Here Was My Sanctuary: On Walking in Forest Park

It was on cool, damp St. Louis mornings like this one that I most enjoyed my daily walks in Forest Park. Few people were about then, but life still abounded, an ever-changing panorama of flora and fauna. On such days the hues of the trees, grasses and flowers, glistening with moisture, stood muted and deeper in dim light. And always, in whatever weather, I returned home both revived and calmed.

That calming effect was somehow heightened by the traffic streaming around the park on I-64, the Parkway, Skinker Boulevard and Kingshighway — all that scurry and noise. But here was sanctuary. The birds, foxes, snakes, turtles, possums, raccoons, and other wild creatures seemed at peace, unaffected by the nearby human hubbub. I walked the park year round and biked it on hot, dry days when a breeze was welcome. But I preferred to walk, where I could witness nature at an appreciative pace and wander off in my own reveries.

For the bulk of my adult life — until I left St. Louis five years ago — I lived on Forest Park or within a few blocks. And on most days I walked the Park — some days more than once. For years I lived in a Skinker high-rise, my balcony overlooking the golf course. Evenings, when I’d see the last foursome make the turn to head back toward the clubhouse, I might or might not have sneaked across the boulevard with a seven iron to get in some leisurely, dusky play at bargain rates, perhaps returning home in the dark with a half dozen balls duffers had lost in the rough.

But birding was my primary sport in Forest Park. Warblers in the spring and fall; nesting ducks and geese in spring; shore birds of all sorts — various herons, egrets, and sandpipers — seasonally; red-headed woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, goldfinches, indigo buntings and other colorful fliers; wild turkeys on occasion; and the raptors — hawks, merlins, ospreys, falcons, kestrels. At times I’d see one swoop down to take a field mouse or garter snake then soar aloft with its quarry in its talons, and my breath would catch as I contemplated nature’s timeless cruelties.

Then there was spring. As much as I relished my winter walks — strolling through the barren Kennedy Forest and over the abandoned fairways in chill air, capped by the exhilaration of returning with frigid fingers and toes to a warm home — I was always ready for spring when it came. The blooming redbuds, dogwoods, magnolias, and crabapple trees. The phlox, narcissus and violets. Then, come May, the mulberries turning black and sweet — a delicious and refreshing pause on my treks. Spring also brought ducks of all sorts and Canada geese to the banks of Deer, Round and Jefferson Lakes, where they hatched and guarded their young. The grasses and deciduous trees greened, scenting the raw air with newness. After long winter nights when the world seemed stagnate and unwelcoming, here was bountiful, bursting life — the whole of Forest Park breaking into a symphony of sight, sound and scent as if cued by a hidden conductor. And one felt continuity, sensed the cosmos and revived hope.

But on my walks — perhaps an hour or two daily, an undervalued luxury of the freelance life — I contemplated more than nature. The peace and solitude and the motion — bipeds, we are made to walk and are at our most human when we do — brought forth new ideas, purged angst, fomented reminiscences. The renovated, redesigned park with its winding gravel paths, gurgling streams and pastoral beauty reminded me at various turns of the Tuileries Garden in Paris, Oosterpark in Amsterdam and London’s Hyde Park — and of those with whom I walked those long ago paths, a melancholy remembering at times.

At times I’d see one swoop down to take a field mouse or garter snake then soar aloft with its quarry in its talons, and my breath would catch as I contemplated nature’s timeless cruelties.

Of course there were other people in the Park — strolling though the Zoo, sledding on Art Hill when it snowed, competing on the golf courses, tennis courts, handball courts, softball fields, rugby fields, and, formerly, the cricket grounds, where diverse sons of the late, great British Empire gathered on weekends. As well as picnickers, lovers stretched on blankets in summer shade, flocks of birdwatchers gazing aloft during spring and fall migrations. Joggers, bikers, rollerbladers and the occasional unicyclist; ice skaters, cross-country skiers, canoeists, dog walkers and kite flyers. That is, people of all ilks, tastes and passions enjoying themselves, fortifying themselves and appreciating the Park and life.

But my appreciation was generally a solitary one. City living, for all its conveniences, opportunities and entertainments, is often an abstracted and, for many, sedentary existence. That is, a denatured life. I know it was for me, for I passed long hours at my writing or deep in books. But walking Forest Park I repaired to my animal self, my walking self, in an admittedly curated environment but one in which nature’s drama presented itself in sometimes surprising ways. 

I recall once when a large dog — let off its leash by its reckless owner — went splattering after a brood of wood ducklings, eager paddlers but not yet able to fly. The ducks’ mother — a somber gray-brown, unlike their colorful dad — recognized the imminent threat to her family and swam toward the dog, splashing to get its attention, paddling away awkwardly as if injured and easy prey, and leading the dog on a wild duck chase down the river and away from her offspring, which swam to safety. It was what we all would do

I had a few emphatic words for the dog owner but was nonetheless grateful for her negligence. Grateful for the reminder of the wisdom of nature and instinct, and how we are all fitted to survive — a reminder of nature’s mystery and perpetuity. Forest Park reminds us all — beneath the conceits and concrete, beyond our electronics and enthusiasms — how simple life is, and what a precious and precarious gift. For those ongoing reminders whenever I now visit and walk the Park, I remain forever thankful.

Rick Skwiot is the author of the critically acclaimed St. Louis childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake and the St. Louis-based mystery Fail, slated for October 27, 2014, release by Blank Slate Press. You can read an excerpt at http://blankslatepress.com/authors/rick-skwiot/.