Finding Peace in Urban Places

South Mountain sunset - photo by A. Sato

South Mountain sunset – A. Sato

“Listen to the course of being in the world… and bring it to reality as it desires.”

~ Martin Buber

By Aleah Sato

Despite living in Phoenix, a city known for its less-than-environmentally-friendly infrastructure, I cherish South Mountain Park Preserve and am lucky to be so close to one of North America’s largest municipal parks. In fact, it’s humorous to speak about South Mountain as a park because the word park conjures up images that do not apply to South Mountain. For one, it’s the desert … and it is rugged. There are no friendly places to plop down on the ground without first carefully examining each inch for the errant cholla spine or pointy chunk of granite. Despite its lack of lush meadows and ultimate Frisbee lawns, it is, however, grab-your-heart beautiful to those of us with “desert eyes.” Every day the light reflects something new in the shadowy canyons of granite and gneiss. Birdcalls carry on the wind through labyrinths of rock so that the smallest voice echoes larger than life.

Cloudscape and range - image by A. Sato

Cloudscape and range – A. Sato

The suburban community of Ahwatukee on the east and south, the Gila River Indian Community on the west, and Phoenix’s south central neighborhoods on the north surround the preserve. South Mountain Park is actually comprised of 16,000 acres and three ranges: Ma Ha Tauk, Gila, and Guadalupe. The mountains have received increased publicity over the past few years as the Arizona Department of Transportation and developers push for a freeway extension that would run along the boundaries of the preserve and through the Gila River community. Considered sacred by the O’odham (Pima), the freeway has been the subject of controversy and the outcome stands to reflect whether this city has evolved ecologically and culturally, or if it is still mired in the Post-War urban model of growth at all costs.

Petroglyph panel - A. Sato

Petroglyph panel – A. Sato

And population growth is precisely what prompts this essay.

This morning I arrived at my favorite trailhead at 5:45am. The air was still cool and slightly damp in the canyon as the sun was just cresting the top of the ridge above me. I began walking the steep incline up to the mouth of Telegraph Pass and was only 5 minutes in when I startled three coyotes scurrying down the wash.  Inca doves exploded from under boulders. Gila woodpeckers called out in their distinctive voice and an onslaught if small, unidentifiable yellow and black caterpillars made navigating the path tricky (I was afraid of squishing them). Everything was waking up or settling in. It was early in the day and I walked along a less popular portion of the park in a state of blissful reverie.

Now, this was all rather lovely and splendid until I reached the first trail crossing. Something was amiss. Here, I experienced “the recreational others.” (Imagine doomsday music.)

With the recent influx of planned community dwellers, the entire perimeter of South Mountain has filled in over the past decade; the area has experienced much more traffic and, typically, in the form of LOUD recreationists. Easy access trailheads, such as Pima and Beverly Canyons, have become very popular for bikers, joggers, fitness walkers, and large groups. And, herein lie the seeds for today’s post about ignoring even the most glaring of distractions.

Fallen saguaro - A. Sato

Fallen saguaro – A. Sato

Because of South Mountain Park’s sheer size, it gives one the impression that peace and solitude can be found… somewhere. Today, I was seeking peace, but the city had its own agenda. Coming up from the lesser known trail, I was assaulted by the noise of two police helicopters (they seem fond of flying through the Pass) and a media helicopter (traffic report), shattering a moment of solitude and heralding the crowds that would soon follow. As I ascended the canyon and cleared a large boulder, I was nearly struck by one cyclist who was busy yelling out to another (quite a distance away), “Hey, dude, I made it up to the lookout in 40 minutes!” To which the other shouted back, “No way, man!” Both statements reverberated down the canyon for what seemed like torturous minutes. And, here they came: the power walkers, the runners, the gadget holders. As the hoards continued to arrive, the already loud conversation grew into a nasty swell.

To get away, I scurried back down to the less popular trails below, scrambled over some large boulders that formed a shelter, and watched a few ravens pick apart a piece of refuse in the wash (while fuming, of course). It was then it hit me: why should I let these distractions damage my peace and create discord? The work of the determined ravens convinced me that I am not paying attention to what matters and am instead fixating on the very aspects of the city to which I wanted reprieve. Do I call this place home? No. I am an interloper, too. Granted, I am not loudly waxing romantic about my new pool or high-fiving my bike buddy at the top of my lungs, but I am still a noisy, large mammal who changes the landscape with my arrival.

Facing West - A. Sato

Facing West – A. Sato

There are arguments for curbing noise pollution, certainly. I don’t deny I believe there is a difference between yelling and walking quietly. But the reality is there is no such thing as perfect quiet, and certainly no urban natural area is primitive enough to feel a sense of solitude. So how do we cope when we need to find some quiet in such a noisy world? How can we find just a little bit of peace amid chaos?

In my morning observations, I have noticed that – like people – there are “shy” species and “bold” species. There are animals that prefer to remain hidden and are so adept at their craft in camouflage that they are rarely spotted. There are also animals that delight in the wanton human that drops food on the trail and will eagerly wait for such a morsel. This diversity and opportunity for observation and lesson integration have created a map to peace of mind and a sense of quiet even when the natural world is rife with noise of the human kind.

