by Liam Heneghan
“Industries have been migrating steadily from the larger cities, leaving behind a lazarus stratum of the urban population that exists partly on the dole, partly on crime, partly on the sick fat of the city… Nothing more visibly reveals the overall decay of the modern city than the ubiquitous filth and garbage in its streets, the noise and massive congestion that fills its thoroughfares, the apathy of its population toward civic issues and the ghastly indifference of the individual toward the physical violence that is publicly inflicted on the other members of the community.” Murray Bookchin (1979) Limits of the City Black Rose Books (reprinted in 1996).
“The more it [the city] concentrates the necessities of life the more unlivable it becomes. The notion that happiness is possible in a city, that life there is more intense, pleasure is enhanced, and leisure time more abundant is mystification and myth.” Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, 2003 (1970)
Despite our brooding discontent, our lingering sense that our environing world is in decline, that the world around us is aflame with war, famine, disease, climate weirdness, that our cities are unlivable, that our economies are doomed to collapse, that we are brotherly and sisterly no more, that under our use and abuse, nature’s web is frayed and weary; despite all of this, surely our best days should be ahead of us?
We are, after all, a vernal species, freshly minted by evolutionary processes dating back no more than a couple of hundred thousand years. If a species typically sticks around a million years, by simple calculation we have run less than a quarter of our course. Can we really have squandered all of our chances so very soon? In a recent project poet Chris Green and I ask, paraphrasing Seamus Heaney, if poets, artists, creative writers, philosophers, and photographers, can help redress the environmental problems that beset us. Artists who live where the flames rise highest, that is in cities – seemingly the very epicenter of our crises, cannot necessarily be appealed to for succor in tough times. Good art after all may do very little, but by the reckless blaze of good work, surely we can see the new terrain in all its ambiguity and complexity, and re-envision the task ahead in a more hopeful way than we have become used to.
Our natural proclivities equip us for debacle and solution in seemingly equal measure. Primates, such as we are, are characterized by generalized natures, there is little that is distinctive about all of us other than our lack of distinction. Said another way we have evolutionary suppleness – a commitment to innovation. We humans, for instance, having no specialized defense mechanisms – we exude no toxic or noisome chemicals, our teeth may gnash but rarely assail, we have no carapace to shield our moist vulnerability. Biological features noteworthy about us are extensions of our beastly condition: we are mobile, and we have brains swollen like ripe fruit atop erect bodies; clever apes that we are, we have perfected the manipulation of the surrounding world in a manner that extends our reach beyond bodily limitations – technology, another extension of primate innovation, is our ecology. For ninety-nine percent of our history we exclusively gathered, and occasionally hunted, and our numbers were modest; we lived within the confines of local ecological systems. Though perennially extending our range, pullulating out from our African home-range to encompass much of the inhabitable earth, we have generally been more constrained by nature, than we were a strain on nature. A mere geological moment ago, everything changed. Ten thousand years ago we became dramatically less mobile, we cultivated and accumulated rather than collected, we domesticated plants and animals, and indeed we ultimately domesticated ourselves. The reverberations of this agricultural revolution, this domestication revolution, are still omnipresent. Anthropologists inform us that civilization and its accoutrements: permanent architecture, metallurgy, writing, villages, towns and cities, are aftershocks of the agricultural revolution.
About one year ago, a decided marker in the quarter million year gestation of this species was reached. Our primate tendencies of mobility, braininess, dexterousness, and suppleness, characteristics that had served us handsomely on the savannas of the world had resulted in the completion of the following colossal transition: we had now become an urban species. More than fifty per cent of the world’s population now lives in cities!
