The Last Sane Place on Earth

Out of all the named, street-addressed, people-curated places that you can pin on a Google Map, there are only two that offer me something like pure happiness. Only two that feel uncorrupted.

One of them is that bastion of sanity known as a public library. But that’s an admiring ode for another day. Today my focus is on another pillar of society, another purveyor of the public good.

Plenty of places offer enjoyment in spades. Restaurants, coffee shops, zoos, museums, theaters, and concert halls all bring considerable joy and nourishment — either bodily or otherwise — and they are all vital to our well-being. But they all have something in common that keeps them firmly tethered to the realm of commerce: A profit motive.

Every business owner needs to make money in one way or another, and that is of course all well and good. But there is one place that lies beyond the brow-furrowing pursuits of capitalism. A place where virtually no money is exchanged. A place that does not function to further the interest of its shareholders. A place that exists solely to make life better, and more beautiful, for its “customers.”

It is a place unbounded by four walls. A place without a cash register. A place where the temperature is not carefully controlled with a thermostat.

It is a sanctuary of sorts. A refuge from most of the trappings of civilization. A place with minimal creature comforts, which nonetheless offers tremendous comfort.

That place, as the great Leslie Knope would have blurted out 3 paragraphs ago, is a park.

Parks, be they of the National or the state or the regular-ol’-local-playground variety, are my favorite places in all of human society. The peace and joy I find in parks is something I have tried to put into words for years. Parks bring me something akin to real serenity. And there 3 primary reasons I think this is the case.

First and foremost, green spaces are the best spaces of all the spaces. By definition, at least the one in my dictionary, anything nature offers is better than anything you can find within four walls. Fresh air is better than forced air. Looking up at the sky is better than looking up at a ceiling. Walking on the soft spring-green earth, or the frozen winter-yellow tundra for that matter, is better than walking barefoot on even the softest plush carpet. The outdoor world God designed is better than the indoor one we designed. (Although to be fair, I’m glad to have both.)

Parks are ideal because they offer us nature in all its un-walled, un-ceilinged, un-carpeted glory — tethered to a few basic amenities (benches, pavilions, toilets) that make the experience more convenient.

Parks are tiny pockets of greenery and grandeur where we can get away from the rat race and slow down to a more human pace.

A place where we can hear ourselves breathe again.

The second reason I find serenity in parks is that they bring people together. I am a social being by nature — especially when I’m in nature — and hiking on random trails with the kids, while wonderful in every other way, is not always the best way to encounter other human beings. But visiting a park, especially now that it’s warming up and we’re not the only people enjoying those parks like we were in the dead of January, is a great way to rub shoulders with humanity.

Some of the most bright-eyed and bushy-tailed conversations I’ve had in the last few years were with random fellow parents (and fellow people in general) at playgrounds and state parks. I have found that at a park, the fresh air and beautiful green space brings out the best in everyone. It makes us all more inclined to be social, and more filled with positivity.

And you know why? Because nature just makes you feel good. It makes you feel more like yourself. It makes you (or at least it makes me) want to look over at a perfect stranger pushing his child on the next swing and say “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” or “What a nice park this is! Do you live nearby?” or some such un-modern, Mayberry-esque sentiment. And 9 times out of 10, that pleasantry leads to a pleasant exchange which exchanges any disconnectedness I might have felt with a warm sense of harmony with humanity.

The final way that parks are a refreshing escape from the world is the one I alluded to at the beginning. Parks represent the antithesis of commerce, currency, and capitalism itself. Unlike virtually every place you can visit that has a street address, you can enjoy the pleasures of a park without touching your wallet. Or seeing a gaudy advertisement. Or hearing top 40 radio piped from the loud speakers. Or remembering that the modern world is built on people getting other people to buy things from people who are paid to sell those things to people.

Parks are a triumph of pleasure over pragmatism, of beauty over business, of community over commerce. Every park that is commissioned is, in a very real way, a testament to the human spirit. A state park costs money to build and maintain, of course, but (at least here in Pennsylvania, where state parks are free) it extracts exactly no money from those who would like to pass through its entrance gate.  Zero dollars and zero cents. The only thing that comes close to the purity of a park is a library; but even those have late fees! I’ve never paid a late fee at a park. Not once.

For me there is a reassuring tranquility in looking at a pavilion, or a picnic table, or a playground, or a placard explaining some fact about history or nature, and realizing that item was built solely to bring joy or solace or education to the general public. It reminds me of what really matters, underneath all the detritus of our bombed-out, bridge-burnt, bang-for-your-buck civilization.

A park is an oasis, a refuge from the madness and menace and sheer volume level of the modern world. It is a place to appreciate nature, wildlife, God, community, family, solitude. Whatever you need on a given day, a park will offer.

Because a park, as I see it, is a microcosm of life itself.

And parks are where I want to spend my life.

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