Matthew A. Merendo

the world was all before him

(Entry #1)

(Images with a border have a hover/click effect.)

As I walk down Fifth Avenue, cars racing past me, high-rise apartments towering over me, power lines outlining the labyrinth of paved streets and cement sidewalks, I have my doubts. I have been tasked with the creation of a nature blog; to create a nature blog, I quickly learned, one needs to find some nature. As such, I am walking to the Walled Garden of Mellon Park, which Google has told me is just a mere seven-minute walk from my apartment in the heart of Pittsburgh. As I turn onto Shady Avenue, a mere block away from the park, my doubts are not allayed: how am I going to find Nature, with a capital N, here in the city?

Perhaps even more importantly, what do I do when I find it? I am not an outdoorsy person. I have terrible allergies — including a fatal one to bees — and I’m a hypochondriac, so what my body isn’t allergic to, my mind is. If I could, I’d travel in a personal bubble, and I am speaking literally, not metaphorically. Once I arrive, I suppose I am expecting some sort of Transcendental ecstasy, some sort of life-altering experience akin to an alien abduction that will transform me into either the Buddha or Jesus or at least someone who doesn’t have a panic attack at the sight of a spiderweb. I am not sure I am ready to become the Buddha or Jesus or even someone who doesn’t have a panic attack at the sight of a spiderweb, but this is the middle of Pittsburgh, after all. How much Nature could there be?

A Fair in the Park

So much for communing with Nature in private!

As I move from Shady Avenue to the parking lot that will lead me to the Walled Garden, I’m even more doubtful that I’ll find Nature here. Unbeknownst to me, the Craftsmen’s Guild of Pittsburgh hosts an event every year here in Mellon Park, and they have since 1969, and this weekend is their weekend. I am instantly disappointed, and as I walk along the leaf-littered path through the wrought-iron gate to the ramp that will lead me into the Walled Garden, I think about why I feel the way I do. Why disappointment at the thought of other people? Why doubt Nature’s presence in the center of a city?

I think of Wordsworth and Whitman, Dickinson and Thoreau. I picture Wordsworth’s daffodils, Dickinson’s hummingbirds and sunsets, Thoreau’s isolated pond. Nowhere do I recall other people. Whitman is an exception, but Whitman was a lover of everything; even still, much of his nature-writing is solo, unaccompanied, by himself. In my mind, I have constructed an image of Nature that is void of people, void of alteration, untouched, pristine. How can anything in the center of a city, then, be natural? Anything here attempting to be natural will be fabricated, manufactured, postured. Fake.

Northwestern entrance to the Walled Garden

Northwestern portal gate

But my mental meanderings cease as I reach the first of the Walled Garden’s walls. I am at the northwestern corner of the garden. The wall is brick, high enough to hide what it holds from prying eyes, but it gives way near the corner to three stone steps, an entrance heralded by hard-angled cones atop columns that fortify the frame. As I stand outside it, I feel strange, liminal, timeless, as if I’m about to step into the past. This is not primal Nature, this is clearly not unmediated wilderness, but it is also clearly not the city, not the concrete jungle just a few dozen feet behind me. This is special.

I cross the threshold. Inside the Walled Garden, I notice that a more exact name for the place would be Partially Walled Garden, as the eastern wall is gone. Later, I will learn that that wall was once part of a mansion, that it was demolished in the 1940s. Now, where that mansion would have been, I see people fiddling with tents, getting ready for the Fair. It is late in the afternoon, after four o’clock, and I assume the Fair must be a nighttime event. I am relieved; I will be gone by then. I am incredibly busy this semester — three reading-intensive courses, a thesis to write, a teaching assistantship that spans three undergraduate courses, and my own course to plan and teach — and I have allotted only the required twenty minutes for this excursion into the wild.

Green plants and yellow flowers

So green!

I ignore them. I walk through the garden and feel more conflicted than I’ve felt in months. On one hand, I do feel transported to some other place and time, I do see the beauty of green, the power of flowers. I feel, if only through some sort of veil, some sort of spiritual release, a sigh of sorts. I forget, for the moment, about all those things I have to do at home. For once, I close all those browser tabs that I usually have open at all times in my brain. A patch of particularly green plants catches my eye, and I reach out and touch a leaf. It has been raining all day, and the rain continues. The leaf is wet, thicker than I’d have guessed, and almost waxy. I wipe my hands on my pants, make a note to myself not to put my fingers in my mouth. Clearly I have not exorcised the hypochondriac yet, but this is just a park in Pittsburgh, not a garden of miracles.

A bit of humanity well-integrated with nature…

And a bit more not so well-integrated…

And yet, on the other hand, some part of my brain still points out flaws, points out problems, points out intrusions. Here’s a sign that tells people to keep their dogs on leashes. Here’s a piece of strange machinery that looks like a space heater. Here’s a quaint table and chairs… and, if you shift yourself ever so slightly to the left, a styrofoam coffee cup. It is impossible, even here, even if we want to, to truly relinquish our ties to the real world, to modernity, to the skyscrapers and office spaces and Starbucks. To interruption, to humanity, to people. To what and who we are.

Some sort of bush thing

Portal to Faeryland?

Some bush thing


Perhaps most surprising, though, is my sudden desire to do just that, to leave the world I know, to commune with Nature with a capital N, to be a part of something that isn’t neurotically monitored with thermostats and roofs and windows and blinds. I’ve made my way back to that northwestern corner, to that entrance that first entranced me, and I notice some flora I hadn’t yet seen. It is outside the Walled Garden proper; when I had stood here earlier, it was behind me. It is a bush, perhaps a dwarf tree of some sort. It has needles, not leaves, and what looks to be a trunk. I can see the trunk through what looks to be yet another entrance, yet another portal, and I have to stop myself from crawling into it. I have never wanted to crawl into something more in my entire life. It looks torn directly out of all the fantasy novels I’ve read in which a normal human being falls into Faerie, and I could use a bit of magic in my life right now.

Of course, I don’t do that. I don’t crawl in. Everything is wet, and the entrance is small, and I am not small, and there are probably various sorts of invertebrate life there, and though I’ve felt inspired, transported, I haven’t changed. Bugs still give me panic attacks. I make a note, though. Perhaps one day. Perhaps one day.

Matthew A. Merendo