Finding Nature in the Nation’s Capital (Or: Where Is That Great, Green World, Anyhow?)

US National Arboretum

The old man glared at me from his perch on the curb. Graying shoulder-length dreads framed a deeply furrowed face, oddly ornamented with vibrant, multi-colored sticky flags. Arranged at his feet lay a small pile of debris: magazine clippings, takeout menus, promotional flyers, receipts — an evidentiary exhibit of our affliction.

“You’re all living in Babylon!” he shouted at each person who passed, and as we locked eyes something in mine surely shrugged. He had a point.

I didn’t know it was Earth Day (or, coincidentally, the start of Passover), but something about my commute had seemed particularly biblical that Friday morning. The week was marked by a decidedly one-sided swing of the work/life pendulum, and as I gingerly sidestepped the curbside prophet, resuming my trek toward another day at a desk, I couldn’t help lingering on his words.

I can’t say whether the invocation of Babylon meant the man had rejected materialism, or if he had simply experienced a run of bad luck. Whatever his life story, mine was primed for review, and this stranger had sparked an urgent thought: I needed a date with Nature.

Where was that great, green world, anyhow?

Here I was in Washington, DC — known as one of the greenest big cities in America, with roughly 230,000 acres of parkland dappled about the city proper. Yet, as those that live here can attest, the District of Columbia is not without its share of urban impairment. Crime, notably, is high, and the area has some of the worst traffic imaginable; commuting a Kafkaesque slog during the stop/start morning gridlock hours. At the office, coworkers trend toward the terminally “goal oriented” (guilty). And, at home, it’s rare to find a moment of quietude amidst the ceaseless sirens that somehow, inexplicably, surpass New York in frequency (thanks, L’Enfant!).

All this noise can make you a little wired — or worse. It is well documented that the rise of urbanization has been linked to an increase in mental disorders. Conversely, being outside makes us saner. A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that spending time in nature decreases neural activity in the part of the brain associated with mental illness. In other words, fresh air has a positive effect on your internal chemistry. File this under “empirical evidence of the intuitively obvious.”

Sensibly concerned about my sanity, I decided to seek out the natural world from which I’d begun to feel disconnected — with one geographic (obligation-induced) condition.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald scaled the Empire State Building, his era’s greatest monument to human striving, he discovered to his surprise that New York wasn’t infinite; that the true testament to posterity lay beyond the city borders. Fitzgerald wrote,

“Full of vaunting pride, the New Yorker had climbed here, and seen with dismay what he had never suspected. That the city was not the endless sucession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits, fading out into the country on all sides into an expanse of green and blue. That alone was limitless.”

Washington, DC, is perhaps less infinite than New York. But, if this city really is as green as they say, surely one can find that elusive tonic of wildness without going too far afield. Surely there exist pockets of wonder and peace within the confines of our beautiful, monument-dotted landscape.

The next morning, resolute, I set out to find nature in the nation’s capital. Departing my Homogenized Outpost of Gentrified Living on 14th Street NW, I hopped in the car and headed for the National Arboretum. Incongruously nestled off a stretch of asphalt abundance that might incite PJ Harvey to song, the Arboretum is a 446-acre botanical research facility boasting a variety of unique garden collections ranging from herbs to azaleas.

Though a major tourist attraction, the Arboretum tends to reward those who shun the beaten path. That is, you get what you put into it — and the various arboreal assemblies scattered about the grounds offer a myriad of opportunities to forget the fanny-packed and find your own trip. Casual visitors will be drawn to the National Capitol Columns, removed from the U.S. Capitol’s East Portico in 1958 and relocated to the center of an expansive meadow where they now stand sentry over a reflecting pool. They are stunning, but it’s the gardens that merit the visit.

While I struggled at first to escape the shuffling feet, in these odd oases I was able to find a measure of solitude. Ambling through the magnolia collection, I felt for a moment vaguely Faulknerian, the pink and white blossoms poignant under the azure sky. Later, as I lay under a tree, a few rays of sunlight filtered through the branches, creating a dusky golden aura that transported me to more languorous locales.

Eventually, the snap of a camera shook me out of my state and hustled me along to the perennials.

Existential Efficacy Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Walden Ponds

For many in DC, Rock Creek Park is a standby, a stalwart salve for metropolitan malaise. Yet, somehow in my four years of city living, I had never explored it. So, the day after the Arboretum, I suited up for an investigatory expedition into its four and a half square miles. Departing my Overpriced Bastion of Newfangled Urban Luxury, I started jogging north and west, up through Meridian Hill Park where NPS reps manned stands in celebration of National Parks Day. No thanks, boys! I was off to find the real thing.

Navigating through Mt. Pleasant, I eventually found entry to the Park somewhere around Klingle Road, where I veered off at one of the first dirt paths. I wanted to get lost, and sure enough, that’s what happened. Within minutes, I was on a steep trail and running was no longer an option. Clambering over rocks, I vainly attempted to stay grounded on the narrow path that dropped off precipitously toward the creek to my right. Ten minutes later, I was bordering on Blair Witch’d, when suddenly I was out in the open and practically trampling over a picnicking family. Spotting the Peirce Mill in the distance, I regained composure and moved stoically onward.

By the time I made my way over to the nearly private “Western Ridge Trail,” I was exhausted, doubling back after a mile or so to ‘Netflix and Kale.’ Still, I came away invigorated and excited to return; the moments I spent alone amongst the trees on a Sunday afternoon a true testament to the Park’s planning and provenance.

Urban Escapism Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Bill Brysons

The truth is — these parks are but drops in the bucket when it comes to DC’s natural capital. The city has a lot of easily accessible outdoor space: from the lush, green runways of the National Mall to the shaded, secret gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. Just blocks from my Contrived Monument to Citified Chic lies the unassuming sanctuary Common Good Farm, where locals and volunteers grow healthy, sustainable food for the community — up to 5,000 pounds a year, reportedly. And this is increasingly the norm in a city with more community gardens (2,600 as of 2015) than anywhere else in the country. More and more in recent years, Washingtonians have reshaped the way they interact with their environment, turning neglected space into fertile ground for community-supported agriculture (CSA, you acronym fetishists). Much can be attributed, no doubt, to the passage of the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, which — inter alia — provides tax breaks for property owners who lease out their land for urban agriculture. And though civic-mindedness is an important factor here, CSA is also symptomatic, a defiant reaction to urban exhaustion.

Brookland’s Three Part Harmony Farm has been described by its founder Gail Taylor as a “healing space,” where volunteers from across the city come to alleviate spiritual affliction simply by getting their hands dirty. And at Up Top Acres, a rooftop farming company that converts neglected space into thriving farmland, the founders endeavor to create something “connected to nature.”

DC can be a grind. But it can also be agrestic. We live in a city of leaders, of planners, of ambitious, A-type dreamers and doers, and whether you realize it or not the benefits of such ubiquitous aspiration are out there waiting to be discovered. We have the innovators of the 1890s to thank for Rock Creek Park, and perhaps we’ll one day look back at today’s millennial urban farmers with similar charity. Maybe even Shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) will become a thing. Apparently, there’s already a market for it.

Whatever the path, it may befit us in the interim to slow down and, as Fitzgerald did, acknowledge the antidotal expanse of the earthly and infinite. Despite our frenzy, we’re never far from the healing salve of greens and blues — hints of Zion in the monotonic hubbub.