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Subway to the Woods, Part I, by David Rothenberg

by David Rothenberg

For years I have tried to take the subway to the woods.  I've heard it can be done.  This city, you see, keeps its trees under wraps.  Its parks are bounded by tall concrete buildings.  You can breathe in the fresh spring air coursing on the new green leaves, but it soon is a yearning for an enveloping nature which is nowhere around.  This city is complete, the rectangles and cubes of humankind.  Yet it is this rigidity that has invented what we know today as wilderness.  Without the complete city, there can be no yearning for the complete wilderness.  You must first inhabit the grid before you can dream of the outside.  There is a way out there.  There are rails underground that will take you there, opening to places of pure greenness and wind.

The Human Grid

From the deck of the Brooklyn Bridge, the sky is framed by parallelograms of cable.  The stretched grid of the multiple guylines places pulled rectangles across the sky.  Round puffs of cloud, spread infinitely far to the horizon, many, many reproducing themselves like waterdrops far to the North, like the wide spread of the air in Maine over forests, islands, and lakes, here across the concrete and steel castle that rises on the lower tip of Manhattan.  Today, miraculously, the horizon is not brown, there is no pollution to cry over, no haze to get lost in as one searches for Newark or the fog wall beyond the gates of Sandy Hook.  The lattice of wires divides the view, like a plan to sketch-by-numbers, to reduce to a proper scale.  The bridge seems impervious, impractical, result of art, not engineering.  There is no way to explain why it's like this.  There is no reason it has survived.

Choose a window below, or scroll down for full essay:

Choose a Window...
Window 1
The Value
of the Grit
Window 2
For a Change
Look Up
Window 3
Unpaving the
Parking Lot
Toward Paradise
Window 4
Information Cast
off of Decay


Window 1 

Window 1
The Value of the Grit

Through the rust-ringed streets of deepest Tribeca, a no man's land that looks like the city once wanted to be.  What opulence hides behind the window films of grunge?  There is no added value in polishing the surfaces, for prosperity is worth so much more when invisible.  The fire escapes are pulled up the downhill ladders stop up in space, a few spans above our heads.  On the bottom rungs, now turned horizontal, a makeshift window box.  A forest of weeds, an untended garden, a patch of sooty grass where flowers alight.  Some green breaks through, a few blades shake in a street-tunnel wind.

Window 2 

Window 2
For a Change Look Up

On lower Broadway, easy to miss, turn your head up from the walk for a moment:  There's the old New York Sun thermometer, stone, two flights up, Fahrenheit, above a cut rate shoe store.  It seems accurate enough, though the newspaper it landmarked has gone the way of all business.  Our monuments outlast the efforts needing commemoration.

Window 3 

Window 3
Unpaving the Parking Lot Toward Paradise

One day outside my office they took out a parking lot and filled it in with green grass.  This was part of the resolve against the rule over dilapidated spaces by the automobiles.  People wanted a square of green, even though they would not be allowed to set foot on it, they clamored for a land of grass and hope, for respite from the march of concrete and steel.  And the authorities listened: they unpaved the parking lot to give hope that paradise might come back to the city.

Window 4 

Window 4
Information Cast Off of Decay

On the sidewalk off Madison Avenue, trampled down by patent leather shoes at the end of smooth stocking legs under querulous furs , there are Polaroids of decaying gums tossed onto the surface of squares of concrete.  Someone was disgusted, someone who did not want to carry images of the impending end of his own teeth, a grisly reminder of the passage of time, an omen of the end of that tiresome chatter of enamel on bone.  These glossy photos now dirtying between street corners, sniffed at by hungry  dogs at the end of the leash, completely ignored by walkers who set their eyes on fixed goals down the avenue, seen only by those trapped enough to stare at the ground as their feet cross it.

Subway to the Woods, continued...

And if you get there, if you find that train, you will understand why even those who have truly loved the great human constructions of gray all yearned for the wildness and freshness of forests and lawns.  The success of the city requires its suburbanizing, the yearning for a lost nature and the mistake of trying to half tame it. 

The Analysis of Home

From the corner, a whisper, a comment, a judgment.  You only write of where you are.  You are transfixed by your surroundings.  The endarkening of the afternoon prethunderous sky, the rustle of leaves on just before the fall, the fervent buzz of trapped flies between windowpanes.   Memory?  A faint shadow, an absent call.

In the bathtub, one single oak leaf, brown, blown in through the window, an instant and rushed reminder of oncoming autumn, alone and removed from its tree, ready to be wet by the stream and flushed down the drain.  It has not been pressed through colors, it has already died.

