I took a quiet walk in the old growth at Overton Park yesterday. It’s the park of my youth, where I spent many days at the playground, the zoo and searching for secret places. Much has changed, but the most important things remain unchanged, thanks to a handful of conservationists and good thinkers.
The leaves are just starting to turn in the Upper Delta, and our colors should be good this year thanks to good rainfall and cool nights. As I walked along the moistened path, my mind raced back fifty years and to the simple joys I had here. I felt grateful to still be here, winding through the oaks, elms, box elder and pawpaw trees, enjoying the fall display and unmistakable quiet. After a couple of near death experiences in recent years, every moment on this side of the dirt means a lot.
Overton is an old park acquired by the city of Memphis in 1901. In those days, it would have been on the eastern edge of the city. Memphis was born at the foot of the Mississippi River and grew eastward from downtown. We almost lost the park in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when “planners” (terrorists) decided to extend a dreadful interstate through the heart of the park. But some clever and energetic nature lovers, including a few with very deep pockets, blocked it and saved the park with a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court. That effort eventually became The Overton Park Conservancy, and they’re still active today fighting the nitwits at the zoo who want to claim additional acreage for parking.
Today, Overton is an urban park deep in the city surrounded by a mix of upscale, historic homes but only a stone’s throw from poverty, hopelessness and high crime. In that sense, it’s not unlike many other urban parks, except this is my native park. This is my community. My home and one that I share with hundreds of non-human species.
Memphis is 65% African American, but the trails, both here and at Shelby Farms slightly east of here, are mostly used by white people. Thanks to institutionalized racism, we’re generally better educated and affluent and therefore have more leisure time. Too many in our African American community, thanks to the failures of Reconstruction and one hundred years of Jim Crow, are struggling just to keep the lights turned on. They often work multiple jobs. Who has time for nature walks when MLGW is getting ready to cut off your lights? Life isn’t equal behind The Magnolia Curtain.
It’s a sad situation as nature, especially wilderness (assuming there’s any real wilderness remaining), has such healing power. In order to really know how the world works, you need time in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. To escape the tedium of driving through traffic to work for taskmasters that hold equity you’ll never get your hands on. It seems the great American outdoors is the private playground for those with wealth, great educations and leisure time. It’s the domain of the Patagonia crowd with their Subarus adorned with bike racks and prep school decals. And that’s a shame, because the natural world belongs to all of us. How can a child function successfully in the world if it doesn’t understand how the world actually works?
But Overton is waits, quiet and still, as it has been for the millennia. It waits for all. All it needs is more lovers.