Try as we might, we cannot shake September 11 from our consciousness, any more than we can will ourselves to wake up from a very bad dream. As William Cronon points out in this issue's special section, "This Land Is Your Land," the tragedy, like the Kennedy assassination, has become one of those where-were-you-when-it-happened moments.
Just a couple of hours after the World Trade Center collapsed, my 75-year-old father met me at Audubon House, in lower Manhattan. With all modes of transportation to Brooklyn down, we decided to join tens of thousands of other New Yorkers fleeing on foot. On the Manhattan Bridge we joined high-heeled office workers, elderly folks with canes, teenagers in flip-flops--even people in wheelchairs. As plumes of smoke from the smoldering Twin Towers stung our eyes, Air Force fighter jets thundered through the sky.
When my dad and I finally finished the last leg of our eight-mile trek and climbed to the top of Flatbush Avenue, we left behind a god-awful world to enter one of hope, promise, and renewal: Prospect Park, Brooklyn's emerald jewel. We walked through the Long Meadow, which, at 90 acres, is believed to be the longest continuous stretch of open space in any urban park in the country. Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the park's designers, intended the meadow's wide-open space and lush green grass to evoke a sense of "enlarged freedom." It certainly felt liberating to see a resident red-tailed hawk circling overhead instead of a military jet, and sunseekers lolling about on soft hillsides instead of panicked New Yorkers running from the disaster through smoky streets. Toward the other side of the park, the serenity seemed almost sublime when a great blue heron sailed past the Boathouse, which, starting next April, will serve as a new Audubon center.
Prospect Park--like the thousands of public preserves that embody this country's natural heritage--is a testament to our nation's foresight. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has spoken about the high numbers of Americans flocking to national parks since September 11. "What better places to begin that healing process than in our parks," she said, "where Americans can draw strength from national icons of freedom and peace from [the] splendors of nature." For that very reason, she and her allies in the Bush administration and Congress would do well, in a time of crisis, to back off from desecrating other "icons of freedom," like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In the early morning of September 11, a day fraught with ironies, I clipped an article from The New York Times entitled "Hunger for Parkland of All Kinds." It ended with this quote from Philip Myrick, a city planner: "A large percentage of people who value neighborhood parks very highly never set foot in them. What's important is the knowledge that they're there. They're like a pressure valve or a right to freedom they might not exercise."
© 2002 NASI
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