Hi, do you have a minute?
I want to show you something.
Just take my hand, and close your eyes.
Okay, open them now.
See where we are?
Hear the car stereos, the sirens, the trucks hitting potholes, the fights? See the garbage in the streets? And do you smell that? It's the antique sewers.
Hey, watch out! You almost got hit by a Porsche.
He's here to buy drugs.
We are in Paterson, New Jersey. Silk City has seen better days.
That African American gentleman there, the one with the white beard, rising from his park bench and reaching out to shake your hand. He's retired since he had a heart attack. He asks you how you are, and he really wants to hear. He promises to pray for you, and he will. He offers kind advice about living every day to its fullest. His smiling face and compassion prove that many good people still live in Paterson.
It is, though, a tough place to live.
But look up. Five hundred feet. That verdant outcropping. That is Paterson's emerald. You are looking at Garret Mountain and Rifle Camp Park. Take my hand. Let's go.
I hear you. Wow, indeed. It is so different from Paterson, isn't it? Or Woodland Park, or Clifton, the surrounding, endless, megalopolis of traffic jams and sports fields and pushing and shoving.
Here, you can feel the cool breeze clapping through the leaves, rather than heat pounding up from asphalt. You can hear birds sing and water trickle against basalt streambeds, rather than sirens' wail and boom box blast. White and black and brown people, grandparents and children. Teens flying kites. Toddlers eye to eye with their very first frog. Lovers gazing at the rising moon as if they've never seen sky before.
Runners train with all the focus of Rocky Balboa before his big match with Apollo Creed.
A woman is pulling paper out of her pocket and scribbling. She's a writer; she needs this escape to rendezvous with her muse.
We slip into tree cover. Suddenly all sound is muffled. We step silently over moss pillows. The trail is surprisingly steep. Our bodies are dappled with leaf shadow -- just like that dappled fawn in the high grass. Never fear; her doe mother is nearby. We pass three young black men, seated around a big, table-shaped boulder. It's where they come to decompress.
Over there you see some folks with binoculars. Believe it or not, this small park, falling within the boundaries of New Jersey's third most populous city, in America's most densely populated state, is an Audubon-designated, environmentally important area.
Look down around you. You see that this mountain is actually a plateau. It's the remnants of an ancient magma flow. Down below: suburbs, factories, highways. New Jersey is right underneath the Atlantic Flyway, the ancient route birds take north in spring and south in winter. Because this park is an oasis of green surrounded by pavement, birds need Rifle Camp and Garret to feed and rest.
See those dead trees? They feed bugs, and birds eat those bugs. Then those trees crumple into soil, nourishing new life. The grasses, bushes, wetlands and rocks all play their part in making this park a lifeline for one-hundred-fifty species of birds, some of them endangered. Peregrines and bald eagles, red-headed woodpeckers and cerulean warblers. These birds travel from the Arctic to the Amazon, every year. New Jersey's own Garret and Rifle Camp are part of the timeless, border-defying web of life.
Remember when we were back in the city, with all its rush and rules? You couldn't cross the street till the sign said you could. You had to compete with others on the urban sidewalks. Think of how you feel on a sports field. The referee blows his whistle. "You win! You lose!"
We need trees as much as we need civilization. Thousands of years ago, Moses went into the wilderness to encounter God. Today we come to Garret Mountain / Rifle Camp.
When I was a kid, an older immigrant from Spain used to talk to me about how important it was for him to spend time in Rifle Camp Park. I think Rifle Camp gave him a chance to connect with the part of his soul that he left behind when he was a shepherd child in the dry hills beyond Toledo.
One of my neighbors now, a successful artist, a sophisticated professional who works for the city, cherishes this park as her route to inspiration for her abstract paintings.
Another woman I know doesn't get up here as much as she would like. She doesn't have a car and she needs a wheelchair. Even so, she makes it a point, every day, to gaze upward. No matter what she has just heard from the doctors or what hassle she must work through to get the medical care she needs, she finds peace and solace just in the vision. She can then focus on her day to day struggles with renewed vigor.
No, Garret Mountain / Rifle Camp is not, oh, say, Yosemite Valley. There are no spectacular rock faces to climb; no grizzly bears to fear.
This is what Garret Mountain / Rifle Camp Park is. It is a green escape from a concrete jungle. It is a refuge of bird melodies and wind song in a cacophony of blare. It is an essential oasis for a hummingbird so light you could mail ten of them with one first class stamp, a bird traveling a three-thousand-mile highway. It is a water sponge when it rains – it helps to lessen flooding. It is a seal that Passaic County voters protect their environment for future generations. It is a portal to another dimension, where the sun and the clouds create light, where air on the skin ignites pleasure, where manmade rules, from the "Don't Walk" sign to the concept of points and home-runs, are utterly meaningless.
It is the place low-income Paterson, Clifton, and Woodland Park residents can reach. They may never climb Half Dome in Yosemite. They may never "Ooo" and "Aaa" over Yellowstone. They may be so low income they don't have a car to reach Stokes Forest or Norvin Green Forest in western and northern New Jersey.
But they have this, their emerald, their green, their place to exhale. Passaic County Freeholders, don't take away from this generation what previous generations have protected.
Sign the petition to protect Rifle Camp Park from development:
Visit this webpage: http://savercp.org/
Join up with other cool people who want to protect Garret Mountain and Rifle Camp: