The Forest in the Winter at Sunset (1845-67), Pierre Rousseau, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“This painting is terrifying,” she said. I had to agree. Two figures, central in the frame, are dwarfed by the literal awesomeness of the forest. The sky is an ominous orange, perhaps because of a fire, or one of those cold winter sunsets, where the cold creeps in as sun descends.

Geese fly overhead, in their classic flying vee. They have the sense and the ability to go south. Where can these pour souls escape to? They have only a narrow path through the tangled brush, puddles to slog through, and precious minutes left of daylight.

As I read the placard accompanying the painting, every tool of analysis from high school english classes comes rushing back from my forgotten memories. The classic types of conflict: man vs. nature, man vs. self, man vs. man. These two hold on to each other to weather the storm. They cooperate against nature. But if the forest is the soul, and the sunset our human frailty, then against whom do we fight? We can’t very well take on the entire world and win.

We walked here from Columbia; first twenty blocks south, then through Central Park, then another ten blocks while we got unlost. She’s supposed to know where she is; at least she lives in this city. I am totally useless without a map and compass. At least this urban jungle is a grid, we have the advantage of several orthogonal paths through the underbrush.

On the path through the park, we passed business men and women exercising themselves. Step out of the office, into this small rectangle of nature, protected by expensive running shoes, goretex jackets and an iPod. Not these two, they run for their very lives. As if they “had the very whips of their masters at their backs.” Perhaps this is Fangorn forest, and one of these crooked trees is an Ent.

“What do you want to do with your life?” I asked, by way of an introduction. “Environmental science,” she replied. How typical, I thought. All of these rich girls want to save the world. I always thought she was more of the physics type, but then she grew her hair long, and her curls became dreads. And I knew we were on different paths through this jungle.

The hunched figures hurry along to make it home alive. I navigate the subway system and try to find 139 Canal Street and the Chinatown bus. I am successful, and catch the last few seconds of the Superbowl in my dorm. Are these two so lucky? No post-victory riot awaits them, only the trial of living one more day. And for that, we are grateful.

Wrote this for 21W.730, the writing class I had to take because of my own laziness when taking the Freshman Essay Exam. Note to self, don’t be an idiot, take all written tests seriously.