Evolutionary biologists inform us that if the evolutionary unfurling of any species is replayed a different outcome would emerge. But in this particular incarnation one primate, equipped by nature to change the rules, reorganized its behavioral routines and settled down in dense, sedentary, communities, supported by the cultivation of plants and animals in the surrounding terrain. Even when one regards the transition to Homo metropolis as a natural outgrowth of human evolutionary possibility, that is, part of the very “self-expression” of nature, it is clear that the boundaries of the cities are typically regarded as a threshold of nature; beyond the city limits is nature in the raw, nature is the really real; within the fleshpots of the city is the domain of culture. In the great Indian epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahabharata, the heroes are exiled from the city into a wilderness of forest, where danger and adventure lurk. The epic Gilgamesh too navigates the tension of the city and the wild. World literature repeatedly confirms what city dwellers intuit, nature has been left behind. Of this threshold Yevgeny Zamyatin author the science fiction classic, We says: “…between me and the wild green ocean was the glass of the Wall. Oh, great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They are perhaps, the greatest of man’s inventions. Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built the first wall. Man ceased to be a savage only when we had built the Green Wall, when we had isolated our perfect mechanical world from the irrational, hideous world of trees, birds, animals…” And yet, and yet…can it really be true, that nature surrounds and culture cocoons, the really Real is always somewhere we are not? Are we not born, do we not live, do we not lie down to die in cities; do we not eat, and shit and fuck in cities? Do we not breathe in oxygen, that delicious excretion of plants in order to tend the little personal furnace in our own secret physiological core; do we not burble carbon dioxide when we light the taper of our ingesta? Are we not connected to the vast wheels of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur cycling? Do plants not flourish in the interstices between our buildings? Do animals not know the night, use the night for their own private rummagings? “And for all this,” to speak with Hopkins “nature is never spent”, not even in the vast metropoli of the world. All this, and more than this, on this side of the Green Wall?
In one of the foundational gestures of American environmental action David Henry Thoreau walked out of town: “It is hard for me to believe” he informs us in the essay Walking, “that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me.” The wildness towards which Thoreau sauntered is the territory that subsequently and overwhelmingly attracted the attention of the nascent environmental movement and the sciences that ultimately supported it. Although wilderness has not been an exclusive preoccupation of ecologists and conservationists in the last century, the attraction of the pristine, the unmanaged, the spatially immense, and the wild can be traced through the development of both ecological theory and conservation practice.
There is now a recognition that this imbalance in ecology needs to be redressed, and a variety of well funded projects are underway designed to provide a firm theoretical and empirical basis for urban ecology. The importance of this reconfiguration in ecology is not just that it complements and challenges the discipline as a whole, but that it also provides an opportunity to calibrate theory developed in areas of lower human impact for its application in areas of high human density where the designation of land use is more highly variegated.
In return, a rigorously conceived urban ecology where the ecosystem and the social system are conjoined in a new urban manner may radicalize (and unify) ecology. From this new perspective wilderness may be seen as a special case, rather than the foundational case, against which all is compared and deemed, usually, to have failed. This view of wilderness would remain intellectually generous to the wild, but would profoundly reorient our views. A scientific evaluation of nature in cities may facilitate a reevaluation of nature everywhere.
Excitement over this revolutionary turn in ecology – a sort of Copernican turn, where the perspectives that seemed least profitable, that is, the urban perspective, has become a cornerstone for a new ecology, led Chris Green and I to wonder whether there were similar revolutionary stirrings occurring in metropolitan arts with respect to environmental themes. Unlike ecological thinkers, poets and artists have, as often as not, been urban in sensibility and in inspirations. For every daffodil –loving Wordsworth in the world’s wind-swept places, there has been a body-loving Cavafy cavorting in an urban den. We therefore asked poets, photographers, essayists, and philosophers, to respond to the theme of nature in the city. Of course, Nature is important (in a sense all writing is about Nature), but we wanted to see how artists are interacting with nature, or how they were seeing all of us interacting in nature. Arguably, math and science can go to work on nature as it is seen from the outside: nature as pattern and bold fact; but it may take an artist to respond to the pattern and the bold fact of our inside-nature; how it feels to have our nature interacts with the rest of nature. Only through art can certain relationships and emotions be expressed and understood. This is the sense in which we return to, and deploy, the notion of the “redress of poetry”. Though the definitions of redress are legion, Heaney in his essay of that name prefers an archaic term from hunting (itself very satisfactory for our purposes) where redress means “to bring back (the hounds or deer) to the proper course.” If art lights up our inner-nature – shows us by its flare-lights where we are with/in/of nature right now– it can “redress” in the sense of allowing us to find a course for the “breakaway of inner capacity”. In this we do not expect art to dampen our enthusiasm for the human project in its current urban manifestation (though of course, it may); this art should not hinder. Rather we anticipate that it may allow us encounter our fullest potential at time when otherwise we might despair.
The result of this experiment of ours – a series of poems, photographs, short essays, paintings, and drawings which reflect on urban nature – will be available in early 2011. Please email me at bruteneighbors [at] gmail.com.
Photographs are by Randall Honold. Thanks to Chris Green for comments on and contribution to this essay. A version of this piece (by Liam Heneghan and Chris Green) will be published in From: Brute Neighbors: Urban Nature Poetry, Prose & Photography. Edited by Chris Green and Liam Heneghan, Forthcoming 2011, DePaul University Humanities Center, and DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture, Chicago.