Saturday, July 30, 2011
The Manicured Wilderness
The Manicured Wilderness: Author’s note, as Preface:
WRITING OF RIVERS, prairies, and small but rich streams being dammed to create lakes [likely to be filled too soon with sediment], and patches of lorn, dusty landscapes lost to apartment complexes and condos, I had not dreamed of ever writing of cities as ecological bastions and, further, of cities as having the capability of ever, Ever, EVER attaining a designation of “wilderness.” I was challenged to think about wildness by an individual who would never see the city as wild. Having a dog, feeding birds--to him, whom I deeply respected, all of these things were significant measures of our separation from nature. But so challenged, the closer that I looked, a door opened that I had not anticipated.
Popularly, cities were the antithesis of nature—artificial, domesticated, civil, an “intrusion” in nature. Environmentalism and ecology stood against cities in an effort to prevent the obvious, and very true environmental degradation caused by human activity. Cities seemed to be the poster child for anti-nature. And so, the last thing that I was interested in writing about as "NATURE" was the city-form. And yet, in beginning to look at cities—not at intentional urban design as much as unintentional global migration to cities [rather than away from cities as in the past] and participatory architecture—the activities of people becoming residents, cities were unintentionally producing intuitive—“wild”—ecological adaptive responses that were beginning to achieve ecological changes, such as a reduction in the rate of global population, that intentional advocacy and legislation were unable to achieve. And, it became apparent, that even ecological advocacy and environmental monitoring were being driven and even amplified by essentially urban, academic institutions.
There is no reason why cities might not be ecotopias, rather than artificial dystopias. We have reconciliation ecology. Human life and cities are young in the history of the Earth. Eco-literacy is, really, in its infancy. And the possibility that the city has emerged as an ecological adaptation to fit human life into the wilderness dynamic that is the biosphere is very real, once one begins to look at the city as an ecosystem. This is not to say that post-industrial human life is not creating severe environmental degradation that threatens the Earth ecosystem. But the city-form may be a step forward, once we begin to look at it as if it were a forest. As it begins to reduce the global human population, the city-form may begin to keep up rather than perpetually try to keep up with a burgeoning global human population.
THE LIVING CITY wears a disguise of hardness, domesticity and artificiality that hides it enduring heart. Scrutinizing close, the city-form endures because its essential nature has not changed. It sustains by doing that which all “infinite game” [James Carse, Finite And Infinite Games, NY: Basic Books, 1986] ecosystems do—by changing and adapting. It is Earthen. In post-industrial culture that seems to be a step out of nature, it is still quite remarkable that we might believe the city-form to be a step out of nature. Our most rational post-industrial scientific measures keep losing us deeper in cosmos rather than lift us above it. And yet, in modern life, we still tend to go much farther than that—either to believe or to act as if we are born into the world rather than are born from the Earth itself, as if the Earth was a separable stage set.
In Dawn Light [NY: W. W. Norton: 2009, p.3], Diane Ackerman writes.
We live on a planet, a planet in space, surrounded by millions of other planets and suns. And on this planet, eons ago, by chance life evolved. Then I picture the cavalcade of life, from grub-like strings of bacteria and knobs of blue-green algae through weird mammals to people, in suits and shoes, driving metal shells, talking into electronic ears, having dinner dates, creating art, craving love, living in palatial huts.
How strong and eye-poppingly wonderful it is to live on a planet in space, and to be alive with intelligence, maybe something unique thus far in our relatively young universe. I’m often startled by this thought, like the way you flinch when someone surprises you. How unlikely, and what an adventure. For me, it’s important to wake up often to our true nature and circumstance, to remember how lucky and fleeting it is just being alive. Most often that happens outside, while walking or biking in the country, or enjoying a park in the manicured wilderness that is a city [bold added].
As modern life becomes increasingly machined and electronic/cybernetic, there is not a material that is not fundamentally Earthen. And rather than having become separate from the natural world and intrusive, modern life is increasingly lost in both space and time, linked inseparably with not just apes but ancestral shrews and seas still carried in blood salt. Even the most literal “manicure” of civility—expressed in the billions spent annually on fashion and cosmetics—essentially expresses the creatural dimension in human life far more than the civil. The rouge on the cheeks is an ethological display like the color flash of a bird’s feathers to another of its species. Holidays, shelters, territory—there is nothing that is unnatural, albeit sometimes extreme. But these variations are natural—diversity—with some changes adaptive, like the lower rates of global population growth brought about indirectly as an aspect of increasing global urbanization, and others a wrong turn, like a wind-blown seed falling on rock.
Throughout human development, the term “wilderness” has undergone a variety of meanings, from dangerous wasteland to a rather Romantic complex ecosystem devoid of human development. But even in the Neolithic era, human activity is now understood to have begun a profound impact on the most remote ecosystems, from savannah to rainforest, favoring certain flora. We imagine “wilderness” to be declining down to remote landscapes, when, in fact, the dynamic of wilderness is global and stellar, and still in creation. Every modern action is lost in a vast Earthen and stellar wilderness and subject to its dynamics. The city-form is a mix of aversion and affinity with the larger Earth ecosystem. The city-form comes into existence as a response to the need for a more efficient habitation design to sustain a vast global human population. And human activity that is termed “urbanization” has adaptive ecological features. These adaptive features are limited by both sacred and secular belief systems that imagine human life as separate and above nature as well as by the difficulty in trying to outpace the rapid rate of global population growth. Most of the adaptive features to be found in the city-form are the unintentional result of human urban actions, including reducing the major barrier of the global rate of population growth, which our intentional environmental efforts have failed to achieve. One of the remaining major barriers involves our clinging to beliefs of having become separate from nature. Our most rational scientific measures and a relatively new eco-literacy easily challenge such beliefs. By beginning to recognize “wilderness” in modern “manicured “ life, we might expedite our intentional efforts to optimize adaptive ecological features. It is possible to begin to imagine that even cities might achieve wilderness status, as measured by increasing eco-diversity, exquisite fittedness, and near-complete recycling.