The people of the forest

“Now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one.” – David Foster Wallace

As with my analogue journals, I sometimes write backwards and forwards in my life. This essay I wrote perhaps a year and a half ago, but was afraid to post it, fearing for the safety of the people of the forest. As I recall, a local newspaper had recently run a story about a homeless woman in Vancouver, Washington, who had given birth in an encampment, which resulted in the police burning the underbrush, driving out her community. To where, the newspaper declined to question. A dangerous time, as ever, to be a woman. Recent observation and interactions with America’s middle classes, however, have me fearing more for the narcissistic arrogance of her bourgeoisie than for her untouchables, whose survival skills are more rudimentary and thus far more sophisticated than the class that has every single one of its needs met as well as some considerable wants, yet still indulges in seemingly incessant complaint. And when it runs out of things to complain about, it complains of its boredom. So on this dark winter day, I write backwards to another summer, adding a new prologue and epilogue as I go.

A man sleeps on the sidewalk outside my studio, and I do not offer shelter to him. In the Christian paradigm, do I deny Christ?

I slip down the switchback trails of Kinnear Park, through the trees to the tennis court, which is abandoned on a rainy day. I follow the widening, sprawling pathway to a short, steep flight of stairs, down to a parking lot behind an upholstery shop out to highly trafficked Elliott Avenue, there a four- or six-lane thoroughfare of warehouses and industrial storefronts, lumber yards, and trash bins. I walk a short distance, perhaps a block or two, west, hit the button for a signal crossing, wait, cross to Helix Bridge that spans the railroad tracks and leads to Amgen’s campus on the right or to a meandering waterfront park to the left, which, if I followed the trail, would eventually lead to the Olympic Sculpture Park and the bustling piers beyond.

But today I turn right, curious about the shipyard and the docks I have seen beyond Amgen’s campus, perched far above, from the graceful crown of Queen Anne hill. The path wends its way along the shoreline, past a fishing pier with its microscopic parking lot and its convenience shack slyly named The Happy Hooker, maintained today by a dark figure silhouetted behind glass. The lone fisherman out at the pier looks to be not so much fishing as perhaps meditating. Perhaps there is little difference between meditating and fishing.

After the fishing pier, the path becomes more rugged, less manicured, a sharp demarcation of green lawn and matted, yellowed grasses at the sign that thanks me for using my park and invites me to return.

The path curves around Amgen’s campus, bordered with a fence obscured by wild blackberries and flowering shrubs that I should be able to identify by now. Not a rhododendron, as their season is finished. Perhaps a wild rose, as they have tightly budded hips, but the flowers lay looser, flattened, more flaring than I expect from a rose.

On another day I stop to watch a mouse rustling through the foliage both in and outside the fence, and another pedestrian stops to tell me his experience of watching a peregrine falcon capture a relative of that mouse in just that location, before flying off with its tail dangling from its beak. It does not appear to me to be a wild-type mouse, perhaps a colony of escapees.

On the other side of the path, bifurcated for pedestrians and cyclists, lies the sea, Elliott Bay spilling into the greater Puget Sound, where the skyscrapers of downtown seem to shrink, wither, fade. There is a gap between this wild stretch of shoreline and the next pier, so the path follows the water’s edge, and I follow the path. Across the water, fishing boats hulk, their masts cluster and clutter, wet stumps of lumber rising beneath the dock to support more warehouses and weight than they would seem to be capable of supporting.

I sample a blackberry or two. They are not quite ripe.

After the shoreline curves inland again, the shrubbery at the border of Amgen’s campus gives way to a chain-link fence further blockaded by sheets of black tarp; afar off, the modern lines and glass façade of their research fortress are just visible, but only just, in bits and pieces where the tarp has torn, or the buildings rise above the fence line. The effect is something of a military complex, lacking only concertina curlicues decorating the top of the fence. I have driven the rural highways of eastern Washington, passing along the outermost edges of the Hanford nuclear site, more de-fence-less than this.

I follow the path and the shoreline to another bridge that again crosses the rail yards and again dumps me out onto the industrial wasteland of Elliott Avenue without crossing to its other side. A complicated pedestrian bridge and driving on-ramp lead to the Magnolia Bridge, visible in the near distance, a bridge I have crossed by bus traveling up to the neighborhood of Ballard, but a bridge I will not cross on foot. Not today anyway.

On the other side of Elliott, just behind more warehouses and fast food joints with drive-thru windows, Queen Anne cascades sharply uphill, a wilderness of trees and vines and ferns, too steep for terracing and building more mansions that grace the crown, some modernist glass-faced jewels, some confections in the architectural style for which the hill was named. I look for a path, an entrance, more staircases such as those I have found all over the south and east sides of the slope. At one point, I find an opening in the bramble that seems likely to lead to a network of pathways, and so it does.

