The asphalt was cracked. The sidewalk was lopsided, pushed upwards by tree roots trying to regain lost territory from below. Weeds shot skyward through fissures in the stone. Skid marks left by ghost skateboarders etched themselves in the asphalt. Visitors in the night had built a tiny fire and left its black ashes in a heap. Vine-strangled trees stood at the edges of the lot, a wild tangle of creeping plants engulfing canopies of leaves.
I spotted this scruffy stretch of an abandoned parking lot after Covid-19 struck. Public parks were suddenly cordoned off to the world. I was scouting out alternatives to find an oasis where I could momentarily escape life’s weight and worries.
In the pre-Covid era, I had walked countless miles on the grounds of a national historical landmark, a short ten minutes away from my house. Grand stands of trees greeted me there. Spring brought laser-sharp sunbeams that danced in the air as they reflected off the estuary waters. Herons stood majestically at their posts. Mallards bobbed at the water’s edge. Gingko leaves fluttered like tiny flags in the wind. Buckeye trees gazed downward at the earthlings below. Some nights I blinked in disbelief when the moon appeared to hang so low in the sky its huge face stared at me at the water’s edge as if it were 100 yards a way, a phenomenon known as the “moon illusion.”
Then my walking wonderland vanished. The landscape of the proud heron, the large-faced moon, the dancing sun sealed itself off with large locks at the iron wrought entry gates.
I needed a place to walk, to tick up my heartbeat, to reconnect or disconnect, to collect my thoughts or have no thoughts at all. I’d seen others pass this dingy lot, scouting it out as I had. I begrudgingly showed up here every morning, counting the minutes as they passed for whatever amount of exercise I had planned that day.
I counted about twenty-five yards on each side of the lot – six hundred twenty-five square yards in all. At times I felt I was walking the periphery of a small prison yard. I remembered two prisoner memoirs I’d read – one in which a WWII prisoner gazed at a single flower outside his window to animate his spirit, the other in which Nelson Mandela internalized the words of Shakespeare to survive solitary confinement. There were no cars, no crowds, no traffic here.
It was dismal, small, and blisteringly hot if one went at the wrong time of day. But as I kept returning to this site of desolation, I was also startled to discover it had a hidden beauty to unlock if I decided to decode it.
This was a slow rolling epiphany.
As I headed home one night, I thought how much my plane of vision had shifted. I thought: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Philosophers and writers had opined on the matter for millennia. The Greeks noted it in the 3rd century BC. Shakespeare spoke of it in Love’s Labor’s Lost. The 19th-century Irish author Margaret Wolfe Hungerford mused on it in her popular 1895 novel Molly Bawn, where she coined the phrase as we know it today: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
These writers were onto something.
I got an inkling of it when a robin began following me on my walks. Yes, I was sure the red-breasted bird was following me. He repeated this for days. At times he walked parallel to me. At times he walked slightly ahead or behind me. At all times he walked about a twenty-five feet away from me. This was no accident.
One evening I turned to a discussion board online and asked, “Do robins follow humans?” “Yes, they do,” an online ornithologist answered. He explained that robins had followed boars and deer in the wild, looking opportunistically for worms or insects unearthed by their tracks. When farms and cities emerged, robins followed humans, looking opportunistically for bugs and worms unearthed by human footprints and tractor wheel ruts. The ornithologist added that the bird was also naturally sociable, so if humans cultivated a non-threatening relationship, the friendly robin was often “happy to pose for close-up photos.”
This robin in my desolate lot was a harbinger of good news. As he accompanied me along the edge of a weed-engulfed hedge, he introduced me to a dynamic ecosystem hidden all around us.
Other feathered friends began to show up. I noticed that they did not care about the cracked asphalt, the crooked sidewalk, the weeds growing skyward. They lingered in the trees to chat with each other. They gathered twigs to build their nests at a frenzied pace. They gathered food for their hatchlings when they arrived at a frenzied pace. They disclosed the locations of their woven twig homes unwittingly to me with their patterns of flight. Soon I could peak into their nests, talking to the parents and hatchlings in a way I thought a veteran bird whisperer might.
I was surprised these creatures were as curious about me as I was about them.
They came closer as I tried out different calls. I tested different inflections and intonations in my voice. The higher the pitch the better, the quieter and slower the words the better. I paused between sentences so they would not be afraid and fly away. A nervous mockingbird who had avoided me for weeks one day flew directly towards my car window as I parked, perching himself on top of the chain-link fence five feet away to greet me. A mourning dove mother sitting on her nest in an old twisted crabapple tree now gazed out at me calmly, blinking her iridescent blue eyelids serenely at me. Song sparrows landed on the mesh fence when my car arrived, warbling their loud song from their tiny bodies. Finches that fled the overgrown weeds where they pecked when I approached now pecked unperturbed and let me sit with them six feet away.
There were moments of high drama when life and death were at stake. These called for displays of courage and cooperation when the fate of the community was at risk. Birds convened emergency meetings – “mobbings” in bird-speak — if predators like the red-tailed hawk appeared at the lot to pillage their nests. Starlings, sparrows, crows, and cardinals all joined together screeching at invaders from the tree tops until they left. When an osprey kidnapped a crow’s fledging from its nest, its furious parents pursued it and pecked its head in flight until it opened its talons and released their baby bird. Red-crested martins showed off split-second dives to divert squirrels from their nests.
This was my mega-lesson — my Nature 101 — in a mini lot I had reluctantly made my oasis. The walking wonderland I had left behind had been too monumental in scale to see such tiny infinite patterns of life-giving connections, to form relationships with total strangers in nature. There I had seen the forest but not the trees. Here I had found the trees and discovered their hidden inhabitants, leaving the forest behind.
Here I had been initiated into a community entirely different from my own. Its winged messengers welcomed me into the inner workings of their separate world. Here I found a staggering beauty in a heart of darkness.