What is Urban Naturalism?


If you are a reader of this blog, and if you haven’t done so already, you must drop everything and get your hands on a copy of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s CROW PLANET: ESSENTIAL WISDOM FROM THE URBAN WILDERNESS.

Nowhere else have I heard someone articulate so clearly and eloquently a vision of urban naturalism.  I am going to be reviewing this for The Englewood Review of Books this week, so you won’t get a full review here and now, BUT I will cross-post my review this weekend.

For now, however, here’s just a taste:

In the modern urban setting, the naturalist’s way suggests an antidote to the overinfluence of specialization upon our everyday lives.  Today we leave our health to doctors, our food to agribusiness, and our knowledge of the biological realm to information received from scientists.  Such specialization, writes author Michael Pollan, “obscures lines of connection — and responsibility.”  The foundational knowledge unearthed by modern naturalists is simultaneously freeing, consoling and revolutionary (47-48).

A recent article from The Boston Globe emphasizes at least one reason why naturalism — both in the sense of seeking out nature and the sense of finding ways to help nature flourish, as I blogged about yesterday — is important in the city.

Some quotes:

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

Natural settings, in contrast, don’t require the same amount of cognitive effort. This idea is known as attention restoration theory, or ART, and it was first developed by Stephen Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. While it’s long been known that human attention is a scarce resource — focusing in the morning makes it harder to focus in the afternoon — Kaplan hypothesized that immersion in nature might have a restorative effect.

Long before scientists warned about depleted prefrontal cortices, philosophers and landscape architects were warning about the effects of the undiluted city, and looking for ways to integrate nature into modern life. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to “adopt the pace of nature,” while the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sought to create vibrant urban parks, such as Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston, that allowed the masses to escape the maelstrom of urban life.

Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the “savannah hypothesis,” which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.

However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

“We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,” Fuller says. “But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.”

I’m thankful, I guess, that our neighborhood has a fair amount of trees and wildlife.  I was on a tour of the old IPS School #3 building this morning and we went up onto the third floor (one of the higher spots in our neighborhood) and looked out over our neighboorhood.  What I saw from that vantage point was mostly the tops of trees and for that I was thankful — especially since I had just read this article from the Boston Globe yesterday.  I would argue that even in the densest of urban areas, there is still natural life to be found — trees, birds, plants — but it is definitely sparser and as this article maintains, there are so many other demands for our attention that nature tends to get drowned out.

All this snow that we’ve had recently — including several more inches this morning — and our kids’s desire to be out playing in it has given me an opportunity to think anew about the role of play in urban naturalism and in our lives in general.

What do I mean by “play”?  Play is creative, spontaneous and collaborative engagement with one’s surroundings.   Play is creative in that the imagination of the participants is only minimally constrained by mutual agreements and by the appropriate demands of propriety and safety.  People, objects and plotlines are freely imagined and sometimes creative substitutions are made (this stick becomes a sword, that bag becomes a hat).  Play is spontaneous in that the structure and/or “rules” are not detemrined beforehand.  Finally, play is collaborative in that if there are multiple people involved, it does not become a competitive event.  A game of pick-up soccer, which undoubtedly would be fun for many people, is not play by this definition.  (Additionally, I think many of the recreational activities of adults from shopping to video games to sports leagues are by this criteria not play).  The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a recent clinical report in which they conclude:

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”

Despite the benefits of play, it has been my experience in mainstream American culture that as we mature into adulthood, we are socially formed to wean ourselves off of play.  Some social scientists have described play as a child’s work (E.g., Vivian Gussey Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play), and while I understand that the nature of play changes as become older and take on additional responsibilities, I think it is unfortunate that we tend to lose our ability to play.  Tom Hodgkinson, whose work I’ve discovered only recently, has had similar realizations about our inability to play, out of which he started “The Idler” magazine and now has written a couple of books on idleness ( most notably How To Be Idle, and most recently The Idle Parent — not yet available in the US.)  He said the following in an interview:

“Idleness for me is not a giving up on life but a spirited grabbing hold of it. I was idle when faced with wage slavery, i.e., doing boring work for somebody else at times of their choosing, in return for money. In that situation, I would become very lazy. But idleness really consists of doing stuff which is not really recognized as productive behaviour in our profit-driven economies. I might look as if I am lying in bed, but in fact I am turning ideas over. Often I get good ideas in the bath, when I am perfectly relaxed and my mind is flowing freely. And now that I am in control of my own work, I find that I am quite productive. Since retiring from the world five years ago, I have written three books, edited twelve more, written countless articles, run a small magazine from home, and had time left over to play a role in our local community, teaching ukulele at the local school, for instance, and to play with our children. In general I work from nine am till 1, and the rest of the day is for sleeping, outdoor work, walking, playing, cleaning, etc.”