Just off busy Elliott Avenue and its impassive streetscape of warehouses and industrial clutter with its drivers busily on their way to or from somewhere, just behind a fringe of what remains of the great forests of the Pacific Northwest, the pathway widens to an area where many people have left their trash, and the trash is not regularly collected, if at all. Worse, it smells as if the area has been used for human excrement.

Beyond – and yes, I do step gingerly beyond, ever exploring my world, still naively hoping for a forest trail that will eventually wend its way back up to Kinnear or even another park as yet discovered – the path dissolves into a complex, nearly impassable network of footpaths, mucky and slippery in the rain, and occasionally widens just enough to where people have built lean-tos out of blue tarp and flattened cardboard boxes and sleeping bags, maybe a tent here or there for the lucky few who have been able to acquire the luxury of a tent.

The forest seems to whisper and heave with far-off conversations, a gentle, muddled griping against my interference. Ahead of me on the trail, a grey-haired woman huddles, lurching upward, and scuttling back to the shelter of her lean-to when she becomes aware of my presence.

I ask if she knows of a trail that goes up.

She peers at me dimly, her features so worn and vague as to be nearly featureless, and responds in a voice thin, garbled, as vague as her features, “Oh, no, I don’t know…”

I cannot tell whether her voice is blurred with alcohol or drugs, or just beaten back by age and ignorance and poverty. The edge of the tarp ruffles, lifts, revealing a man lying further within the recesses of their home.

Still farther up a trail, another lean-to in a copse of trees. I do not see if this structure is inhabited, or if the individuals are hidden from view or have left for the day. Their crude shelter is beyond a slight incline from the footpath, which dwindles and disappears shortly after. Someone has dug a round pit, which might be for fires on days less wet, but some hunch tells me the open pit is a latrine, today loosely covered with pine branches.

From there, I back away, abject poverty breaking through my naiveté to finally warn of possible dangers should I continue to explore where no human being should have to tread, slipping and sliding down the muddy slope, catching onto a felled tree branch that slants over the path, which proves too steep to brace my pace with my feet. I look for another way out of the forest and to the street without having to backtrack, but there is none.

Starbucks has built up a wall and a fence at the back of its property facing Elliott Avenue, blocking entrance and egress.

I backtrack.

Past the old woman as vague and illiterate as a young girl, past her old man lurking inside his tent, past the trash area that I now see bears evidence of alcohol and possibly drug paraphernalia, though I am too naive to be entirely certain, along with its overwhelming odor of human waste.

Back to the street, with its industry and drive-thrus and parking lots. A driver of a silver Mercedes may have swerved deliberately through a puddle to try to splash me on the sidewalk, or may have simply sacrificed steering to his higher priority of the conversation into his mobile phone. I avoid the splashing, but only just.

By now, my hair is plastered to my face from the rain that does not fall heavily, but steadily, and increasingly, weighing down my clothes and soaking through my muddied shoes to my socks and feet beneath. I walk around the back end of a vehicle that pulls out, hesitating across my path as its driver waits for a gap in traffic. She does not see me until she sees me cross in her rearview mirror. Her pale, dry face peers at me through her rolled-up window, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, shocked, more afraid of me, walking, than I am of her in her one-ton assault weapon of glass and steel.

I trudge along Elliott, shocked, numb, struggling not to weep, enraged.

This is not Africa. This is not some muddied riverbank someplace in Central America. This is not the banks of the Ganges.

Abject poverty in those exotic locations was never okay, of course, and it remains not okay, but it was farther away, out of sight and out of reach and out of our middle-class consuming mind.

This is America, the new third world.

Above the lean-tos constructed of poverty and desperation loom the multi-million-dollar mansions of Queen Anne, our class striations etched in ever-sharper relief with each passing day. In the near distance rise the glass-walled skyscrapers of downtown Seattle, the Emerald City that likes to think of itself as left-coast, liberal, and green. Between, the Gates Foundation headquarters squats near the Space Needle, pricking up out of the ground into the skyline, that icon of the city and industrial tourism and bourgeois desire seeking relief from its boredom with entertainment.

You will not see this view of Seattle from the top of the Space Needle, of course. From there, tourists will see the lights of the city twinkling, inviting. On a clear day, you will get a glimpse of Mount Rainier, maybe of some toy boats sailing in the Sound. At the base of the Needle, you can ride the monorail through the crushed-can postmodern architecture of the Experience Music Project directly to Seattle’s downtown shopping district, never once experiencing America’s third world.

