The soul of our city is civilized, but our heart is wild.

A river runs through it.

A soaring forest shades it.

Coyotes, deer, foxes and raccoons cavort in it.

This wild heart is Rock Creek Park, witnessed by 14 million a year — 2 million to nourish their spirits, 12 million to commute or work.

Teddy Roosevelt skinny-dipped there, not the only Roosevelt to appreciate the park. Franklin D. Roosevelt loved driving through. “There is nothing so American as our national parks,” FDR said in a 1936 speech. “The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

Rock Creek is America’s oldest natural urban national park, its third oldest federal park. Before it was a park, Indians quarried soapstone, then European settlers founded grain mills. Forts there, now overgrown and hidden, protected Washington in Civil War days. Today, you can hike to solitude, or picnic or play golf or ride horses or take in a concert.

The main park is above Klingle Road, but the National Park Service manages parkland all the way to the Potomac under the Rock Creek Park umbrella.

The creek that carved and feeds it begins as a spring near Laytonsville in Montgomery County and tumbles 33 miles south into the Potomac River at Georgetown. Nine miles of Rock Creek runs through the park. Numerous waterways feed into it there — including the Piney, Pinehurst, Broad, Soapstone and Luzon branches — as well as troubling storm sewers, not the only source of stress.

Next year the park celebrates its 125th anniversary. To prepare, Rock Creek Conservancy , the nonprofit group that works to protect the park and watershed, is inviting the interested to a series of “pivotal” meetings on the park’s next decade, on our responsibility for taking care of it, and to take a survey on their website.

And to prepare, The Washington Post Magazine brings you an issue dedicated to this very special presence in our lives, a taste of the characters who populate it. Perhaps they heed the words of Teddy Roosevelt: “The joy of living is his who has the heart to demand it.”

Lynn Medford, editor

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