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Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic

There was always the initial moment of fear. For a split second, my child’s mind would wonder what was in the mud. Sticks, stones, snakes, too mundane. But monsters, grimlins, fairies, dead bodies, all possible. And then my toes would sift, squish, down to the bottom, my ankles would be covered. I was relaxed, happy, playing with my father and my sister in one of my favorite places, along the banks at Ritter Springs Park. This was 17 years ago, before the water was polluted and the day camp prevented the average citizen from enjoying the park. My father was raising us on the salary of a grad-assistant, so while other kids may have gone on trips to their grandparents house, or to far away lands like California, Florida, and Branson, my dad would take us to parks, fishing, on bike-rides. One of my favorite places was Ritter Springs. I liked the ducks on the lake, the man-made waterfall, and the mud. Some of my most vivid memories are in this place, so much so that when I continue to return to it in my semi-adulthood, I can see us there, playing. My dad had probably biked the fifteen miles from our trailer to the park with my sister and me in the red pull behind that was a common mode of transportation for us. Once we got there I am sure we ran ahead, picking things up off the ground, playing with leaves, filled with nothing but anticipation for the moment we got down to the creek bend, where there was a large log for sitting, and a creek for splashing, and a mud pit for playing. Pure joy, unadulterated, undivided. Making up songs, getting mad at each other, throwing mud, and quickly laughing.

I anticipated a similar moment today. It was one of the first warm days after an eternal winter. A new friend and her daughter wanted to go on an outing, but were not able to go to faraway places. I remembered the creek, the wide sweeping grass trails, and the fun at the mud pit, and suggested we take a day outside, a day to let the sun burn off the gray fog of winter. When we walked down the trail my heart sped a little faster, and I remembered those blissfully simple days I enjoyed as a child, I was ready to try to relive them once again, as I tried, thus far unsuccessfully, every time I visit this park.

The road grading at Ritter Springs Park

When we reached the bottom of the trail, we found that a bull dozer had been through, cutting a wide swath through the woods, taking trees and memories with it. I kept attempting to cut off the path, to find some part of the large and sweeping path that had not been molested by machinery, but there was nothing but bite marks in the land. I continually got us lost because markers that had once told me where I was: a felled L shaped tree, a patch of stinging nettles, a mud pit, were no longer there. We left early, and said very little. Once home I tried to find some sort of explanation on the parks department website, but there was nothing. I have been assuring myself there must be a good reason for this, it is not like the county can just kill a park. But I cannot shake the feeling that like with so many other things, citizens don’t have as much control as we would like to think. Motions, referendums, laws, entire bills are passed without us really having a say in the matter.

The park system is no different, it is changing, citizens aren’t as interested in the American Parks as they once were. The peak of visits to American national parks peaked in 1988, but since then there has been a decline in visits, some speculate that this is due to the increase indoor, homebased activities that fit well into the declining economy and the rise in gas prices. Oliver Pergrams of the University of Chicago believes that children, often a catalyst to their parents decisions, simply aren’t spending as much time outside or involved with nature as they used to, “…but are instead playing video games, going on the Internet or watching movies.” Pergrams believes that public awareness, like that provided by Ken Burn’s PBS series ‘The National Parks: Americas Best Idea’ could help bring about an upswing, since he sees lack of awareness as the reason for lagging interest. There has also been a rise in the number of people who decide to visit cities as their vacation destination, both inside America and abroad. People feel that cities offer a larger variety of attractions, different genres of entertainment that is more appealing to the various age groups of their families. Large cities also tend to be more accessible, directly available through air flight, which is becoming less expensive than driving even with increased fees, or by easily driven highways. There is also the obvious: decreased funding. The parks not only are affected by a decreasing tax base from unemployment, but they are no longer chic special projects for discretionary or ‘pork-barrel’ funding. Parks are having to cut the hours of their rangers, and thereby the hours they are open to the public, as well as what their facilities can offer in terms of trail maintenance, education, and events.

For now the bottom line is that children younger than I, but still in my generation, will not grow up outside as I did. They may not have an appreciation for the outdoors, for caring for the Earth. They may not be healthy, get enough exercise. They may not have a sense of wonderment at the wings of the butterfly. They may never have the initial moment of fear when they are placing their feet in a mud pit. And that makes me fearful.

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