I usually assume it is simply a polite gesture when people ask me, “what’s your thesis about?” Much to my surprise, there are a few friends and colleagues that seem to seriously want an answer. Admittedly, I hate this question because trying to reduce it to a sentence or two is nearly impossible and I always end up sounding like a pretentious ass. So, for those of you wondering, “what have you been up to?” here’s a little sneak peek at the intro to my collection of creative non-fiction essays that I am calling The Urban Pastoral:
Defining the Urban Pastoral
The opposition of nature and culture can perhaps be best exemplified by the recent Superstorm Sandy, which reeked havoc on much of New York City and the Jersey shoreline. So-called natural disasters are certainly devastating for those effected and the loss and disruption of people’s lives from such events cannot be overstated. From this perspective, it is easy to pin nature against culture, to see them as two forces in contention. The photos of the aftermath of the storm humbled those of us who imagined built environments like New York City as a kind of fortress, the epitome of our human domination over a once wild and unruly place. But I would suggest, without any intention of undermining the tragedy, that the humbling effect Sandy caused could be a platform for a reconception of the relationship between human culture and the power of nature. Unlike other tragic events that have devastated New York City, this perfect storm, as some have dubbed it, can not be retaliated against; we can not wage war with nature; to do so would be self-annihilation. It is clear that we need to learn how to work with it, to be a part of it, and as we rebuild, we need to be cognizant of our place in the larger scheme of the natural world of which human culture can be seen as an outlet, not an enemy.
I think it would be a shame if the legacy of hurricane Sandy were to be exploited by any group, ranging from both ends of the political spectrum. It is too simple for environmentalists to blame the exploitation of the planet by humans as the cause for such an event as it would for the most pro-capitalist businessman to see this simply as a financial opportunity which takes no consideration of safer, stronger, and more sustainable ways to rebuild what was lost. While I can comprehend the interests of both parties, I think that it needs to be noted that either of these viewpoints is faulty in that it assumes that there is logic within nature. Logic is a solely human phenomenon; in fact, many have used it to support an argument in favor of exploiting nature since other living things are assumed to be inferior, as they do not possess such a manner of thinking. It would be irresponsible and selfish to now turn the tables and take up arms against a force that is not only superior to us, as Sandy has shown, but also a major factor in our survival as a species on this planet. Superstorm Sandy illustrates the need for a non-partisan and non-anthropocentric perspective of our larger shared environment in the broadest of terms.
Within academic discourse it is easy to assume that environmental study belongs strictly to the sciences, but the use of the word environment here has implications far beyond the laboratory. In the city of New York we have our physical environment, social environment, and political environment, too. All of these forces affect our psychological state and our comprehension of reality and meaning. Hurricane Sandy is not just a case of bad weather in the same way our environment is not simply one of skyscrapers and alleyways, cold winters, or crowded subways. The systems in place that both aided the storm’s victims and disappointed them are all part of this larger environmental schema–social, economic, political, psychological–that can not be understood by dissection, but rather by intersection.
When I began this project, I wanted to argue for nature in the city. I wanted to simply point to the wildlife in Central Park, to weeds creeping through the cracks in the pavement, to a window box on a sixth story window sill. I wanted to prove that culture is born out of nature and therefore the city is a natural landscape; however this does not suffice. It turns out that my initial ideas about what I sought to define as the urban pastoral were still too simple, and too drenched in idealism about how everyone would care more about the environment if they just started to see nature in the city like I did. But it turns out that this project is far more about people than I had ever imagined. To encourage someone to recycle a plastic bottle and not to throw their Snickers wrapper in the East River would take much more than making them notice a warbler on a tree-lined street. What needs to change is how we think about our environments and our landscapes, if we even think about them at all. The urban pastoral is a complex term that carries with it the weight history and the future of understanding the value of our increasingly urban spaces on Earth. It has become about human nature and, dare I say, the meaning of life.
But the urban pastoral has far more practical implications than it might initially suggest. While it cannot help but border on the philosophical, it is also a way in which language becomes grounded, both literally and metaphorically. The term itself is not just a convenient pun that exemplifies the complexity of the pastoral mode, but also speaks to its very essence. Author, professor, and landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn has pointed to the concept that there is a language of landscape. Her book by this title does much more than prove to its readers that how we talk about complex and often abstract ideas like “landscape,” “nature,” and “culture” have so much more to do with how we conceptualize and utilize our urban environment than many of us have ever imagined. The Language of Landscape has a second, less overt consequence: it proves that divisions among disciplines have hindered a truly comprehensive understanding of our respective environments. When we first begin to contemplate the various forms of literature about the environment, it is easy to overlook the contributions by those from other fields outside of our comfort zones, and Spirn is a prime example of how so many brilliant minds are grappling with the same preoccupation of nature in the city without having an open discourse or dialogue with their colleges over in the labs of the science building, those at the drawing boards of landscape architecture and city planning, or the philosophically, historically, and literary minded in the library reading the classics of Thoreau and Leopold. In an ever-increasingly urbanized nation, how do we understand nature in the city? Some further questions to ask are, What is the relationship between nature and culture? And, Why does there exist such binaries between our understanding of nature and culture and of city and country? What factors contributed to this mindset and how have they become detrimental to the health of our planet and ourselves? And, finally, How can we best ameliorate the disconnection and misconceptions that have for so long dominated environmental literature in both academia and mainstream culture?