You will not see America the new third world from your mansion atop the crest of Queen Anne. You may be dimly aware of its presence, and fear this unmentionable underbelly, America’s untouchable class, as you blockade yourself behind stone walls and security fences and night watchmen, protect yourself with wailing car alarms and police sirens, or congratulate yourself on the rewards of your parents’ legacy, your bootstrap-tugging, your clambering up the corporate ladder. Your demolition of the American dream.

You will not see America’s third world from the park that borders the crown of Queen Anne, a narrow strip of grass with its attendant encroaching million-dollar condominiums, park benches, a modernist sculpture, and a railing that gives way to the postcard view of Seattle, the Space Needle in the foreground, skyscrapers in the middle, and beyond, the steeply rising peak of Rainier, ever-threatening to vanish in the clouds. You will not see America the third world anywhere on that postcard.

It lies beneath.

I continue along Elliott Avenue through a steady rain.

Drivers are not without their kindnesses. One man backs up out of an egress to allow me to pass on the sidewalk without navigating around his truck; to him I return a friendly, grateful wave.

Nor are they without their observances. A passenger in another truck leans far out his window, leering at the woman on the street corner waiting to cross at the light, wet clothes plastered to my body, his hooting and hollering difficult to differentiate from the wind and the thrumming of raindrops as I return his stare without blinking or smiling.

I trudge along Elliott, at last arriving back at the upholsterer’s shop at the base of Kinnear, where I fade away from traffic into the woods. Even this section of the forest is not without its homeless wraiths and apparitions.

Ahead of me, on the trail, a glistening black shape nearly blends in with the trees. A waiting vulture? A garbage sack clutched in some tree branches? As I draw nearer, I realize: a man in a black leatherette jacket, sodden through, turned away from me, with his shoulders hunched in such a way that he can only be urinating against a felled log.

As I approach, he turns abruptly and busies himself under the sprawling branches of another tree, as if lighting a cigarette or waiting for someone. Beneath the same tree, several plastic grocery sacks bulge too much and two squarely to merely contain groceries, as boxes of possessions over-wrapped in plastic for thin protection against the rain, protected further still on top by layers of newspaper, I observe as I draw closer still, heading toward the flight of steps beyond the tree, which will lead back to the tennis court and the park above.

This is no man out for a casual walk, taking an emergency whiz against a fallen log, nor someone returning from the market, resting for a moment before he continues through the rain, onward to home. Unless home is a tarpaulin lean-to erected in the forest.

The hackles lift off the back of my neck again, though he makes no move toward me. If anything, as with the woman nestled in the safety of her vehicle, he seems more afraid of me than I am of him, circling around his tree, protective of his things, but keeping the trunk between my body and his, as if wishing to make himself even more invisible.

A man sleeps on the sidewalk outside my window, and I do not offer him shelter. I hear him before I see him, regular groans that might be a figure seeking solitary release, or involuntary moans expressing dull pain. The sounds of pleasure and pain are sometimes difficult to distinguish. I twitch the blind. From that slivered view, an empty wheelchair, and a body huddled in a sleeping bag. Perhaps a plastic sack of possessions. I let the blind fall slack and step back from the window, this thin pane of glass between him and me. Between he and I. Between me and the people of the forest.

In the Christian paradigm, have I denied Christ? No Mother Teresa, certainly, my first response is compassion, but how do I help a stranger even as I struggle to help myself? Do I invite him in? How far in? Do I offer warmth, food, wash his feet with my hair?

My feelings shift from compassion to helplessness to rage, as I wonder why my doorstep? Why not one of those Queen Anne mansions at the top of the hill, that white elephant of an oversized wedding cake, for instance, or one of the ostentatious faux English Tudors, or perhaps one of the glass-walled modernist boxes that I sometimes wonder if they are as cold as their inhabitants?

I work my way from anger back through helplessness, how to help a stranger when I cannot even seem to help myself? Onboard this airliner that used to be the American empire as it takes off, banks, and suddenly and rapidly loses altitude, oxygen masks dangling, seat cushions utterly worthless as flotation devices, her passengers belatedly discover as they hover somewhere over shark-infested waters. The contents of the overhead compartments have shifted, the rules changed mid-flight. From a hole in the cargo hold baggage spills and flutters, and only the passengers ahead of the first-class curtain will arrive at their destinations on time, the people of the forest left far behind, below, and forgotten.

And from helplessness back to compassion again. Maybe America’s ruling classes are not as arrogant as they appear. Maybe they are simply afraid.

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