,” said Martin Heidegger, “has already happened.” Do you know where your children are?

My second submission: In which I describe “free walking” through a prairie dog town and the meditations that follow.

There is a sport known as “free running” wherein the participants try to reimagine their relationship to urban spaces by performing acrobatics about the city’s infrastructure. I am conducive to the idea insofar as it implies a livelier inhabitation of the urban scene, but not in its postmodern implications as a form of kinetic graffiti. The first is like a kitchen garden planted in the backyard, while the second is an abandoned lot full of weeds. Can a city remain fecund without being mulched into its surroundings? To answer that, we might begin by examining how nature interacts with the city in its own terms.

To wit, I have often engaged in an activity I like to call “free walking,” which is to say that I stroll through an urban environment deliberately ignoring the strictly semiotic component of the experience while confining my attention to living forms, physical boundaries, and the forces and substances of the natural world. I have found that nature is in very truth primitive; that is, both persistent and pointless. The prairie dog towns of Thornton have been particularly instructive in this regard.

Prairie dogs always bark at interlopers like me. Thus, one of the first things you learn about them is that their separate communities all have their own local dialects. The pitch and cadence of barks vary from town to town, but are recognizably similar within a town. I have concluded from these data that each community is relatively isolated, for the asphalt roadways that divide them from one another are crossed only reluctantly and at great peril; and while the slow trickle of more adventurous prairie dogs have managed to colonize nearly every available space (right down to the medians on I-25), there remains little commerce between towns.

The attrition rates from these crossings are impressive. There is in the vicinity of 90th and Washington two small fields that I used to walk through, each one not more than a quarter acre in size, subdivided by a single two-lane road. During the summer months the death toll among prairie dogs from automobile rundowns on this road usually amounted to at least one per diem, and on one noteworthy occasion I counted six. I marveled at how these small communities could remain viable under the pressure of such repeated decimations, especially when considering that they sustain themselves on nothing more than the sparse, dry vegetation that grows thereabout. The desperate struggle of these little lives played out before my eyes: endless, tedious, immensely wasteful, devoid of all justice and proportion—animal life seemingly disclosing itself as a temporary extravagance of soil. Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

I took one of the dead creatures and laid him amongst some tall weeds where he was unlikely to be disturbed. Over the course of the next two weeks I returned to watch his final dissolution into the earth. The maggots came first. Small, translucent beings, barely visible in the beginning, they presently grew into the familiar corpulent grubs whilst consuming almost all the available meat. Black ants came next, picking over the cartilage between the joints, and finally some unidentified beetles extracted the last drops of oil seeping out of the bones. I noticed then that prairie dog incisors actually grow from the back of the jaw, like elephant tusks. I speculated on the possibility of some long-distance relationship between them while realizing that the flesh, the play of feature, everything that holds any emotional content for us, had melted away. The skeleton stood as a monument to the futility of all yearning, an empty skull beholding a cold sky.

“You want to live ‘according to nature’?,” Nietzsche mockingly asked the stoics. It was a rhetorical question designed to show the emptiness of that sentiment. Is not human life the very endeavor to be otherwise than this nature? The popular psychologists and anthropologists of the modern era have it backwards when they disregard the billions of human beings living in cities and set up the relatively few denizens of the remote jungles as somehow typical of the race. It is not in human nature to be “natural.” We need our cities and our laws as much as we need our fields and our freedom. To preserve both fecundity and order, we need the social lordship of Christ the King. A neo-pagan attachment to naturalism simply will not do.

Just ask the prairie dogs.

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