As my environmental writing class gathers on a landing halfway through our descent into Schenley Park, I can’t help but sigh and think—Thank God. Fall has finally arrived. After a small heatwave at the beginning of the month, the temperature has dropped to an invigorating 50 degrees. A nippy breeze blows through our jackets and chills our hands. The sun shines brisk, and without the haze of heat, everything seems sharper, more alive.
Despite the perfect autumn weather, something’s missing on this late October day. The trees are still a vibrant green, hardly a red leaf in sight.
“This should be peak leaf season,” says Mike Cornell, a naturalist educator at Schenley Park and our guide for the hour. “It’s coming later and later every year. They used to never be green this late. It’s a sign of climate change.”
It’s hard to think of “loss” in this space so thick with greenery, but there’s no other word for it—loss of the seasons, loss of species that can’t cope with the persisting warmth.
Mike leads us down the rest of the stairs and signs of civilization recede. When we first step foot on the trail, I can still hear traffic—the occasional honk and a low hum, the sound of countless car engines running at once. But the longer we walk, the more the sound dims. The trees become so dense I could forget zooming cars, looming buildings, or bustling sidewalks.
We pause at the tufa bridge. The mineral deposits are overgrown with shrubs and vines, as though the bridge has been there since the beginning of time, even though Mike tells us it was built in 1908. That’s something I always forget about nature, the way it plays with time, peeling away years and stealing hours.
When we reach the small lake in Panther Hollow, the trees clear and the landscape is bathed in the gold of a nascent sunset. The water glimmers, and the tall grasses along the bank sway in the breeze. It’s a quaint scene—hardly a Grand Canyon or a Redwood Forest—yet I’m stricken anyway.
In the song “Holocene,” Bon Iver’s falsetto croons, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” I think of that line every time I’m awed by nature.
At the risk of sounding like a luddite, I think there’s value in removing yourself from modernity. I’m glad I have my notepad and pen today because I don’t think I would have enjoyed myself as much if I typed notes on my phone. If we lose these spaces that allow us to escape the relentless speed and immediacy and action of the modern world, I fear we will lose a vital part of the human experience.
Modernity lets us feel like the world is at our fingertips. We want water, we turn on the faucet. We ask a question, we receive an answer with a few taps on our phones. But sometimes we need a little humility, that sense of wonder and peace when you witness something more magnificent than you will ever be.
Climate change takes a lot from us. With more deadly hurricanes like Florence and Michael, it robs us of our sense of security. With species extinction, it puts pressure our food supply. At the rate we’re going, will we get to witness spaces like Schenley Park in twenty years? Will Pittsburgh even be livable?
When my watch reads five o’clock, Mike leads us up more stairs and out of Panther Hollow. We reach the visitor’s center to find paved roads, and cars, and the Cathedral of Learning rising over the landscape. The sun has disappeared, but the golden light remains. I start heading home through Carnegie Mellon’s campus, flanked on all sides by trees blazing green.
Mia DiFelice is a writer based in Pittsburgh, with a BA in English and history. She has read for publications such as Hot Metal Bridge and The Offing, and serves as Assistant Editor for Sampsonia Way. Find her work in The Allegheny Review, Susquehanna Review, and UNDERGROUND.
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