My local arboretum is an outburst of diversity amidst suburban sprawl. Spread and
clustered across its hills and meadows are over 4,000 species of trees, shrubs and
plants from 40 countries and most regions of the world. If you look at weekday visitors,
however, they are overwhelmingly white, of the stereotypic variety known as Medius
Americanus, or Middle American. Among them are two subspecies that, on the surface,
look exotic: the many-pocketed birders and the poly-spandex runners, but these
distinctions are only fabric-deep. Despite the taxonomic breadth of the flora, we are
what plays in Peoria. Except last Tuesday.
The buds were just greening and the daffodils glowed above the bluebells, or
Hyacinthoides non-scriptas, and I was out for a run in shorts for the first time in months
of winter. I stopped to watch a Red tailed Hawk perched in a bare tree. While his lower
breast feathers lifted in the breeze like the hem of a kaftan, bullfrogs took up croaking in
a flooded gully nearby. Everything about him, his golden beak, his ivory feathers striped
with deep brown, suggested sovereignty. I left him there and resumed my run. It was on
the road between the prairie and the savannah that I met an olive-skinned man
wearing a gray mustache and dark-blue beret.
He walked with his chest held high over an often-contented belly, arms open like a man
about to dance at a Greek wedding. Gray curls textured with stalwart strands of black
fringed his beret. Hello, can you tell me which way is the exit? I pointed him in the
direction I was heading and, noticing the charmingly friendly expression on his face, I
asked him where he was from. Iran, you know Iran? I said I did not, meaning I’d never
been there, but he mistook this for meaning I did not know where it was on a map. This
reflected poorly, I thought, on North Americans, our reputation for learning World
Geography from television reports of our current wars.
Not at war, yet, with Iran, I was able to assure him that I nonetheless knew it lay next to
Iraq. I welcomed him and extended my hand. That I praised the beauty of Iranian art
and music gave him obvious pleasure. Here was a man completely out of his cultural
element, unguarded and warm. In this brief meeting, I felt more like I’d met an old friend
or friendly neighbor than I often have, indeed, meeting friends and neighbors. What
gives some people the creativity, the outlook that generates such joy and generosity? In
this case, it clearly wasn’t being situated with his own kind. And all my debates about
human rights have seldom meant as much to me as that handshake.
White viburnum, willow catkins, witch-hazel, rhododendron in bloom. Trees of Asia,
Appalachia, Northern Europe. During my arboretum runs I try to release the burden
accrued in my daily forays into world news, into injustice, nationalist violence,
ignorance, the acts of courage beyond all hope. That Spring day, I was looking for a
break. I looked for peace in 4,000 species transforming in the early season. Yet, along
with all of that, I was given unexpected joy–by the foreigner, the man whose warmth
owed no debt to caution.