So, we’ve had all this snow recently, and our kids — especially Miriam — have been so excited to go out and play in it and Jeni and I have gone out several times with them.  One evening, the kids and I played for a long time on the mounds of snow that had been plowed up in the church parking lot.   Some other kids had dug tunnels in the mounds earlier in the day and our kids loved that and I helped them dig a new tunnel.

On Sunday afternoon, all five of us spent awhile outside building a snowman, which the kids had never done before (The last couple of winters have been too warm for much snow.)  The kids all loved making the snowman and Miriam had the idea of using black olives for the eyes and mouth.   Playing together in the snow is fun for all of us, and the kids are learning to enjoy the wintry weather.

A couple of days ago, I started re-reading Liberty Hyde Bailey’s book Outlook to Nature, and I was struck by how well these essays struck at the heart of what we are trying to do with this experiment in urban naturalism.

[ Outlook to Nature is available for for free through GOOGLE BOOKS: CLICK HERE.  Although as a bibliophile, I have concerns about the scope and intention of the GOOGLE BOOKS project, I am quite thankful that they have made this gem of a book available again.]

I invite you to read this excellent book along with me.  As a starter, here is his plea at the outset of the book to recover the beauty and splendor of the “commonplaces”; the places that become so familiar that we take them for granted.

So great has been the extension of knowledge, and so many the physical appliances that multiply our capabilities, that we are verily burdened with riches. We are so eager to enter all the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us that we overlook the soil at our feet. We live in an age of superlatives, I had almost said of super-superlatives, so much so that even the superlatives now begin to pall. The reach for something new has become so much a part of our lives that we cease to recognize the fact and accept novelty as a matter of course. If we shall fail to satisfy ourselves with the new, the strange, and the eccentric, perhaps we shall find ourselves returning to the old commonplace and the familiar, and perhaps we shall be able to extract new delights from them because of the flights we have taken. Perhaps in their turn the commonplaces will be again the superlatives, and we shall be content with the things that come naturally and in due order. Certain it is that every sensitive soul feels this longing for something simple and elemental in the midst of the voluminous and intricate, something free and natural that shall lie close to the heart and really satisfy our best desires. [3-4]

The essence of the city is the heaping up of “the strange and ambitious avenues that open before us.”  The city — Indianapolis or any other city — runs on the power of the new, the fashionable, the avant garde.  The French social critic Jacques Ellul notes in The Meaning of the City that since Babel, the mythological first city, the spirit of the city has been marked by a rejection of tradition, the “making of a (new) name for ourselves” — to borrow the biblical language.  Thus, where better to start to reclaim the commonplaces than in the heart of the city?  It is compelling to me that Ellul reminds us that arc of human history — according to the Judeo-Christian tradition — ends in a city, the so-called New Jerusalem, but this city is marked by the recovery of natural spaces — and indeed Bailey would likely call them commonplaces — of rivers, and fruit-bearing trees and gardens.

Hello…

Chris Smith here, this blog will be a place for me to record my adventures in urban naturalism in the little Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis, in which I live, work, worship and explore.

I’m currently working on an essay that describes exactly what I mean by “urban naturalism,” but until that is finished and ready to post here, let me launch this blog with a poem from Liberty Hyde Bailey that has been kicking ’round my head for the last three months or so, and that lies at the heart of my inspiration for these explorations.  [Liberty Hyde Bailey is probably the preminent botanist of the early twentieth century, who was also a farmer, a philosopher, and would later become an inspiration for Wendell Berry.  He wrote one amazing little book of nature poetry entitled Wind and Weather, of which I have had the distinct pleasure of writing the introduction for the current edition.]

POET

TELL me, 0 Poet, where thou dost live

Show me the place whereon thou dost stand

Lead me to the crests that give

Those wondrous scenes thou dost command

And let my waiting soul enwreathe

The rarer airs that thou dost breathe

Upon thy diamond shore.


He took me by the hand

And led me to my own hearthstone

We paused upon the wonted floor

And silent stood alone-

Till all the space was over-pent

With a magic wonderment;

And I found the Poet’s store

On the threshold of my door.