I’ve always been a city kid, so it’s hardly surprising that I’m an urban Druid. I dream of forests primeval, I’m even on occasion lucky enough to visit them. I am a lifelong Californian, living in the cheap seats of Oakland across from my hometown of San Francisco, so I’m blessed with bits of the old growth forests that once covered this state mere hours away by car. I’m car free though, so getting there takes ingenuity–and friends.
This forces me to get up close and personal with my own urban forest. The trees around us aren’t a cheap substitute for the natural world–they’re the world we have built. Don’t say that you’re not responsible for the way your city or neighborhood is because we are the ones who made it that way. We have the power to change it every day. Responsibility is not just a blame game. It is literally our way of responding to the world around us. Do you hate the trash around you? I know I am not fond of it. So I pick some of it up. Not all of it, I’d be doing nothing else. I’m selective. I concentrate on plastic and scary glass and I just grab a piece or two, the ones that call to me. The broken bottom of a glass with the points sticking up. I see that embedded in my knee and I grab it before someone gets badly hurt. The rubber band that I see in a seagull’s stomach.
The funny thing is, by doing this I have entered into a conversation with my world. Gaia encourages me. She tells me jokes and gives me gifts. The scattered shreds of red plastic near Ocean Beach that I reluctantly decided to pick up before they ended up in the water turned out to be rose petals scattered at my feet. There are oghams in the flight of birds across the sky and awens made of scattered balloons from the street vendor who makes balloon animals. The grass at the side of the FoodsCo in the Mission yesterday had bits of tumbled bottle glass and several round stones arranged in a random, but beautiful pattern. It couldn’t have been wholly natural. How do round tumbled stones and beach glass find their way to the edge of a dirty parking lot in the middle of the city? The stinging nettles around the chain link fence were as beautiful as any botanical photo.
I sat down at my keyboard to show you the beauties of the urban forest and ended up in the weeds. How typical. I was rubbing my knuckles as I walked towards transit, but it was only a glancing blow. Later that same day I walked through my neighborhood to say hello to my greenblood neighbors. The aspens next to the stairs on East 20th St are still asleep, their buds green and swelling, but their branches are still bare. They were the first trees who had a conversation with me and there are very few left. They are slowly being taken out by a more involved neighborhood group that is cleaning up the area. The garbage is gone and the hillside is being replanted. That is what we humans do, though. We have planted most of the trees in our respective areas. The aspens are not native, nor is the huge palm and the eucalypts who share that hillside. The Monterey pines might have grown there by themselves, but I doubt it.
I cross Fifth Avenue with care. Few people walk in this neighborhood, and Fifth is a very fast street once you get past the small shopping district on East 18th. There are hawthorns in the next block, and I touch their bare branches. They, too, are still asleep, a few red berries clinging still but the leaves are hard greenish buds. The hawthorn Queen at the top of the block is the same. She will burst out in white flowers in a few short months but now she is skeletal, her long thorns bare and sharp.
There’s a redwood with a doubled trunk in a yard a few blocks further on. It is well loved as is the yard that surrounds it. The fence has been replaced with two-by-fours that mark the perimeter, but are obviously movable as the tree grows in girth. I stop and touch its soft green needles and whisper “Happy Spring” before continuing up the hill to the gnarled olive at the top. This tree is a magnet for furniture. People sit under it and talk in the summer, and the street is littered with its fruit each Fall. I think of Poseidon’s salt spring as I admire Athena’s far more sensible gift, a tree that can serve a community in so many ways.
I pass under a couple of large pin oaks as I continue towards home. There are still acorns on the ground under them, as well as fallen leaves. They are so large it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like the large redwoods, were here to witness the building of the neighborhood. The oaks would feed us if we had the sense to let them. They certainly feed the plentiful squirrels in the area. I see them often, running on the wires and telephone poles as well as the trees.
I used to beg Gaia for a new posting, but this is where I’m planted, for now. I am here to see the green, to notice the trees and the animals and the life all around us. I’m here to plant my own seeds of awareness, and to nourish the ones in you who are reading this. So many of us live in cities, and that isn’t likely to change in the near future. It may be part of our evolution as social animals. We made these cities for good reasons. They are cauldrons of change, mixing different cultures, ideas, peoples. This is reflected in the trees. Palms grow next to redwoods, next to aspens and magnolias. None of us, individually, freely chose to be here. We are planted by circumstances only partly within our control. We have to live with people we wouldn’t have chosen as neighbors for many reasons, but the dance of sharing space can bring out the best in us as well as the worst.
Since so many of us live in cities, this is where the world is most likely to be changed. I may dream of living in the forest, but I know that I have a responsibility to the future. I was shaped in the city and carry its gifts within me. I grew up hearing many languages spoken around me, wrapping my tongue around names that sang of other lands, playing with kids of many different races. That doesn’t make me immune to prejudice–I don’t think that’s possible for any of us–but it did give me a base of comfort with people who aren’t like me. It made me crave difference in people, foods, clothing, points of view.
I notice as Druids, so many of us devalue the cities we live in. We view them as necessary evils. we dream of escaping to the country, and we frankly spend more time in our cars, and at our destinations, than we do in this environment that we have made. I hear rural Druids lamenting the fact that all the big events happen in cities, and it’s difficult and expensive for them to attend. I hear them talk of their isolation, as I hear of Urban Druids talk of our disconnectedness with nature. I watch us all pile into cars, either to head for the city, to be with others of like mind, or to escape to the country, where we are more in touch with nature. This is difficult, expensive, and damaging to the environment we all profess to love.
So what is the answer? We’re going to have to discover that together. But I think that we can start by loving where we are, and by getting out of our cars whenever possible. Walk your neighborhood. Meet your green neighbors. Meet your animal and human ones as well. If you don’t like where you live, look for your true home by all means, but maybe it’s closer than you think. Land, Sea, and Sky are available to all of us, any time. All you have to do is concentrate on what’s beneath your feet, what fills your lungs, and the tides that flow inside you. Gather online, or, like the Druids of old, create gatherings large and small and support those around you. Above all, realize that like it or not, your life is being lived where you are, and bloom where you’re planted.