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More Urban Awareness

by Brian Griffin February 26, 2020

More Urban Awareness

The hustle and bustle of our lives can keep us in what feels like a state perpetual motion. And our endless running to make the ends meet, the sense of always being in a race with time, can create a sort of mental tunnel vision. It can narrow our focus to such a small point that all we see are the goals we've set and how quickly the time is ticking away. The rest of the world around us can become just a blur in our periphery, as we go through our day on autopilot.

Some of us have become more aware of our surroundings and the hazards within, usually the hard way, and have learned to make at least some contingency plans. So we carry various small kits to cope with life's little reoccurring emergencies. Like small first aid kits for cuts and splinters, a way to make light if the power goes out, a way to create warmth if the power goes out in the winter, and a way to cut things. With an awareness of our dependency on water, having a portable water purification system on hand is almost never a bad idea.

A lot of us enjoy spending time in our local parks when we can, I know my daughters and I always have. Whether we're playing ball, throwing the frisbee, picnicking, or a long day of some of all of it. It's good for us to get outside and let off steam, but being aware of hazards in urban spaces can make our time out more enjoyable and in some cases much safer. We can't control the behaviors of people any more than we can control nature's, short of simply removing them both from our environments or us from theirs, and to me that doesn't sound like much fun. But we can adapt our own behaviors to the environments we frequent.

A lot of parks in temperate regions have a few varieties of toxic plants growing in them. I'd much rather to learn to identify those plants and avoid them than complain about them, which would likely just get our parks sprayed with dangerous herbicides that we can't see and thus can't avoid.

Contact dermatitis can be painfully annoying, but I have friends who can't keep the rhyme of 3 and 5 straight because they don't encounter the situation often enough for it to stick. So to help with that I teach them a story of 1, and then they can expand their knowledge from there. Because Poison Ivy – which is so common here it may as well be the Tennessee State Wildflower – is the main culprit for contact dermatitis here in the south, and it is the 1 vine in our parks and woods which is “hairy”. So if they learn to look for the hairy vines, then they will probably figure out in time that the “leaves of three” are usually the worrisome ones. And for those who have severe allergic reactions to urushiol, the vine itself can be just as hazardous in the autumn and winter.

Even when the leaves are gone the urushiol oil is still present in the vines. Skin contact with just the vines and stalks can bring about a reaction for some people, and burning it as a tinder material or a fuel for cooking (or for warming) in a public barbecue grill can be very dangerous for anyone in the area who is allergic to it. Fire doesn't destroy the urushiol oil it vaporizes it, and sends it traveling through the air as steam. If inhaled that steam will cause a much worse reaction inside the lungs of anyone who breaths it than the oil would cause on their skin. In this instance Poison Ivy can be deadly.

I don't fish the river here anymore, in fact it has been decades since I put a line in this water, but I did fish here many times as a kid. And even decades later, once you've had to remove fishhooks that were deeply buried in your flesh, by forcing them on through and out (because fishhooks don't travel in reverse), it becomes an experience you will likely never forget. So even though I don't fish here anymore, my eyes still automatically watch for rogue lures when I'm near the water. That's how I found this one, stuck in a piece of old cloth right beside the concrete of the river walk.

Even if you're not into fishing yourself, if you go near bodies of water that contain fish it is a good idea to watch for things left behind by those who are. Removing a fishhook from a child's foot is an extremely unpleasant experience, and removing one from your own body isn't exactly fun. Having at least one good multi-tool on hand is very helpful, and having two is even better. Case in point, as you can see here, it was much easier to just cut a small section of the cloth than to pull the hooks out of it.

For some people it may seem like I'm stating the obvious when I say it can be a bad idea to venture beyond the end of the lighted and watched-over paths in parks at night. Yet for some of the younger and less experienced the lights and cameras in the open areas can create a false sense of security in the entire park, which can embolden them to go where they probably shouldn't go at night. So be careful if you venture out to where the wild things grow after dark, you could find yourself much further out of your reckoning than you like.

As an example at first glance this camp, which was located in woods just off the trail about 200 meters down that darkened path in the previous image, appeared much like any homeless camp. And having been homeless myself in younger days, I tend to sympathize with some of the homeless people I encounter today. So after observing the camp from a distance for a few days, and only ever seeing the one guy there, I was initially interested in seeing if I could/should offer him some help. It was early autumn and winter was coming.

The trail to the camp was well-worn and very clear, but it took an odd circuitous route around to the right side of it and then entered the camp at an angle from the rear. The entrance and interior of the camp were well hidden from sight of anyone on the trail by the tarps and bushes. For privacy I assumed, which wasn't surprising.

It wasn't until I walked into the main area that I saw the rather disturbing scene waiting behind those tarps. It was not a camp at all, but what appeared to be a cul de sac set up as an ambush site. Even worse it appeared to be one that targeted children. A little girl's dress was displayed very prominently, and very neatly compared to the rest of the chaos, hanging spread out on the side of a shopping cart at the opneing. Looking at the layout of the area as a whole, it reminded me of a fox trap with the dress being used as a type of bait. Then there was more children's clothing and a few toys partly hidden under debris deeper into the cul de sac, which was set up in a way that any child caught within it would have great difficulty in escaping.

On the other side of the entry trail there was an area of flattened grass and weeds behind some small bushes. It looked like a deer or coyote bed, except it was littered with junk food wrappers and and cigarette butts, which gave it the appearance of an observation post. At that point I left and got the authorities involved, and in a relatively short period of time the man was taken into custody and removed from the area.

I was later told the guy was a previously imprisoned pedophile with a long record. While this is definitely the exception rather than the rule when it comes to homeless camps, I have never in my life been so glad I went through advanced infantry training in the Army. Having been trained to recognize ambushes allowed me to see that odd camp for what it was, rather than just being confused by it like the other passersby in the area said they had been.

We live in a really beautiful world full of wonder that is certainly worth enjoying. But even though our world is much improved today over the world our ancestors saw in the dark ages, there are still some serious concerns and some very real threats lurking out there, and awareness is an essential skill to survival in any environment. It can be very dangerous to let the things on the edges of our world become such a blur we don't notice them. Paying just a little more attention in the areas we wander can make a huge difference in the overall quality of our lives and the lives of those whom we love.

Brian Griffin
Brian Griffin


Brian Griffin is an author, photographer, wilderness and survival skills teacher, knife enthusiast, outdoor gear researcher and product development consultant. He has a decades-long history of using and developing outdoor related tools and gear.

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