(Above: Design and think tank group, Rollerhaus, re-imagines an eco-centric future vision of Chicago.)
Since I was small, I have always loved cities. When I am in them, I feel a kind of expansiveness that is unique to my experience of a city. When I walk down streets surrounded by tall buildings, or when I wait for a train, I feel small in the best possible way. Human activity feels big. Limitless. The impossibility of knowing everyone or everything happening in that moment is humbling and exciting. Like there are possibilities too numerous to even consider. Thousands of lives I could choose for myself, magnified and made more intoxicating because of my close proximity to thousands or millions of others, each with their own set of impossibly diverse opportunities for building a life and a self.
I am an advocate for cities. And given the option, I would choose living in a city over the suburbs or even rural or isolated areas. Since I have such a strong preference for and love of cities, people are often surprised when I tell them I practice a nature-based spirituality. Loving cities and revering nature are, it would seem, for most people mutually exclusive endeavors.
I think this assumption about the exclusivity of attachment to nature or cities is reflective of a deeply held and problematic distinction that many people make between Nature and the world we inhabit. Nature and cities in this classification scheme are opposites and in opposition with one another. The two concepts are constructed as discrete, although in terms of their geographic boundaries, the edges that enclose Nature must be fuzzy. Just how far away from the human world and it’s human-made structures must one get to enter Nature?
The question of proximity to human artifice highlights the impossibility of Nature—as some pure, pre-human or non-human, wild space. Nature, when defined by the absence of human influence or making, is conceptually and definitionally inaccessible to us. Even for those most “nature-lover” among us, when they enter the woods to walk the Appalachian Trail or make their way through the deserts in Joshua Tree, they bring with them the human world in the form of back packs, tents, and pain killers. When we define Nature as pure and non-human, we foreclose the possibility of ever being in the natural world, which simultaneously elevates nature into the realm of the ideal, and has the negative effect of placing concern for the Earth outside of human consideration. Nature (capital N) is a no-place, a utopia, that can be ignored because it is constructed as not the world that we live in.
Likewise, the dualism between Nature and the human environment leads to a kind of disengagement with cities. If Nature is pure, ideal, and good, then the city (as its antipode) is dirty, material, and flawed. Cities, in this way of thinking, become lost-causes. They are places we may live, while dreaming wistfully of homesteading and canned goods and morning tea overlooking rolling hills. Cities become, in this way of thinking, a prison of reality. Nature is then the ideal escape.
This dualism is not only harmful because of the inaction it can inspire, it’s also nonsense. There is no clear dividing line between Nature and the human world. When we attempt to enter Nature, we bring the human world with us. Further, the human world is embedded in Nature. Even in cities, there are plants and animals (human and non-human). When we refuse to see city life as natural, living beings, we devalue these plants and animals. They become the backdrop to human endeavor instead of beings in their own right, worthy of respect and care.
In my own spiritual practice, I try to avoid the dualism between the Nature and the human-made world. Every day, as I move through the city I try to pay special attention to the plants and non-human animals around me. This week, the large tree next to my house got its first new buds. They are bright green-yellow. They will open and grow into broad, flat leaves. But for now, as buds, they are tightly bound, dense, and complex looking. Some have fallen from the branches and onto the alley behind my house. They are beautiful there in the alley.
I take a few moments each day to see what has changed around me. What is new that is growing? What’s dying? Where is that nasty squirrel that yells at my cat all day, and frankly scares me?
I drive on the highway for a couple of miles on my way to work each morning. I cross the Mississippi river and head in the direction of sunrise. On either side of the river, along the side of the highway, there are tall prairie grasses that grow in the medians and on the shoulders. The grasses are beautiful and they change over the course of the growing season. There are a few weeks in the summer where they appear almost a sea foam green. They have a kind of purple undertone. They look alien almost in their coloring and they grow in dense, solid patches. Every time I drive by, I want to stop my car and walk into them. And just sit with them. Hear the cars drive by, sounding like the waves of the ocean. Be silent next to them and meditate on their presence. Surrounded by the human-made world, roots growing deep into the Earth, wind causing them to sway with its currents, living and breathing prairie grass in small, Midwestern city.
Crafter Yearly earned a PhD in political philosophy and now works as a professor at a teaching institution in the midwest. Her research is in the areas of antiracism, feminism, and social constructivism. She was introduced to Paganism by Wiccans, but has come over time to adopt a purely naturalistic reverence for the Earth and the Universe.