A Wissahickon of the mind: Valley green key to sanity in 2020

By Abby Orenstein Ash
Posted 12/24/20

A long time from now, some rituals will only be understood in the context of COVID-19. There was once toilet paper acquisition, sour dough, and a summer tie-dying stint. There are now soups, puzzles, …

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A Wissahickon of the mind: Valley green key to sanity in 2020

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A long time from now, some rituals will only be understood in the context of COVID-19. There was once toilet paper acquisition, sour dough, and a summer tie-dying stint. There are now soups, puzzles, and competition for the online purchase of patio heaters before they are out of stock. There was/is Covid judging – judging people who dare go to COSTCO, judging people who dine outdoors, gasping at those who dine indoors, worrying for those people who still don’t see anyone.

And there are more. Because Covid forces many people to develop rituals that keeps them just a smidgen sane, call it distraction, call it sublimation. I call it the act of disappearing, as inspired by Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.” The ego has to go away, dissolve, or the thinking mind has to slow or silence for a while in order for the whole self to gather the wherewithal to keep on going. For myself and my family and many others in the Philadelphia area, our sanity has been steeped in something distinctly Philadelphian: hiking and biking in the Wissahickon Valley Park, or Valley Green.

Amidst a year in which it feels like life unfolds by a Godless world of happenstance on both a societal and individual scale, at least, here, in Philadelphia, one can go to Valley Green. Valley Green, located in Northwest Philadelphia, has always been characterized in my mind as lush green in the middle of the city – or Philadelphia’s Ireland, Philadelphia’s Washington State. Driving down Germantown Pike from Montgomery County, I enter Philadelphia proper seamlessly. What an un-event. But there is a nuanced transformation of feeling, which I believe relates to Valley Green. Northwest Philly is framed and sliced by the park on several sides. It serves as boundary to two worlds -- Roxborough and Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill. The park’s growth is jagged, vast, overgrown. The tree trunks are stripped of bark or layered with ivy. The occasional visitors know the central flow of the creek and wide gravel walking path throughout (Forbidden Drive). Up on the trails, though, are the regulars, as well as the mini streams and baby waterfalls. A canopy of this edge of the city. Truly, it is a sprawling forest, in which one can completely forget the city, but only if that forest is allowed to fill the mind.

We try different entrances. My favorite is Kitchen’s Lane. There are fairy tale cross hatched wooden bridges, stone walls overgrown with moss, a pool for dogs. We hike the trails just after a storm with tree trunks across the path. We slip feet in the water near the Red Covered Bridge and bribe my daughter with Dum Dum’s and shoulder rides to keep walking. We pick flowers and kill lantern flies in Andorra Meadow, and, in summer observe from the fence on Forbidden Drive, all the drinking and swimming in Devil’s Pool.

While Valley Green provides no answers to concerns of the future during a year like 2020 (OMG 2020 Make it STOP – reads a sign outside someone’s house on Belmont Avenue) to my anxieties, it gives me the space to push on, to trudge up a hill, to move bramble out of the way, to get short of breath after a vigorous hiking stretch and gaze downwards at the rocky, rolling creek. To endure the seasons as they pass, strangely faster than usual, as evidenced by same trees bare, then blossoming pink, then growing green, then fluctuating for what seems a moment, red, orange, brown, then bare and cold as if before COVID. The natural phenomenon goes on, no matter our inward fluctuations. People push on, disappear into the work of life, whatever it is, hustle when they have the strength to do so, no matter the vibrance and struggle of the rest of the world.

Extending this thought, there is a song I remember from another one of Pennsylvania’s woods: overnight camp in the Poconos. Yet one more institution that feels like it could have never happened in this lifetime, since COVID began. One refrain articulates the significance of Valley Green clearly. The Hebrew song, “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo,” contains the line “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid.” So many bridges through Valley Green. As we hike, we balance on enormous mossed-over stones that are now bridges. We cross above ravines. The mind disappears. Just for a second. We streamline our focus, simply, to walking in Penn’s woods.

Below the narrow bridges are so many fears into which the mind could entrench.

We hike masked with friends on the last fiery, gray Autumnal weekend in mid-October, perhaps the most magnificent of 2020. Maybe the last before we freeze and go inside. But maybe not. Maybe this year we’ll stay, stay on the trails of the Northwest, in our Northeast city.

The world is too much a narrow bridge right now to hike any other way through our Valley Green.

Abby Orenstein Ash, PhD. Is Teaching Assistant Professor, Teaching Excellence Track at Thomas Jefferson University’s East Falls Campus

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