A church owns some land in my neighborhood.
It’s a small, wooded plot in otherwise urban space, maybe as much as ten acres. It is bounded by a four-lane road, a cul-de-sac, where a neighbor pounds out open-garage-door drum solos on a Friday night, and a parking lot—for a church that already exists.
It’s nothing impressive, really. Not enough to really “get away from it all.” It’s hilly and there’s a big sewer entry manhole and exhaust pipe stuck in the middle of it—the intersection of a few lightly trodden trails that criss-cross the vast expanse of the glen.
But these trails are less than a five minute walk from my house, and all told create about a mile of total walking in the woods. Perhaps it is a paucity compared to the great trails of the world. It is no Inca Trail. It can’t contend with the Tour du Mont Blanc. But on a fall Friday, it was the perfect antidote—the perfect pocket of sunlight in the dusk hours to take the dogs for a nature walk.
When we first moved into our neighborhood almost a decade ago, our whole street was trees, with only a few houses. It was certainly more wild then. Hawks and Owls filled the skies over my backyard. I could walk the dogs through winding trails, where I would dream of carving a legit mountain bike track. But all was not sylvan utopia. On more than one occasion, the urban seclusion of a wooded cul-de-sac drew those who wished to hide their activities from public view. On multiple occasions, I came off the greenway to find teenagers exploring their new-found sexuality or thieves exploring their new-found cars. The police said, “There are places like this all over the city, and people know where to find them.”
But then more and more lots were cleared…no doubt funded by our house purchase. More and more houses appeared. More and more people moved in. Lots of families. Lots of kids. For better or for worse, the seclusion of the woods gave way to the bustle of a neighborhood.
The kids play football in our front yard. It’s the largest, flattest open space on the street. We don’t mind. We’ve sent some ground rules, and they’re generally nice kids. One of them comes up to me last week. Morosely, he informs me that the two wooded lots next to his house have “For Sale” signs. “They’re going to cut down the trees,” he says. “And that’s going to hurt the planet.”
I remembered when we struggled against this incursion in our neighborhood. For Sale signs mysteriously found their way into the nearby woods. But after years of watching the inevitable, I shrug and channel an old man somewhere on his porch.
“Yup. Gonna happen. Back when we first moved to these here parts, there were trees far as the eye could see.”
I’m not trying to burst his enthusiasm. He’s young, and two lots of wooded area is a vast forest for a child. When I grew up out in the sticks, there were acres and creeks and deer and snakes that misled me to the true faith of being lost in a vast wilderness, mine for the exploration. A place to wander—body, mind and soul—through downed trees and crunchy leaves.
These days, I usually drive to my wild spaces—often hours away—to walk in the woods. The child is, of course, bound by the physical limits of transportation. But soon, he will mature enough to cross the street to the greenway, a strip of social asphalt snaking beside a creek through the trees. Within a mile’s journey, he will be able to reach the civilizing forces of three Christian churches and a Hindu temple on its meandering paths. There he can explore the ancient texts and evolving traditions of finding the spiritual, the transcendent.
But as for the church who owns the lot at the end of my street, the lot adjacent to an already existing church, a church with bi-lingual services, I hope they really enjoy the lot they purchased. I kind of hope they are a small congregation, small enough that I can meet them on the trails sometime, small enough that an informal, unmarked system of trails is sufficient for their spiritual contemplation. Otherwise, they’ll probably need books to sing songs, then cabinets to hold those books. Some members might need stairs or ramps. Soon, they will need more organizing seating, as the random assortment of dead logs will be insufficient for their gathering needs. They may need a sound system to reach the masses, and they’ll probably level the land so it will be easy for everyone to see everyone as they congregate. Then they might decide they need some loud bells to announce their service for all the neighborhood to hear, which if successful will mean their further expansion.
That will probably mean a parking lot.
And—to put it selfishly—that will be the end of the small patch of unmarked trails at the end of the street. It’s beyond my control. This small, humble wood, my spot of simple contemplation on a Friday afternoon, where for a brief half an hour I can wander aimlessly with my head in the trees while Juno and Atticus smell the smells and feel more like the wild beasts they believe they are, will be no more on this Earth. I will find other spots, though not as easily. The kids in my neighborhood probably won’t be that lucky. It’s a morose thought, kid, so enjoy those beautiful afternoons watching the leaves trickle down as you peer through the twilight to make sure you’re still on the trail. And when you do, feel free to hold on the perhaps-naïve hope that the church will want nothing more than to preserve a quiet place where they can come and seek the voice of God.