Fall is a natural time to contemplate the people who live in the woods, the urban woods, the stands of trees that might as well be one-dimensional walls along the road throughout the summer. When the leaves fall off, these woods gain depth and we see inside them, and see for the first time that year the immensity of the encampments, the network of tents and tarps and clotheslines, the secret labors of the summer; a curtain has withdrawn between them and us. So I think about who they are, and how many times I'd seen them before around town, unaware that every night they melted into that thick green palisade. Fall also bears the scent of winter, begging natural questions as to what will become of these people when it gets cold, when survival depends on more than just shelter from the rain and staying out of sight from the cops. Every autumn is the same in these regards.
But I've been especially preoccupied with the people who live in the woods this fall. There are many of them in Anchorage; with the birch forests opening up, the camps are like dark ghosts in a white world, obscured but carrying a definite presence in the peripheral vision. I've also just picked up T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, which follows the travails of a Mexican husband and wife who are forced to live in the brush outside Los Angeles by a terrible job market and a streak of bad luck that only gets worse. Boyle is a fine story teller, and drives home the vulnerability that life in these margins brings along. Rape. Vandalism. There are no locks on the doors, no rights to say where your property begins. Because, of course, it's not their property. Nor is it sanitary. Boyle doesn't sugar coat this fact. He notes the trash. The human excrement. The way in which people living in the woods makes everyone else feel uncomfortable there. All these things anathema to our concept of public lands. As it happens, Matt Driscoll at Seattle Weekly this week also considered the people who live in the woods, with an excellent piece that draws out exact figure on how much trash is left in the forest by these people (among other insights). Around North Bend alone, it's come to 7,000 pounds of rubbish this summer alone. People who could be working to maintain trails instead spend their volunteer hours filling garbage bags of filth left in the forest around Kent and North Bend.
It's a problem from hell for the liberal conscience. Nature offers us the surest escape from the worldly pursuits and strictures of society--consider Jesus in the desert--and in that way is sacred. Yet doesn't the very prospect of someone living their entire lives in a small tent render any concern about litter rather petty? Were all the people who live in the woods druggies, then the answer may be an easy no. They're just criminals, their litter just another act of selfishness in a life devoted to being utterly selfish. And no doubt many of these people are criminals, as the Weekly piece suggests. But Boyle demands we forgo that easy logic and learn a larger lesson from the people in the woods, that we consider the paths that exist to that very outer margin of society. Intravenous drug use is one path, no doubt. But so is untreated mental illness; so is being one of the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States who can't legally be on a housing lease nor appeal to any authority when your peanut butter jar of rent money is stolen (to site a specific case from the book.) How realistic is Boyle's depiction of the problem? I have no way of knowing, but it all certainly seems plausible. And it certainly is making me take a longer look into the woods, in hopes that some truth will leave the periphery so I may look at in straight on.