When I am away the sparrows fly through my top-floor apartment, skipping across the desk from the sill, nibbling crumbs, rummaging through the papers and turning the room into air, a space to traverse between trees.

These open spaces and fragments are nothing sad.  They raise questions, they are the windows to the secret beauty of time that has come here.  Out of these places come dreams of the wild.  The next step is to find ways into it, secret signs or routes amidst all the clues around.

As the sun is at just the exact angle to make the Bacardi U.S. Map billboard blaze as a harbinger of sunset, you may fell the resonance of the hollow.  In the rush of traffic, in a scream at night, a person gasping for air or a cat leaping a final fence your dreams include misplaced items, the consequences of plans gone awry.  There's a cold sweat on the sheets and the wind has spread papers across the floor.  Daylight is several lifetimes away and it will be impossible to return to sleep.

Structure is the problem: to build or hold remembrance together.  The tendency is for these moments to fall apart.  We fight against nature.  We wish it all made sense.

From an underground train a glimpse of hundreds of shodden feet trooping up a stairway, seen through a different kind of window, marching legs through the columns outlined by the grate of railings, the step of the heel landing before the toe, the tapdance clap of shoe on stone, beating a long, slow dent in the concrete like cavern etched out entirely by centuries of a waterdrop trickling through the air onto stone.

It all holds upon whether you want to live in the center of it all, or at the edges.  Whether it is essential to surge through the throng of bustling human energy, or bask in the glint of light flickering leaves on late season trees.  The sky, the air, the ground, the wind!  Do you miss these things as the whirl of human ideas pulse through the sooty streets?  There is no one place for you.

The Parrots of Chicago

Cities can of course contain strange natures, bends of the world's original rules.  Off Lake Shore Drive, on the South Side of Chicago, there is a colony of parrots living in just one tree between the university and the water.  They are parrots of several sizes and species, escaped from homes and pet shops, zoos and carnivals.  Even in the icewind winters, they survive, huddling inside huge thicket nests, shivering together.  Like human beings, they have adapted from the tropics to the temperate zones, able to make the move from the jungle, through captivity, trapped in the trees hiding from the high winds of this most American of towns.

The Extinct Bird on the Lawn

I talk to a friend on the Coast who tells me that a strange bird appeared one day at the feeder in his yard.  This bird, red with green wingtips, a tiny yellow crest, was unlike anything he had heard of or seen before.  It did not appear in any bird books, and it took a journey up and down the aisles of the library to find a book that showed anything close to what had alighted outside his home above the Pacific Ocean.  It appeared to be an odd Cambodian finch, believed extinct for twenty-five years.  The Audubon Society confirmed the accuracy of the sighting.  These creatures are bred in secret in the private wilds of Los Angeles, and they then come to exist nowhere else in the world.

See, humanity can leave space to save and change the wild as much as it separates itself from nature.

The city's lack of greenness drives people over bridge and through tunnel to suburbia , the planned geography of the American inner landscape.  If I live in the city, and go back to the place I grew up in, suburban Connecticut suddenly seems clean, green, brilliant and inviting.  The mere presence of clean air, trees, and the palate of natural colors without an everpresent background noise makes it seem real in a way I never saw when I lived there.

Selling out to the dream?  Community cast asunder?  Just an antidote to the defenses the city makes me put up.  It makes me close in, I cannot pay attention to everything.  There is too much troubling, too much injustice to face.  Too much suffering.  Too much anarchy and conflicting visions locked in impasse.  It is a strain to pay attention, to intend experience.  Control comes by closing down.  I seek refuge in words.

Then there is that hour of the earliest half-waking morning when dream images reconstitute themselves as words, paragraphs reeling on a page, objects advertising themselves through names real or implied, where the inner vision looks straight ahead, and all around, and sentences completed or left hanging.  It is at this hour I should wake, this time that I should consider saving to put signs to paper.  For in such dreams, predictably recurring every night, the pull of words is stronger than shape, more precise than color or motion.  In worlds so constructed the visible becomes the literal, the idea without doubt attached to the environs as a trace. 

On the trains so many people read, head bowed, nose down into the pages, lest the travelers remind themselves of where they are, what black tunnels they ride through, what wastelands rise up out of ruined swamps in the acres surrounding the city.  You enter the system and emerge where you need to be one hour later, in between the words have taken you away, and the environment has been shut out by blinders of attention.  It is a survival tactic, this tuning out of attention, so that we will be able to live here where there is too much to see and not enough compassion to take it all in.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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