Monday, February 07, 2005

Don't take a backpack to Rock Creek Park

LOCATION: Rock Creek Park, up where it starts to get fat TIME: Anytime! EQUIPMENT: Yourself OPTIONAL: Darling bicycle DISCOURAGED: Big ole ball & chain (backpack)

I recently finished Jared Diamond's book "Collapse! How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", in which he analyzes varies ancient and present-day societies and how they succeed or fail at managing their environmental problems. The first example in the book - chosen because it's an isolated example - is Easter Island, whose inhabitants perished after they chopped down every tree on the island, and could no longer build boats to go fishing. Jared started out in geography, and the most common criticism I've heard of his work is that it's "environmentally deterministic," not giving human culture enough emphasis. I don't think the criticism is entirely fair - Jared is usually careful to emphasize that he's focusing on only one of several important factors - but he does admit that when he was teaching some of the research from the book to his undergraduate students, their overwhelming question was, "How could the Easter Islanders have done it? What did the person who cut down the last palm tree think? How did such a stupid decision get made?" After failing to answer these questions adequately, Jared decided to devote a whole chapter in his book to the failures of group decision making. These involve issues with lack of knowledge or foresight, habituation (if a change happens slowly enough, you may not be aware of it), and various political economy issues.

I mulled over this chapter with particular interest after the events of this weekend, in which I displayed a spectacular failure of individual decision making during a bike ride in Rock Creek Park. Rather, it was a series of small decisions, each of which seemed reasonable at the time, but which added up to mind-boggling stupidity.

So, yeah. On Saturday morning, I decided to take a ride in Rock Creek Park before heading off to my yoga teacher training (which would be seven hours long, from 2pm - 9pm, making some morning sunshine imperative for my sanity.) We use a lot of books in the training, so I was wearing a backpack loaded down with snacks, books, a change of clothes, and water. It was a beautiful day to ride, and before I knew it I'd passed the zoo and found myself near a field opening up into several trails through hills.*

I leapt off my bike and locked it up. There was one trail that seemed to beckon me: deserted, speckled with sunlight, winding next to a trickling brook. Now, I have Thoreau-ianly romantic attitude towards nature; my spirit soars and I try to merge into it with all my senses. (This is an attitude that C.S. Lewis warns against in his writings about spirituality; he says that nature can be a great pathway to the divine, but that we should never forget that the divine is also super-natural. Sorry, C.S. I can't help it.) Anyway, it's tough to ecstatically merge with nature, and dance lightly over the stones in a burbling creek, when you're wearing a whopping heavy backpack. It was quickly becoming a ball and chain. I needed a place to dump that thing.

I noticed a brick building at the other end of the field: aha, it was bathrooms! Surely, I thought, there must be some kind of hiding place inside the woman's bathroom. I ran over and went inside, but the inside was completely austere, devoid of nooks or crannies. And the ground was incredibly muddy with snow melting in the sunshine, so there wasn't anywhere outside I could leave it without getting it completely dirty.

The pack seemed like it was getting heavier and heavier, and my excitement when I'd thought I'd found a place to leave it had been so great that I was reluctant to give up the dream of skipping freely through the trees. I considered leaving it in the bathroom anyway and just taking the chance. But in these days of terror alerts, I reflected, someone probably would have reported it as a bomb.

The sun had been temporarily hidden behind a passing cloud, and when it reemerged a single beam of light shone upon bathroom building, lighting up the tiles on its roof. It was as if a chorus of angels blew their trumpets together, and I realized: I could leave the backpack on the roof! If I put it right on the middle, the sight line of someone standing on the ground would never put it into view for them, and it would certainly be safe for the hour I'd need.

My yoga practice has endowed me with strength, flexibility, balance, and the opportunity to indulge my love for clambering on things. I tried to scale the rough stone wall of the building, but I couldn't quite make it to the intermediate ledge I needed. Not a problem - there was an empty garbage can on the other side of the building, which I dragged over and jumped on top of. From there, I sprang onto the ledge, and then pulled myself up onto the roof.

I started walking across it gingerly, trying to figure out the best concealed location for the pack, and I was a third of the way across, when I heard a faint "Crrack!" and felt the surface under my feet shift slightly. I froze in terror, and a cavalcade of nightmarish images whizzed through my mind: the roof cracking open, myself, stuck in it, legs dangling down into the ladies' toilet; the police arriving to pull me out; the lawsuit for building damages; my embarassed attempts at explanation to a series of stern-faced bureaucrats...would they even have read "Walden"?

Very slowly I took my backpack off and threw it behind me off the roof, then retraced my steps with infinitesmal movements, hardly daring to breathe. I jumped onto the ledge, the trashcan, back down onto the ground, picked up the backpack, and went for my walk.

I guess sometimes in life, no matter how much you'd like to, you just can't get rid of your baggage.


*I never really "got" Rock Creek Park until I looked at a map - I'd only ever been to the south parts, near Dupont and Adams Morgan, where it's extremely skinny and you're basically walking next to a horrible road the whole time with cars whizzing past. I didn't realize that it widens out to the north and actually becomes a nice place to relax.


Blogger Sarah Smile said...

Zoe, darling, this is unrelated to the post, but could you tell (and describe) some yoga positions I could do at work? I have to sit all day long, and my neck and back are suffering.
I loved your post on tips on flying, I printed that out and am going to put a copy of it in each piece of luggage I own.

11:45 AM  
Blogger zzzzzoe said...

VJ! Here's an article from the Yoga Journal (*great* website, by the way) with six stretches you can do at your desk.)

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

10:59 AM  

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