This is the second half of a long article of mine which was published in a literary journal last year. It’s the story of an urban oasis of wild things and how I think about places like this – seeing opportunity rather than wasteland.
Migratory birds rest and feed here now; Susan won’t let me forget this and, frankly, it’s hard to miss when hundreds of goldfinches descend on the thistle of Chalfant Valley. This on a very recently uniform green surface where thistles would have been whacked or, worse, sprayed. It’s not taking the birds long to figure out where acres of seed are available. At least one hawk can generally be found on any given day watching Churchill’s change from an optimal perch.
Aside from the red-tailed hawks and smaller accipiters, other predators see something good in the golf club’s degenerated veneer. Foxes are on the move here (how could they not be?) and it’s likely that the coyotes also carry on nocturnal patrols. Coyotes have been encroaching on the area to a great extent in recent years, hundreds now residing in Allegheny County. I’ve heard their enunciations late at night from my home near the former golf course, so there’s little doubt they’re roaming at will across the rolling prairie. Dismembered deer carcasses suggest that something big and toothy stalks the former domain of duffers.
All of this – creek chub, gold finch, and coyote – all are evidences of the paradigm shift that’s come to land and water alike here. And while some sources of local news have written Churchill Valley Country Club off as a “blight,” it’s only because of the contrast with the planned, ordered and maintained residential land around it. And it strikes me as odd because most people, the same people occupying the homes on all sides of Churchill, profess to care about the environment. Well, this is how the environment goes about saving itself, with no one’s effort or direction. We should all celebrate the re-birth of a place like Churchill wherein wild things are ascendant. Libertarians, such as myself, should celebrate more than all the rest though because the wild came back apart from anyone’s scheme for “re-wilding.” No agency of the government directed the seeding of lichen assemblages that began the break-down of bridges and paved trails. No one paid to have earth-moving machines sculpt meanders again into the repressed watercourse. There was no zoning board meeting or feasibility study concerning the re-introduction of top-level predators. The non-conformity that characterizes healthy habitat has returned here; no part of Chalfant Valley is now in compliance. Evolution builds momentum and forces change.
Churchill Valley represents the implementation of nature’s own healing processes. And this is a good place to stop and contrast these organic processes with the way we too often think of environmental healing, i.e. leaving it to governmental agencies such as the EPA. While Churchill Valley is, by degrees, renewing and enriching itself, the EPA does its finest work in the realm of mandate. A typical rule might run about 300 pages (our Constitution and Bill or Rights can easily be fit onto twelve pages) and might be printed below the lucid title: EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0602; FRL-9930-65-OAR (RIN 2060 – AR33). It will have cost more to arrive at this stage of the legislation than forecast and the problem addressed will almost certainly be a non-problem (at least for the earth). And we can’t call edicts like EPA-HQ… “Legislation” either because no elected legislators were involved. Pages will be devoted to quantification of variables that cannot be quantified within a dynamic biome. Tangentially interested parties will be placated or enriched. And almost no one will realize any of it, even after the leviathan EPA-HQ… has been enacted. The people most likely to read it, elected senators and representatives, haven’t and certainly no one but a few lawyers in the private sector. No one will live a better life because of the enactment but the enactment itself will ostensibly legitimize the enacting bureaucracy. A simple open space, such as Churchill, does so much more good for all of us.
If I’m describing Churchill’s former eighteen holes as a park, though, what is this wasteland doing for people nowadays? Well, if you’re an affluent middle-aged male who likes to buzz across the landscape in an electric car, golf bags in tow, there’s nothing here for you now. But, like the deer who’ve returned to Long Island, moose to the Adirondacks, or wolves to Minnesota, first a few humans were seen hesitantly testing the new habitat, noses aquiver, and now many. There’s seldom a time that at least one recreationist isn’t out on the miles of paved trail. Churchill Valley’s neighbors were the first, walking their dogs along paths heretofore restricted. Then a few runners appeared, such as me, and the occasional cyclist. Whole families followed shortly thereafter, sauntering along the trails for whatever reason families saunter. A motion-picture company took a liking to the place and cast it as “Paradise” in a 2015 film, as though anyone needed more proof that it’s a pretty good spot.
It’s a no-man’s land and an every-man’s land – as close to a fragment of frontier as you’ll find. Folks pursue their own purposes here without any direction from Churchill Borough or the State of Pennsylvania. It’s easy for some to see such a situation and imagine only the worst but I’ve seen only the best. My “park” lies adjacent to communities of diverse socio-economic status and the rich and the poor found an egalitarian retreat when the golf went away. Folks of diverse ethnicities are drawn by the surprising quiet of the place, a break from their constructed, planned and facilitated worlds. There’s no fee that some would find prohibitive, no real barriers to entry, and nowhere in Pittsburgh that you’re likely to encounter a more palpable sense of liberty.
And what does one do with such an urban island of liberty? Well, I’ve planted some blueberries in a sand trap. I’ve run my daily miles safe from traffic and I’ve held Susan’s hand as we’ve counted birds. I’ve observed the constant evolution of the unchained Chalfant Run, now stretching itself, retaining more water than ever and cooling thanks to the shade of the encroaching leafy branches. I’ve sat motionless on a rock beside the water reaching out a pole and fibrous line, not unlike my six-year old self, tempting greedy creek chubs with single impaled maggots. I’ve helped advance the stream’s metamorphosis by dragging bulky pieces of wood into the stream bed, adding complexity where there’d been only cheap aesthetics. I’ve lain back on a sleeping bag with Susan after dark taking in the holiday fireworks that can be seen from this high point. These are just some of the things I’m likely to do with a big open space, and with freedom.
Joachim scours places like the perimeter of the former Churchill course for particular metals left behind in early twentieth-century dumps by Westinghouse and other manufacturers once prominent in the area. He’s a freshman in college this year but long before high school matriculation, he was using the crucible and forge he’d set up in his parent’s garage to experiment with metallurgy for the satisfaction that can only come from being constructive, productive and innovative. Never mind that he’s re-processing waste relegated to literal scrap heaps decades earlier. This serves his purposes and I could only respect this on the day Susan and I crossed paths with this high-energy modern day metal smith (MakerJ101 on YouTube). He shone brightly in the dim world of disaffected youths and parents longing for more public youth programs to “keep the kids off the street.” At Churchill, Joachim was off the street, by his own choosing, following his own mechanical muse.
There still aren’t really any signs at the old golf course property. Nothing to tell people they are either welcome here or barred from entry. No signs to tell people what uses are approved or what activities are prohibited. Many urbanites don’t know what to do with Churchill – they’ve never seen anything like it. But those who’ve given the place some thought, and given it a try, find that, at the very least, they can escape confinement here. The energetic people traversing the old golf cart trails are now free-range humans, uncaged with broadened horizons. People find joy at Churchill Valley. Some find and pursue purpose (without mandate) and sense the inspiration that can only come from the wild. How many local public school pupils would do better to leave their prison-like classrooms for a day and saunter the trails of Churchill or find their own Churchill, sans signage and ripe for exploration?
And the news gets even better: Churchill Valley will change. Maybe there’ll be new development and we can’t imagine yet all the opportunities that will spring from this. Other places will concurrently fall into disuse and the opportunist creatures will exploit these. Left alone, the whole of Churchill will incrementally metamorphose from year to year, becoming more optimal for new ranges of species. It’s a fearful thing to all too many suburbanites who assume a world that’s still today as it always has been and always should be; the people who fear things like demographic change, economic change and climate change. But among these the commonality is “change,” the most ineradicable characteristic of our planet and of Churchill Valley too.