When I was a child I was so adverse to change that when my mother altered her hairstyle it was worse than finding out there was no Santa Claus. Difficulty in coming to terms with change has been a reoccurring theme in my life; this isn’t something I’m particularly proud of, but it is one of the ways I’ve come to understand myself—a thorny pastime I would not recommend to the faint of heart. Some people live their whole lives in transit, in constant change, literally living the life of a nomad, or others just with a knack for re-self-fashioning. For most of my life I’ve lived in the same house on the same three acre lot surrounded by woods and grew so connected to that place up on the hill, in the hard, resistant earth that it will forever remain a part of me. When I moved to New York City it was like ripping a plant out of the ground with long, clinging roots and trying to replant it in a window box. I’ve found, though, against the odds, that I can thrive there, too.
It is no profound realization that history is constantly encouraging us to reevaluate, to find new ways of understanding our past, and thus our present (an idea you might have noticed I’m a bit obsessed with). In an urban-dominated world, the common use of complex ideas like nature and culture has become antiquated. It no longer suffices to consider one without the other in the same way one can not truly understand the complexity and development of a city without also considering its hinterland. Time is one of those inescapable forces that we have to come to terms with, as sad as we may be to see things change. I am convinced that nostalgia is a huge component of the human condition and one that may even tie us to a collective unconscious that it attested to by great minds like the psychologist Carl Jung and the poet W.B. Yeats who both came to obsess over this same concept without ever having known of each other. You need not be religious to be conscious of the postlapsarian world in which we’ve been cast out of the garden and ruing it ever since. If it exists for one as simply a metaphor for the lament of our time here on earth, which is alarmingly short when we consider how old this planet is, I think it applies to us all. Do we all not find ourselves in some ways longing for the past? Be it regret or happy memories of days gone by, don’t we all remember times that seem somehow simpler? For us in modern cities like New York, the urban pastoral becomes our way of coping; it is our elegy for the pre-urbanized world that can at times seem so unnatural.
Instead of boring you with a long digression into the etymology of the words “urban” and “pastoral,” and a lecture on classic literary modes, let’s just go with this: In addition to the literary mode, the pastoral can be understood as both a moment in time and a physical place in the present that has notably rural qualities (think shepherds back in the day or even farmers in upstate NY); however, both understandings of the term suggest that it holds a sense of elegy—nostalgia for the past when nature, in all its forms, was more prominent than skyscrapers.
“Urban pastoral” has a clear tie to the usage of “pastoral” in earlier times; however, I would argue, the term seeks to problematize the binary between its two parts in suggesting that there is indeed nature in the city. Some may go as far as to call the urban environment a natural setting. The urban pastoral mode does not seek to dismantle the former definition of the pastoral; it instead incorporates it into a new understanding of how both country and city and nature and culture may relate to each other. It turns out, then, when we combine these two words to make a new term, we are actually both incorporating older, more traditional associations of nature and culture and forging a new understanding of how literature continues to participate in the essential understanding of this complex relationship, which, in an ever-increasingly urban society, becomes essential for encouraging sustainability (another word that deserves an entire essay). Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the urban pastoral allows us to see ourselves within nature, as opposed to remaining separate or even above it.
Central Park is a great place to experience the urban pastoral outside of a text. Consider that there are native versus invasive species—the European imports that Frederick Law Olmsted carefully chose for his masterpiece. I wonder, then, if the park could serve as a metaphor for the people of the city who, like many of the trees in the park, are transplants (pun!) from other places in the world, or migratory inhabitants of the city who, like so many of the birds, come to and from New York out of necessity and for comfort, to work, to live, and for pleasure. And what about the decorated horses that carry people around the park in carriages and sleep down by the Lincoln Tunnel at night? The dogs with collars and leashes that walk briskly along with their owners? There are so many qualities of urban life that we do not traditionally consider natural or consider at all, and others than upon consideration become problematic.
As sad as I am for those horses that sleep by the Lincoln Tunnel, I find solace in many forms of the urban pastoral. For the many ways the urban pastoral—a way of seeing– manifests, it is indeed a state of mind that reminds me that those weeds creeping up through the sidewalk or an occasional mouse that found his way into my apartment are examples of nature showing her presence and resilience in the traditional ways that might in turn help us to find new examples we hadn’t considered before. Maybe the rats running wild around the city in places that hurricane Sandy drove them out of*.
You might say the urban pastoral has become for me a coping skill in my resistance to change from my stubborn roots upstate. But once I became aware of it, this way of seeing not only changed me, it made me accept change and sometimes even rejoice in it.
*note: this reminds me, there is a fantastic book entitled “Rats”by Robert Sullivan that explores the human disdain for these creatures who, like it or not, live only where humans live. Where there are people, there will be rats. Think about that one. Or just read Sullivan’s book.