From the wilderness to the cityscape

Gary Schneider said something to the effect that the only experience of nature left to many of us consists in listening to the palpitations of our own heartbeats. We are organic beings — animals. We are parts of natural ecosystems. Yet we have increasingly built our human systems without a sensitivity to the ecosystems on which we depend and of which we are a part. We have made ourselves parts of cityscapes, of concrete jungles.

Where does the blame lie for the fact that we have formed these largely unsustainable spaces — however unwittingly and unnecessarily? With an anthropological philosophy that denigrates all moral concerns but the human? With capitalism, which denigrates all values except profit? With our biological evolution, which has just molded us into not very smart, but very self-interested and very short-sighted animals, concerned with what we see and hear in relative proximity but without a great capacity for long-term thinking needed in light of technologies we have been able to create that outstrip our wisdom for sensible control — and so we allow them to unravel in front of us?

The prognoses vary. But among environmentalists of all stripes there is agreement: clearly something needs to be done. But how precisely might we readjust ourselves and restructure our cultural and technological spheres so that they are sensitive to the ecosystems in which we live? We clearly need a fundamental attitudinal shift. But of what kind exactly? Theological? Poetic? Scientific? How do we achieve this shift? And once we have that, what then?

It cannot hurt to listen to our hearts beat more often. If that’s all of nature that we have readily accessible, then we can at least turn inward and quietly allow the palpitations of the heart drown out the sounds of the street cars and overhead flying planes and the inner voices of worry — about medical bills, house payments, rising seas, global heat waves, and and and…. This might help with an attitudinal shift. Early environmentalism had a different focus though. It underlined especially the need to go into the wilderness in order to recover our respect for raw nature. With that, with the experience of the beauty of nature — no with an experience of its sublimity — we might readjust ourselves, and come to respect that natural world which we have somehow forgotten but with which we are inextricably united.

With this focus on the need for an experience of the wilderness, however, environmentalist naturalism often found itself at another crossroads — with theology or theologies. The experience of wild nature, it often emphasized, might awaken our minds to the creator of nature, or of a creator who is nature — a Tao or Atman, or some such thing. Yet environmentalist naturalism has not led to any one overriding eco-theology. And for those less willing to grasp at theological straws — less apt to look beyond nature for a creator greater than nature, or less willing to see nature itself, with its careless complexity, as a divinity — the experience of nature will not point beyond. Nonetheless it can be awe-inspiring and transforming, instilling in us a newfound respect for that upon which we rely and of which we are a part. Surely any environmentalism worth accommodating will need to accommodate such metaphysical pluralism. And after all, we need not go to theology — Eastern or Western — to find a reason to see ourselves as a part of nature. Ecosystems biology suffices for that. And an encounter with the land or with the wilderness can help drive that home — regardless of theological persuasion.

The knowledge of ecosystems biology and the experience of nature ought instill in us a new understanding of the human/nature relationship. That understanding needs subtlety though. Too much of early environmentalism pitted humans on one side against nature on the other. The back-to-the-land credo that accompanied cries for re-experiencing wilderness might indeed have helped lend us a respect for nature. But it often has failed to recognize that the wilderness to which we were returning was already a human built ecosystem, one however that was more respectful of the natural world of which it was a part. Those behind more recent nature restoration projects have asked, indeed, when we restore nature in North America is it back to 1491? 1492? Even then, though, what of the early Amazonian peoples who had already shaped the Amazon basin into a naturally sensitive, ecologically sound human/naturescape?

Let us leave the specifics of these debates to the side for now. We can still perhaps agree that an encounter with nature at least with more balanced human/naturescapes, less trampled, less concrete, with niches left for the wolf, the deer, the panther, the bear, can have transformative effects upon us. It might allow us, with some imagination, to envision the world not from our own perspective, not with a view to what it can do for us, but with a view to what it is for wolf, the deer, the panther, the bear, or the mountainscape of which they are a part.

We clearly need to understand our own dependence on nature. We clearly need to understand the value of biodiversity, that nature has its values beyond all human valuations. It’s already too late — too late for thousands of species that have died and are now dying, too late for ecosystems that will never be what they once were or never evolve into what they might have become. It’s too late for much of nature. But what of us? Live we can in a poorer, less diverse naturescape. That is true. But how much poorer and less diverse can it become before it is no longer true even for us? We do not know the tipping point precisely. We know we are most surely moving toward it. We know we need to stop. We know a respect for nature might serve us to avert the worst, if we build on that with intelligent action.

In this, preserving as much wilderness as possible has a place. We need to save national parks where the panther still live. We need to preserve some larger spaces, and leave them relatively untouched. We are not alone in this world; and more of the mammals who share the earth will die out if we insist on our right to occupy every nook and every cranny. In many cases other species will not require fully untouched nature but they will require less human intrusion. They require spaces for them more than for us — even if we now and again might benefit from breathing in their cleaner air and listening to their sounds more primordial.

We also need to build oases into the cityscapes, and prevent their further denigration, so we have a space where we live or close to where we live to breath in air less stale from exhaust fumes, where we might hear the sounds of water through park creeks. The lucky might have large backyard, with a refreshing human/naturescape within steps. We need to create nature spaces in our city spaces — parks,  urban gardens, green rooftop gardens. These are not wilderness. But they are possibilities that we have as humans to cultivate environmentally sensitive spaces into our urban landscapes. The palpitations of the heart — we can also listen for those. Perhaps they too can instill in us a sense of the importance for creating human spaces and interacting with one another and the natural world with a greater awareness of our need for the natural world and of the natural world’s need for our consideration. But let us work to ensure that such palpitations are not all we are left with and before those too might disapear.



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