I found my notes the other day from a family trip to London a few years back and was reminded of the value of trees. My son was not yet two and my daughter turned six during our first night in London, where we slept in the old house of Edward Lear, one of her favourite poets. That’s how I make travel plans, by seeking out the stomping grounds of dead poets.
My husband and I intended to see everything a visitor should see while in London and our children, being young, had not weighed in on the sanity of our intentions. We had a long list of places of cultural and historical significance to see, of which we had no equal near our home in Tempe, Arizona.
What we discovered right away was one, my son had an extraordinary capacity for screaming in public; and two, our kids didn’t give a crap about old English stuff. We did manage to fit in a trip to the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, since my son was smitten by the tall hats the guards wore, but beyond that we ended up spending most of our time in the parks.
My husband and I are landscape architecture professors, so it was bound to happen eventually, but I’m glad the misery of my children accelerated things because London’s parks were magnificent. They felt more like gardens of the immense estates of the 18th century, like Capability Brown’s Blenheim if people were allowed to play soccer on that big Great Lawn he designed.
As we walked along the paths in Hyde and Regent’s Parks, we shed the tension of being in a big unfamiliar city. A creature of extreme habit, my son was suffering the most from being so far from home. He prefers to do, eat and wear the same thing every day. For the entire two week trip in England he lived on the jar of peanut butter we had brought from the States.
You could blame his resistance to novelty on bad American parenting, but it’s just his nature. He knows what he likes and likes what he knows. Deciding to bring him to England as a toddler, well, that was our questionable judgment. But there we were and he was miserable, until we went to the parks.
As an academic, I’ve read plenty of articles and books about the healing effects of nature on human beings. As a human being, I’ve felt it, particularly on remote beaches along the Pacific coastline. What struck me while watching my kids unwind in London’s parks was that this healing process is immediate and can happen within a city.
The American concept of nature is one of immensity and remoteness. If you want to connect with nature, so dictates American doctrine, you must follow old John Muir’s trail through the mountains of the Sierra or some other equally wild landscape. The unfortunate outfall of perpetuating the myth that nature must be as grand as the Grand Canyon is that urban nature erodes from neglect.
Where we live in metropolitan Phoenix land was historically cheap so urban development sprawled out over the desert, creating a loose urban fabric stitched together by a fading agricultural grid. On average there are five Londoners for any one Phoenician occupying the city. You might think we’d have open space in spades by comparison. While we have managed to set aside large desert mountain preserves within the city that provide contact with nature if you have a car, finding nature by foot from your front door is another matter.
In contrast, within a short walk from our hotel door in London, we could lose ourselves among the well-tended flower gardens or more overgrown woods in any of the parks. When we sat by the water in Regent’s Park, the city vanished behind a curtain of trees, a willow draped into the pond and, beyond this tree, was a small clearing with grass growing tall like in a wild meadow. Ducks paddled by rippling the tree reflections. Each time we visited the parks we came away refreshed.
Both my children claim to remember next to nothing of our trip abroad. Yet last night I was reading the Treebeard chapter of Tolkein’s Two Towers to my son and, as usual, he was asking questions every sentence or so. We started talking about how awesome the Ents were and he said that it made sense that Tolkien would make up the Ents.
“Well, he is from England and there are lots of trees there,” he said in the matter-of-fact way he always says things that he thinks are obvious. As he spoke I recalled images of him toddling beside the towering trees in London, head tilted up, not screaming, just standing in the quiet of trees.
© Rebecca Fish Ewan 2012