Nature Walk

Squirrels, Rats and Idle Engines: A Nature Walk in the Bronx

It had just finished raining when I set out for my nature walk. This was immediately after the election results and I did not hold high hopes that this small foray into the “wilderness” of the Mosholu Parkway would enlighten me. I was not looking to transcend my existence as a human being and, at the most, I hoped for those good feelings you get from breathing in fresh air and stretching your legs. The grey skies and the boggy smell of rotting leaves that wafted through the street certainly did not portend anything particularly good in store for me. I wish to first mention the expectations I had before my walk: I expected bare trees, wet, brown leaves,  a few lonely people on damp benches, maybe a bird, hopefully a squirrel but I did  not want to aim too high now. This parkway is not exactly nature, what with the constant flurry of cars on the road right beside it, but as long as there is green, this parkway was “Nature” in my book.

The first thing I saw on my walk was this big yellow tree, which surprised me as I had forgotten that it was still autumn and color still lived on these trees.

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Some life still left on a miserable day. Photo taken by me, Alondra Pineda

Immediately after I saw this tree I came across a very dry, unpleasantly squashed and most assuredly dead rat. I will spare you the picture I took. I had wanted to see some wild life but this sorry sight I could probably have seen at home behind my old, greasy oven.If this was a sign for how this hour would pass, then I was sure in for some nature walk. I continued along the parkway–which is quite long–and remembered jogging here last fall during my last health kick. I passed a few of the regulars I had come to know well enough to nod to as I passed–an old middle school teacher whom I remembered had the thickest Hungarian accent, a mob of knobby kneed boys from Fordham University in the shortest shorts imaginable, probably training for the track team–and the smell of trees and damp wood reminded me at times of a school trip to the Bronx zoo. I remembered also how, even though I hated jogging, I loved the feeling I would get after. Not the adrenaline high but just that feeling that I had been productive and in a place that I felt was clean, beautiful and real. It was after this train of thought that I resolved myself to focus on the actual walk taking place. Thoreau claimed that “[he had] went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately”(1028) and I had gone to this parkway for some peace and, truly, for my grade but as Thoreau also said,“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature” (1032) and I wanted to spend this hour trying to understand what nature would transcend me from. I soon found those bare trees I was expecting but I also found plenty of full and richly-hued trees that reminded me how little I understood of nature. Reds, yellows, maroons; these colors occur naturally and that is just a beautiful thing. I was reminded of my nieces who live in the projects and far from any safe parks, tree life or anything green really. On a drive to the mall, they were glued to the windows as we passed miles of green billowing trees and high grass. I could see how desperate they were to be outside and see something real. I remembered how much I enjoyed going to the park as a child though there was no playground there and only a hill to roll down from. I feel nature is necessary for childhood to really feel like childhood. We need little doses of fresh air to look back on nostalgically when we become boring, confined adults. 

Without my headphones, I found myself talking aloud–not an entirely unusual thing for me to do but talking to yourself on the street is wholly different from talking to yourself at home. Thoreau had said,“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” (1052) and I can relate to that feeling. I needed company during this solitary walk just as Thoreau came to desperately need some socializing while he lived in the woods. I find that the only difference between our experiences was that I was outside where people could see me. I had my Norton Anthology of American Lit. on hand in case I got bored or perhaps if I was attacked-I am sure this book would suffice as a heavy weapon–but fortunately, neither of these “in cases” occurred. I drew my attention again to my task. I focused on my senses. The air smelled clean which is a relief from the rest of the New York smells of cigarettes and whatever it is that comes out of those open manhole covers. There was no smell of the recent rainfall. Tragic. I turned next to my sense of sight. I noticed the different textures of tree trunks and the odd, interesting back-bends a tree can make in search of sunshine. 

