Last weekend I hiked along the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park, and this weekend I hiked the Arlington corridor, outside of Washington D.C., from Ballston to Rosslyn. These are both beautiful places in very different ways.
It seems like everyone in the country is watching Ken Burn’s series on the National Parks. It really is a remarkable homage to some of the most spectacular pieces of natural landscape our country has and the ideas that have developed to conserve them. I’ve lived for two summers in a national park, and I don’t take for granted the fact that these places have been preserved. Yet there is also something a little sad about locating our culture’s primary experiences of transcendence so far away from where most of us live our regular lives. Attributing to wild nature god-like qualities, means that god is always “out there,” only reachable by getting in the car and driving away on vacation.
John Muir was a great naturalist, but 300 million people cannot, by definition, live the John Muir lifestyle. It’s a self-defeating ethic when pushed to universal proportions. Many people have pointed to an urban aesthetic as well as the natural, one that celebrates not the absence but the presence of other people and their artifacts. This why we need Jane Jacobs, the Muir of cities, to give description to this other form of beauty:
“The order of the city is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance – not a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”I picked up a brochure in Arlington County for "walkabouts," short, self-guided tours that allow residents and visitors to explore streets and neighborhoods. Any national park visitors' center would supply trail maps, why not Arlington County?