Mexican gold poppy - A. Sato

Mexican gold poppy – A. Sato

Here are a few ways I have learned to increase the quality of my urban park or natural area experience while remaining open to whatever comes my way:

1. Observe and laugh

Be prepared to recognize your own limitations and judgments. How do you impact solitude and the natural world, and is it possible to make simple changes to decrease negative impacts? Try not to take your experience more seriously than any other’s. The coyotes were likely less than enthralled to see me in “their” canyon, after all.

2. Adapt

Spring - A. Sato

Spring – A. Sat

The birds of South Mountain Park don’t seem too stressed by the constant sound of airplanes and helicopters overhead. If they can adapt and get on with things, it’s possible to tune out for the morning and be more intentional about what is heard: the sound of the wind through branches, for example.

3. Notice the small

When the world seems overwhelming, practice looking at the tiniest of things around you. Notice the stem of a plant. Notice the patterns formed by lichen on rock, or the way the creek makes its own rhythmic music. Sit down. Take time to observe closely and completely the things that are within a foot or two of your body.

4. Become small

Remember when you were a kid how much fun it was to hide? Find a nice spot and blend in, remain quiet, meditate on what it is to be small. We are, after all, small animals in a pretty big place. The experience can feel uncomfortable at first, but it is a great exercise in realizing that peace can come from realizing one’s finite existence, limited capacity, and tiny scheme in a vast universe.

Being a nature-lover as a city dweller can be frustrating. Even those who don’t consider themselves outdoor enthusiasts can appreciate some time alone for reflection. By practicing these four principles, even a backyard can become an unexplored wilderness for the imagination. The city park can be the conduit to where the wild whispers to you and draws you into a centered, grounded quiet.

Bundle up and Bear it: Looking for Mushrooms in the Winter


Flammulina velutipes
Courtesy Wikimedia

Photos by Alison Pollack, unless credited otherwise.

I remember reading the Farmers Almanac back in September and learning that this winter would be a harsh one.  But despite that forewarning, the bitter cold and bookend storms hitting the East coast this winter are jarring.  Being stuck indoors is one thing when the snow is falling gently in the novelty of early December.  However, in the gray ice of February, I’m searching in vain for any sign of daffodils starting to poke out of the ice on the frozen earth.  As a friend of mine noted “no one wants to make a sleet man or have an iceball fight.”

Still, I appreciate the beauty of the season: how it encourages reflection, gratitude for food and shelter, and a focus inward. New hobbies and crafts have a way of entering my life every winter so I can make the most of my time indoors, and this year is no exception. Several weeks ago, I picked up Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets at the library and have been devoted to learning more about mushrooms ever since. The book outlines the incredible ecology of mushrooms and the beneficial impact of mycelium on the ecosystem. In an effort to learn more and make my way through winter doldrums, I’ve also read field guides and joined an amateur mycology group. In spite of this, cabin fever has remained real and vicious, causing my longing for the outdoors these days to burn acutely. Taking a cue from a recent article by fellow Ecotone Exchange contributor, Richard Telford, I decided to bundle up, bear it and revel in the winter landscape. With the help of a willing mushroom forager friend, I layered up and set out to find mushrooms within the ice, snow, and mud of Rock Creek Park in the heart of Washington DC.

Flammulina velutipes (top photo), is a mushroom that is particularly fond of cold weather, and my friend advised me that this is the mushroom we would most likely find newly grown—everything else would be from last season. It’s a spongy, orange mushroom with a velvet stem that grows upwards from the base of hard woods. The delicious enoki mushroom is closely related and cultivated from the Flammulina velutipes, although they look nothing alike. Although this mushroom is elusive, because it flourishes in cold, we set our hopes high to find the little orange sprouts.

I was shocked to see my friend in shorts, considering I was wearing several layers. Apparently his upbringing in upstate New York brought a level of comfort for freezing weather that I just can’t fathom. Together, we exited the metro and took a short-cut through the National Zoo and into Rock Creek Park. The trail was slick, muddy and treacherous and I took embarrassingly cautious side-steps while my friend bounded ahead, excited to find mushrooms. We spotted our first bunch near the trailhead: a grouping of Turkey Tails (Trametes vesicolor) growing out of a log. Turkey tails are identified by the circular ridges growing outward from the center, making them look just like their namesake. These mushrooms were brittle and from last season, but still boldly colored and beautiful.

Turkey Tails on a log

Turkey Tails on a log

Hunting onward, we found Turkey Tails everywhere. They seemed to be the only mushroom on the trail, which makes sense because of their hearty exterior.

Turkey Tail up close

Turkey Tail up close

After an abundance of Turkey Tails, we finally found a different mushroom: Sterium. This mushroom looks a lot like Turkey Tail, except for the distinct pores on the back.

Notice the distinct pores on the back of the Sterium.

Notice the distinct pores on the back of the Sterium.

Eventually, I spotted some mushrooms that looked a little different, only to learn that they were Turkey tails with a parasitic fungus that gives a reddish tinge.

Turkey Tails with Parasite

Turkey Tails with Parasite

My mushroom hunting partner, becoming desperate to find Flammulina velutipes, strayed off the path, looking high and low, to no avail.  Although we didn’t find any Flammulina velutipes on the trail, I was thrilled by the variety of last season’s mushrooms and the promise of the coming season’s growth. Mostly, I was happy to be outside exploring in the woods despite the cold (maybe next time I’ll even wear shorts, too…maybe). Get outside and enjoy your space, no matter the weather.

Bonus shot of an Orangutan at the National Zoo we spotted on our short-cut into the park:

Crossing the ropes!

Crossing the ropes!