Advent Day 6: The Wild Things

At the very top of Manhattan, where the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet, there is a public park that is home to the largest natural forest left in Manhattan. Inwood Hill Park is home to a salt marsh, giant rocks with glacial holes, caves that were home to the Lenape tribe hundreds of years ago, herons, egrets, foxes, hawks, owls, etc. This park – blocks from my apartment – is the closest to natural earth that I feel I can get living in New York City. I have spent hours upon hours here, wandering the trails in the hills, walking my dog around the paths, playing racket ball with Lou, climbing rocks with Luke. And just sitting. Sitting on those benches, watching the birds dart around the marsh, watching the hawks cruise through the treetops.

It often feels like the one piece of sanity left in this world, this world that seems to be on the brink of falling apart. When I go to the park, I am reminded that I am only a small part in a much larger puzzle; that goodness still exists despite our best efforts to extinguish and annihilate it; that the mountains and the ocean have always won and they will continue to win. Eventually.

The reading I’m looking at today is from the daily lectionary reading. I picked it not knowing what I would write about, just being stunned by the beauty of the words and the reminder of the immensity of the universe in which we live.

Amos 5:8-15:

The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Someday, I often think while walking in the park, the island of Manhattan will win again. The sidewalk cement will break apart, the people will leave one way or another, the buildings will crumble. The slow, gentle growth of dandelions and grasses will uproot the arrogant skyscrapers. The invisible and relentless wind will topple statues and monuments. The waters will flood the tunnels and the rain will continue to nourish the green, the growth, the root systems of the giant trees.

It is a process that Inwood Hill Park already knows. There are buildings that were demolished in order to make room for the green fields. Foundations of these buildings can still be found in the hills; fossils of ancient seashells can also be found, from when this park lay below the sea. A monument stands where the tulip tree (supposedly the place where European colonizers “bought” (stole) the island of Manhattan from the Lenape tribe) stood until the early 1930s. The remnants of an old fort from the Revolutionary War remain buried in the forest. This park has seen apocalypse over and over and over again. It has seen injustice in so many forms, it has seen human blood spilled over and over again. This park, and the neighborhood in which it sits, continues to be a witness to injustice, as long-time residents with brown skin and fewer resources are gradually uprooted by new residents with white skin and more money.

The herons still fly here, and for some reason, that encourages me to keep living even in the midst of so much death, in the face of so much injustice that is beyond my comprehension and certainly my ability to right on my own.

All of this – this chaos and process and fear and despair – is really what I hear in this scripture passage. The reminder that we’re small, that the world and the cosmos are filled with a Divine energy that builds up and tears down, and that the same force that makes rain fall and waves crash and stars form and burn and die is the same force that pushes for the birth and rebirth of true justice for all life in the world: young and old, light-skinned and brown-skinned, male and female and nonbinary, all abilities, human and non-human, plant and animal. And for those of us who live with the privileges of power, like I do, aligning myself with those forces of justice and truth requires active and constant de-centering of myself, my ego, my anxieties, and my despair.

The park helps me in that de-centering. I don’t think it’s ever fair or right to go to the park for an escape, as though it’s some fairytale land that sits apart from the reality of city life. And, quite frankly, it’s not an escape. You can still hear the traffic, see the people, feel the hum of the city – even up in the hills – and I can’t walk the paths without feeling the weight of the legacy of coloniality, without wondering what Manhattan was like when it all looked like these giant trees. But I can go and be reminded that I am connected to this history, these root systems, these wonderfully untamed hawks and herons, my anonymous human neighbors sharing space with me on the benches – and a wild hope in my own smallness, and connectedness, and that Divine Energy that I must work and hope and be with in order to keep choosing to live.

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