Healing Our World

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Nature Often Remains Separate but Equal

With resources scarcer and scarcer
I vow with all beings
to consider the law of proportion:
my have is another's have-not.

-- Robert Aitken

Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound.
-- Henry David Thoreau

The number of erroneous assumptions we make every day about how our lives and the world work is truly staggering. We even defend and argue the truth of these false ideas to the point where they take on mythic qualities, forming the foundation of our lives. Is it any wonder that people resist giving up these dearly held beliefs, since they fear that the fabric of their lives could crumble without them?

For example, so many people, including our political leaders and mainstream media’s embedded - read, in bed with - journalists, think that since the command and control structure in Iraq has disintegrated, all peace activists should be ashamed of themselves now that they have been proven wrong. This, of course, is ridiculous.

The peace and anti-war movements have never been about whether or not a dictator should fall. In fact, peace advocates have been saying for decades that the United States should be doing something about many cruel dictators and despots around the world, other than training many of them at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.


Anti-war protesters march in Washington, DC on April 2. (Photo courtesy Indymedia DC)
The peace movements are about the belief that it is immoral to butcher an innocent person – and that includes a soldier – for pretty much any reason, especially when so many other options for resolving problems exist.

There is so much evidence that strongly suggests that our disconnection from the natural world, the web of life, and the rhythms of nature has much to do with the amount of accepted violence and prejudice in the world. Yet so many of our assumptions about how the world works serve only to increase that distance.

We try desperately to rid our homes of dirt, insects, and anything else going on outside. Rather than see the connections that exist between everything on Earth, we have been taught to protect ourselves from the elements, kill all insects, and by all means, don’t get dirty.

Even when we try to reestablish that connection to nature through the establishment of parks and nature preserves, our erroneous assumptions creep in to sour the effort.

Soon Seattle and other cities across the U.S. will be celebrating anniversaries commemorating the creation of many of their city parks by the Olmsted brothers, nationally known landscape architects who inherited the nation’s first landscape architecture company from their father. They created many parks and open spaces in the United States. Seattle will be celebrating their 100th anniversary, and the National Association For Olmsted Parks Annual Conference will take place in Seattle from April 30 to May 4.

But many of the nation’s parks, while advertised as available to all people, are not utilized by many who feel that such places are still the domains of those who are white and privileged. Seattle is an example of this phenomenon, yet the city's park managers and planners deny that there is a problem.

Even in this new millennium, there remains a common misconception about race relations in the United States. Many still believe that allowing access to opportunities and facilities means that all races can and will take advantage of them. While it may be true that all of Seattle’s parks allow anyone to visit, the realities of urban life and economic stratification make many of them, for all intents and purposes, islands of the same segregation and class privilege that plague most cities.


Park staffer helps two young visitors learn about the plants and animals in Seattle's Discovery Park. (Photo courtesy Seattle Parks Department)
While all parks are supposed to exist for all the people of Seattle, the actual situation is that few visitors from economically challenged parts of town ever visit the gems of the park system. For example, Discovery Park, Seattle’s largest park, not part of the original Olmsted plans, has a Master Plan that boldly states that the park’s role “should be to provide an open space of quiet and tranquility for the citizens of this city - a sanctuary where they might escape the turmoil of the city and enjoy the rejuvenation which quiet and solitude and an intimate contact with nature can bring.”

Yet few people of color visit or even know of the park’s existence, and many would be unable to afford transportation to the park, even though it is literally six minutes from downtown Seattle. Few people of Seattle’s diverse cultures, so many of whom live in communities that are just as segregated as they were in the pre-Civil Rights era, would even consider traveling to Seattle’s very white, affluent community of Magnolia in which Discovery Park resides.

Many of the privileged few who live adjacent to Seattle’s parks have little interest in having those parks used by all the citizens of the city. They prefer to think of the nearby park as their own backyard and work hard to maintain their distance from the masses. The Seattle Parks Department caters to this mentality by responding aggressively to trespass complaints by these neighbors and by sending notices of public hearings and meetings only to those who live within 400 feet of the parks’ boundaries.

Members of other cultures in cities around the country have many issues specific to them that will need to be addressed proactively if they are to be truly served by their city’s parks. For example, in Seattle, the Samoan community has a high school dropout rate of nearly 50 percent. The Asian community is plagued with gang issues, and the Filipino community is much divided between the values of its youth and older citizens. The Japanese community remains fractured since the imprisonment of Japanese people in interment camps in California and Idaho during World War II. Their rich, vibrant communities never reformed in quite the same manner as before the war.

And of course, there is the Native American community, many of whom are descended from members of the tribes that were coerced to sell two million acres of what became Seattle for $150,000 in the 1850s. The programs of the parks and community centers do little to serve these challenged groups.


Green Lake Park in Seattle was designed by the Olmstead Brothers. (Photo courtesy City of Seattle)
While we celebrate the Olmsted brothers' plan for Seattle’s parks, we must also acknowledge that the 6,000 acres of Seattle’s parks are paltry leftovers from the land buys of the rich in the late 1800s and early part of the 20th century. In fact, city planners never considered giving the public access to the stunning views and forests surrounding lakes and other areas just outside the city. For example, the Olmsted brothers designed the Highlands exclusive estates in 1908. This fabulous area of 300 acres of old growth forest, just north of Seattle, is home to the Boeing and Nordstrom families and commands some of the most striking views left in the state.

The average price for homes in the Highlands is $2 million, not including the $25,000 initiation fee. Part of the thinking at the time for providing parks in the city was to allow the wealthy to have unimpeded access to the real natural resources just outside of town and not be bothered by the common folk. They had their park pieces in their neighborhoods.

Anyone who has ever been out for a drive with the family at any lake in the Seattle area will see this phenomenon. Little public access remains amidst the estates and homes.

Even the park system’s gem, Discovery Park, was completely logged and then given to the military to use as a fort. It is filled with old, decaying military buildings, a huge, decaying underground infrastructure of rotting pipes, a haphazard forest where invasive plants are taking over, and it is the home to the Fort Lawton military reserve and Seattle’s major wastewater treatment plant, West Point. Even so, considering there is so little of the natural world left in Seattle, Discovery Park is a welcome relief to those who visit.

Parks across the nation offer the opportunity to create much healing for the cultures that surround them. But this will not happen without proactive efforts being made to really share these gems with all the citizens. Just opening the gates is not enough. Seattle parks, and many others across the nation, have a long way to go before all races find true equality within their borders.

Until then, many parks that could be places of healing between cultures remain yet another obstacle that keeps so many of us apart from each other.

Earth looks beautiful