Some tree trunks looked like skin flaking, others looked like bones in my wrist. I heard birds! I saw a few flying far ahead but most of the sound came from some large trees.  I could see some nests and I could hear birds chattering. I could see how Thoreau would believe these nature sounds to be a kind of music; they are signs of life. I was surprised to find so many squirrels out of the ground, prancing, jaunting, digging–yes! actually digging–for their stored acorns just as I had read of in middle school. I would show you the pictures I had taken but in my haste I forgot to zoom in and the squirrels are hard to find. I tried to think of Thoreau’s reaction to animal sounds. He had viewed them to be expressions of nature, of spirits, “of fallen souls that once in human shape nightwalked the earth and did the deeds of darkness” and were now “expiating their sins” (1046) but nothing I had heard on this walk made me think of anything so dark and dramatic. Really, I was just excited to see that squirrels had their little lives alongside our own. Thoreau believed that he was “serenaded  by a hooting owl” (1047) but I am not so vain to think that the birds in the trees were chirping for me. They would just as well have chirped if I had not been there. I noticed that many airplanes passed overhead, one every couple of minutes, and would leave behind a real roaring sound that beat out what little nature sounds I could hear. I was reminded of Thoreau’s description of a train, ” I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder”(1042) and I can see how man-made machines can sound brutish, even evil in contrast to natural sounds. That delayed wave of sound from the airplane is like a huge, drawn out fart in comparison to the sweet whistles of those birds hidden in the trees. In my defense, Thoreau also referenced flatulence in his writing so really, why can’t I? There were also a few school buses that paused at red lights and of which I noticed their engines. A cheese bus when viewed from the ground is quite large and the sound of its engine growling and gurgling is like the sound of a hacking, phlegm-filled cough. The groan of the gears changing and the bus heaving forward is an immense sound and I can only imagine how rough, how terrifying an actual train must have sounded to those around at the time of its invention. At the end of this walk, I am not sure if I transcended my existence, if I lived nobly, if I lived in the free, manly manner that Thoreau suggested we all live. I do know that I forgot my problems for that hour and that it was easy to forget the Internet and civilizations problems when what is in front of you is so removed and independent of that “civilized” life. I have seen too many horror movies to ever want to live alone in the woods but I understand the appeal of a cabin in the woods.  The natural world is a world in a bubble just as our civilized world is an insulated one. I think Thoreau proved that you cannot simply forget one world to live in the other. He eventually needed some things that society provided, a social life being the main one, and though living like a man helped Thoreau to feel alive, his place in the world is ultimately among other people. So what does that say about our ability to transcend our small, tedious lives? Perhaps transcendence is not some permanent, enlightened state but rather several little vacations to the real, natural world and away from our “real” world. I know I felt better, definitely different, after the walk. It was like I had really needed that hour to myself, though I am often alone, I needed that hour to be with nature and to remind myself there is an outside.

Baym, Nina.The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th ed. Vol. 2. NY, NY: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.

Images: Taken by Alondra Pineda

P.S. Here are the squirrels in case you wanted to see:

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6 thoughts on “Squirrels, Rats and Idle Engines: A Nature Walk in the Bronx

  1. What an interesting walk you took It sounds like you really reflected on Thoreau’s ideas. Firstly, I would like to say that I completely understand your mood; I remember waking up the day after Election Day, and the gloomy weather reflected my own feelings. Secondly, I really enjoyed your description of the wildlife of New York. Rats, squirrels, and pigeons are about all we have, but at least your rat was dead! The last time I encountered what I thought was a dead rat, he got up and scurried away as soon as I got close enough to look (which resulted in a very loud scream from me and lots of turned heads). Thirdly, I admit I chuckled out loud at your little joke about the Norton. I, too, have considered it a viable weapon. Overall, a really enjoyable piece!

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  2. The combination of wit and sincerity here made this a really enjoyable read. I loved your use of imagery to convey landscape and the feel of your surroundings–at one point I thought of “Juno” when you were describing the short shorts on the high school runners… In my own walk, I too found myself contemplating how nature isn’t always natural–and vice versa. Being in New York City we forget that nature is a more flexible term; we bend the rules in our beloved city so to enjoy what little we have. I think you exemplified this perfectly when you were describing the tree trunks. This made them palpable without overstating their worth in an urban setting. Well done!

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  3. Great repsonse! I love the part about talking to yourself outside; it’s something I’ve recently started doing myself and I do see a huge difference. Thoreau’s quote, connected to companionship, is interesting because I find myself being my own companion during my walks. I also agree with your comment on trains, they could even be the next most distracting thing next to cell phones! Most man-made machines I think are related to evil- even the most innocent ones like microwaves. I love your ending about “an outside.” I, too, needed to realize that ‘me time’ can be combined with ‘nature time.’

    P.S.
    Ha, I would have loved to see the rat picture!

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  4. Great response. A lot of us went on the nature walk immidentely after the election. Some of us thought the walk would help us recover while others were caught up in the emotions surrounding the election they didn’t think it would help. You did a very good job describing the details of the walk like the many different trees. I found the dead rat the most intresting aspect of your walk. I understand why you felt that was memorable along with the other animals like the squirrels. A lot of people didn’t include animals or didn’t see animals while they were walking

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