So on a warm September day I scraped through blackberry brambles and patches of English ivy that had escaped nearby gardens, toward Damion Cunningham’s camp. I was traveling with a friend. We reached Cunningham’s lean-to and found piles of waterlogged books and yellowing newspaper clips. Cunningham himself was absent, so we began shouting: “Damion! Damion!”
When he arrived, Cunningham was bearing an armful of ivy–he’d use it later to build a wall out of neat ivy bales. Cunningham is 70 and thin, with a white beard and a hole-pocked wardrobe that hangs from his bony back. He deemed it critical to inform me, right off, that he was a “conservative diehard” and a refugee from a family of left-wing radicals. “They’ve just been drinking too much of their Al-Gore. I’m here to escape their liberal poison. If I’m up here, I won’t need to jump off the Democrats’ shoulders, into the next pot of Democratic merde.”
Cunningham set the ivy down. Then, with callused fingers, he rummaged about in his scattershot library. “Now this book here,” Cunningham said, pointing to Shakedown, a scathing biography of Jesse Jackson, “I found it in a Dumpster. Very informative. And here is Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, from 1541. I’m reading the German right alongside my English Bible. And this [a newspaper clip] is about my good Doctor Dobson [the evangelical radio host James Dobson].” Cunningham received an inheritance of $7,000 recently, and he gave every cent to Dobson. “All of us diehards,” he said, “are concerned about the breakdown of the social order.”
In time, my friend steered the conversation around to a less heated topic. “Damion,” he said, “what do you think of this ivy?” The weed winds its way up thousands of trees here. It serves as a reminder that, even in its shadiest and most tranquil recesses, Forest Park is still choked and threatened by the corrupting forces of civilization.
“The ivy is what keeps me here. Everywhere I go I have to pull ivy,” Cunningham said. “What I really need is a scythe.”
Briefly, I actually considered buying him a shiny new scythe. He would use it avidly, I imagined, addressing the ivy as though it were a Biblical pestilence. Already, bales of ivy stretched on for 30 feet by his home. But as I listened–now he was talking about “the gentrification of Venetian blinds”–I had to conclude that he was doing just fine without a sharp tool.
When Cunningham led us out, he cruised nimbly up the steep slope, flailing his bent ragamuffin frame through thickets of blackberries, until we reached the trail. “Wonderful, wonderful!” he said in high-pitched, ardent tones. “A pleasure!” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. Then he plunged back into the bush. Noontime joggers padded by, music wafting softly out of their iPods.