I knew I’d like Melanie. I’d read her book, A Year in Rock Creek Park, several months prior to meeting her when I was just beginning my Urban Parks Series for Misadventures. I was becoming increasingly smitten with what Melanie refers to as, “the wild, wooded heart of Washington, D.C.”—Rock Creek Park.
Through Melanie’s words, I’d found kinship for this feeling. When I wrote Melanie an email asking if she’d be willing to take a stroll with me in Rock Creek Park to talk about her writing, there were butterflies in my fingers as I hit the send button.
There was some nervousness in reaching out to a fellow writer—Would I ask the right questions? Would this be a good use of her time? Would I come across as too much of a fangirl? There was also the more complicated piece of why I wanted to meet with Melanie—I needed help grappling with how I’d been feeling about the state of our environment. I could feel my friends growing wary of my increasingly frequent rants on microplastics and my growing rage toward anyone who vocalized appreciation of our bizarrely warm winter. For some reason, I felt like Melanie might be able to help me move from angered shock to empowered acceptance.
A Year in Rock Creek Park is written in journal style and organized by the four seasons. Over the course of a year, Melanie’s entries capture the changing beauty of this urban gem while weaving in her intrapersonal observations on life. With the leaves, flowers, and birds of the park as her pen, Melanie captures a compellingly relatable narrative on women’s empowerment, climate change, life with Lyme disease, the nuanced tugs of family, career, and wildness, and how to find connection in a bustling city center.
I met Melanie in mid-March at the Boundary Bridge area of Rock Creek Park to walk with her on the trail loop she describes so intimately in her book. As soon as she saw me, she brightly exclaimed, “I feel like we’re kindred spirits!” and gave me a big hello hug. She’d read some of my writing, too, and had reached a similar conclusion that, in a sense, we had already met through our shared adoration of this park.
We were lucky on this day to have a true taste of early spring—muddy puddles from melting snow, tiny bits of green popping out from forgotten places. It felt comforting to be in a season that truly felt like the season it was, but as we began our stroll, there was a passage from Melanie’s book—peculiarly one of her entries from spring—that was still roaming through my mind. Melanie writes:
One of Bob Dylan’s most haunting lines in his song, “Masters of War,” is:
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world.
I felt that fear acutely before I had children, and now I have a new fear: Fear to bring grandchildren into this world. As I write, two of my friends are awaiting the births of grandchildren. When I hear of a birth or an impending birth, I’m filled with hope for the future. I applaud the brave and intelligent young parents who are not afraid to bring children into the world. But I also fear for them, and I know that, if we are going to continue to bring children into the world, we are going to have to bring fewer of them, and we are going to have to turn out the lights above their cradles, light a candle or two…and pray…our hands cupping whatever sacred waters we can find.
Melanie’s book is filled with these types of passages—ones that bring the effects of climate change to a heart-quivering, personal level. I felt compelled to dive right into it all, but Melanie helped me slow down before I even began. She picked up samaras from the ground that had fallen off the towering tulip trees above us, and showed me the beauty in how they twirl through the air as they fall from the bridge to the creek below. Stopping every several paces, she taught me about the plants that call Rock Creek Park home. Each opportunity to appreciate the little details of this wild urban core helped soothe the underlying anxiety I was feeling about our planet.
As we continued to stroll, we talked about writing, her next book, and how she’d seen the park by foot, bike, and canoe. We stopped at her favorite spots along the trail and watched a blue heron rest near “Meditation Rock.” She pointed out features along the trail that provided a visual representation of our changing climate, such as the erosion that had cut off “Dog Beach” from the trail, creating a “Dog Island” in the middle of the creek. The more comfortable I felt, the more honestly I expressed to Melanie my despair about our planet. She paused, and thoughtfully shared with me a conversation she’d been having with her friends about the topic. One woman, she explained, had declared to the group, “Babes, keep appreciating the miraculousness of Mother Nature.”
It was a powerful statement. There was much to be concerned about, but there was also still so much of which to be in awe. I held onto this thought as we made one of our final stops at “Nana’s Lap.” Nana’s Lap is a groove in a large tree along the trail that Melanie writes about in the book. It’s the perfect spot to curl up into the arms of Mother Nature. Melanie prompted me to do just that, and as this old, knowing tree hugged me, I thought of another passage in Melanie’s book:
And then the curse of every modern woman takes hold in my brain: The To-Do List. There in Rock Creek Park, where I should be swept away by the cold creek waters and a chattering kingfisher, my busy brain is chattering, chattering. I can see the To-Do List sitting on my desk next to my laptop, with entries written in red ink…My own birdsong of busyness—To Do To Do To Do—is the enemy of solitude and deep thought.
And then I wonder if our speed-dial winter and my To-Do List are somehow linked. What is winter if not the chance to rest in a state of semi-hibernation, the stillness and cold serving as antidote to the industry of all the other seasons? Winter: The drawing in and drawing down. A trail of pomegranate seeds to the underground, the dark pregnant earth, the sap-filled root—resting, resting before the ecstatic work of spring. The stillness that is not death but the incubating prelude to exuberant rebirth.
And here we are, cramming our months of hibernation into a two- or three-week window of true winter weather between the untimely blooming of daffodils in December and the incipient flowering of a proper spring. In our frenetic, electronically oriented lives, will we lose even this—the chance to come in from the cold, to sit by the fire, to dream of flowers in the impossibly far-off spring? Will we never rest but continue incessantly to do to do to do during a freeze that grows shorter and shallower each year?
I still thought of this passage as Melanie kindly gave me a ride back home. My mind had been racing lately with my own to do lists. It was hard to grapple with the anxiety of a changing climate when I couldn’t even find the time to truly rest. As Melanie drove away, I chose not to go back inside, but instead to walk back into the park, into the wild stretch that danced near my apartment.
I entered slowly and with curiosity. I placed my hands on the tree bark. I let nature embrace me and soothe me. My soul had been running wild with an ache to protect the earth, to comfort nature in the face of our abuse. But, in this moment, despite its need for our comfort, it was the one that was comforting me. Sometimes we need to hold nature, I recognized, but sometimes we need to let nature hold us. My heart breathed out a “thank you” for Melanie’s time with me, for her help in uncovering this truth and giving me permission to slow down.
A Year in Rock Creek Park is an excellent example of how writing connects us to nature, how nature connects us to writing, and how life is woven delicately throughout it all. It received an Independent Publishers Book Award, and contains a gorgeous series of photos by Susan Austin Roth of the park in each of its seasons. My recommendation: Pick up a copy, and head out into your nearest park for a read.