November–December 2022


Revelations in Chain Link

How a chance encounter with an ash tree restored my connection to the natural world.

Will Nelson

Deep in Hidden Falls Regional Park, a verdant swath of forested land located along the Mississippi River bluffs in St. Paul, I followed the distant thrumming of techno music toward a clearing under an overpass where, according to social media, a dance party was occurring. As I crawled through a gap in a chain-link fence, my fishnet shirt snagged on a protruding wire. Turning to extricate myself, my hand caught hold of a young ash tree. The sapling had twined itself into the fence as it grew, stunted in the shady undergrowth but reaching toward an opening to the sky.

I sat back against the fence for a moment, running my fingers over the smooth, spearhead-shaped leaves. It was the first ash tree I’d seen since the ashes in front of my house in Midway were cut down the year prior to slow the spread of the emerald ash borer. I recalled the magnificent, ancient ash that had grown in my childhood front yard. That tree seemed like a different species entirely from the living twig I now held in my hand.

I felt a kinship to the sapling—young, eager, struggling to put down roots in the city, and currently tangled up in a chain-link fence. In that moment, the scrawny ash was more beautiful to me than the sequoias of the Sierra Nevada.

It had been a while since I’d felt a strong connection to the natural world. I grew up in the St. Croix River Valley, where I had easy access to outdoor recreation, spending weekends canoeing, bicycling, or wandering the hundreds of miles of hiking trails near my childhood home. My outdoor enthusiast parents would frequently take my sister and me on monthlong camping excursions to all corners of the state.

But when I moved to St. Paul for college, I found myself being drawn away from this lifestyle. I replaced walks in the woods with political discourse in the dining commons, canoe trips with house parties. I got a membership to a bouldering gym where I enjoyed fake rocks in the comfort of air conditioning. As I became yoked with homework and multiple jobs, lengthy trips like I’d been privileged enough to know as a child—trips that had defined my idea of outdoor recreation—became impossible.

By my sophomore year, my interest in the outdoors seemed to have faded and my connection to the natural world felt frayed to a thread. But as I held the weathered little ash sapling in my hand, it occurred to me that I’d never really moved away from nature at all. Our relationship had just changed.

There’s no right way to appreciate the land around you. My way of doing so as a college student in the Twin Cities might look a little different than it had as a child in an outdoorsy family, but that’s all right. Revelrous bonfires on the banks of the Mississippi, skateboarding in the park across the street, playing Frisbee on the grassy quad—these things are still outdoor recreation. Perhaps I’d begun to take my connection to the natural world for granted, but it hadn’t gone away.

It’s easy to forget but important to remember that connecting with nature doesn’t have to mean canoe voyages to the Boundary Waters or hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. It can be as simple as walking out your front door or as unintentional as getting tangled in a chain-link fence on your way to a party.

The Mississippi River humming gently in the distance, I stood—letting the ash sapling fall from my hand—and resumed walking toward the music and lights, a little more aware of the land beneath me.