Slowing Down in Thunder Alley

Ask yourself: where is my slowness?

The where of our slowness helps tell us who we are. Yes, strangely.

It points to our principal place of real being. My being real. My true existence. The space where I am most alive and most conscious.

My moral space.

The where of our slowness indicates what brings us peace and contentment, for slowness is like mercury in a thermometer. It gives a reading of our soul’s temperature. Like it or not, we are measured beings. I measure myself, if I am aware and listening.

My answer to the where of my slowness: Thunder Alley.

Of course, it’s not mine. It’s ours. Public, social.

But I live in a city where houses have wreaked havoc on natural habitats. Where yards with buildings and housing units have substituted for sustainable natural abodes. Where humans have created dominion at the expense of the plants and animals that had been there for much longer than our lungs.

The crickets and butterflies are already gone. The opossums are threatened. The flies are untouched because they feed on human garbage. The ubiquitous grey squirrels are there since they are ingenious.

But other animals, more susceptible to disruption and interference, have fled. Without a real choice, they’ve simply vanished. Probably forever. They’ve left a void that cannot be filled. Like many of the non-human species that need large swathes of untouched land and water for their survival.

My alley still holds out hope. For me and for my non-human comrades. Which is why it remains my place of slowness.

My slowness involves communing with “nature.” Nature for me is just another way of saying the non-human. My slowness feels like drips of latex from a rubber tree, swirling down a helix.

If you live in a city, perhaps your alley can teach you something. Not just about yourself. About what is not human in the world.

But in order for the alley to teach you, I can guess that your slowness must reside there. It is not a teaching that can be learned in front of an unnatural screen.

I live in Portland, Oregon, where I’m a prep cook and dishwasher. Wondrous, right? In the “untouched” Pacific Northwest. Liberal and open. Environmentally aware. Swarming with protectors of nature and preservers of the non-human. Home of the Xerces Society and the Hoyt Arboretum. With a “cool vibe,” a laid-backness, a cold rasta/punk undertone to every interaction. Ideal. You can get over the passive-aggressiveness that comes with angst-ridden rebelliousness. That’s part of the charm.

As for nature in my city, my word! The riches! It’s an urban space with broad swathes of riverfront parks. A place with the largest public park in the U.S.A. (Forest Park). Two rivers and a dozen close tributaries that feed the “fresh” water. An atmosphere of outdoorspersonship. Hiking. Skiing. Rafting. Climbing. You name it, we got it, all within an hour.

And if you’re bougie, take in the Willamette Valley and its fruit and nut orchards, wine country and foxes in thickets out near McMinnville, the mansions in the west hills where there’s sure to be art-speak and martinis overlooking the rose gardens, and the Columbia River Gorge with its sweeping vistas, a wind for all winds for the sailors and surfers, and spectacles like the Peregrine Falcon diving 180 miles an hour to spear a sparrow.

It is still just a city.

So in it, where do I find solace, besides these close but inaccessible places?

Inaccessible because of traffic congestion. Because everyone and their dog is moving here. Because housing developments are eating up habitats the endangered species, like the Fender’s Blue butterflies, need to continue surviving. Where do I find solace as someone who cares about human habits in the face of the greatest mass extinction of species the earth has ever known, thanks to the capitalistic anthropocene? Where can I go to soothe my soul?

My alley on 32nd and Emerson is called “Thunder Alley.” It’s not one of those archetypal dark downtown alleys, full of drugs and murder, that get a bad rap for good reason. There are no garbage bins behind the backside of a tall, brick building. Concrete is foreign. The alley is part dirt, part crumbly gravel. Along its sides are the fences of human habitations, as well as a couple of unused garages. The “weeds” grow freely, thank goodness. The fly-catchers, blue jays, sap suckers and squirrels compete with the crows for dominance along its narrow stretch from Alberta to Killingsworth Street.

This alley is unkempt, safe, a wild place, abandoned and deserted and forgotten. A place for safe wildness.

I wander the network of alleys here in the Alberta Arts district until I run into impassable brambles of Himalayan blackberries.

Thunder Alley’s principal claim to fame is nothing, but I know, because I live and wander and sit here frequently, that in its landscape, as roof, is one of the most magnificent trees I’ve ever seen: an American Chestnut. Huge leaved beauty, quite tall (60 feet?), grey limbs in winter like an inosculation of neurons. A cognitive image.

This chesnut tree defies the diseased extinction of its species. For, if we were aware, we would know that the chestnut is in grave danger.

Yet none of this is exactly my point. I’m not trying to say that cities are bad. I’m not trying to declare that Portland is changing for the negative. Gentrification is making sure that the city is sparkling clean for tourist and newcomers alike. Rid of its seedy history, its racism, and its violent old western heyday vibe which strangely grafted with the fruits of hippy and grunge explosions. None of this is my point.

I sit here and stare at the sun. The sun makes me think of permanence. There is change in the world. Things–like creatures and plants–are eradicated. Humans themselves are displaced and replaced.

The sun makes me hope as it warms half of my face against the cold draft of wind that has first passed through the Doug firs and crow feathers to reach my ears. I hear nothing of speed this early at dawn as the faint brush of pink illuminates the cirrus and the fingernail moon still clings to the bright planet beside her. What I hear, sadly in some ways, is my own wish for slowness.

We underestimate the value of just being in contemplation. We overestimate the value of action and accomplishment.

I’m all for shoveling snow. I’m all for chopping winter’s wood with an axe and not a chainsaw. That actually makes me more of a human. More muscular. More authentic. And then I’ll go read a book by Pessoa, by Celan, by Sloterdijk, Plath or Valente. Poetry and philosophy live with me here, in Thunder Alley. All alongside the blue jay, the strange beetle, the moth.

Wherever you live, find your “alley.” Find a place of wildness you can walk down. Discover the overgrown and unkempt. Get away from concrete. To let your feet sink into mud after a lovely spring rain. To watch the vanilla grow next to violets and the passionflowers your neighbors planted which flop over the fence and run close to the ground until they are able to bloom. Find a strip of natural peace near your house and go there, leaving the screens and the valuables of domestic, technological life. Electric screens are meaningless to raccoons. The insulated electric wires stringing among houses are just rope bridges for squirrels. Why should electronics be meaningful to you on the nights when you are supposed slowly to be yourself?

You are part of a larger whole. The “alley” is yours to discover. Walk. Listen. Observe. Breathe living depth in your own alley of slowness.

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