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.

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Today my friend and urban naturalism co-conspirator, Brent, and I got our shelves and grow lights together for getting the early seeds started for our community’s gardening adventures of the spring and summer.  We still have to buy bulbs for the light fixtures, but everything else is ready to go.  The next step is to test some of the seeds that we saved from last summer to make sure they will germinate.  This past year was the first time that we had saved seeds from tomatoes, peppers and melons, so I am eager to see how successful our seedsaving effort was.

We have three vacant lots that we will be planting this summer as community gardens and a number of people have gardens in their own yards.  The seeds that we will start indoors will eventually be transplanted to one of these gardens and some, I suspect, might be used in some “guerrilla gardening” projects around our neighborhood.  An essential part of urban naturalism — and one that perhaps distinguishes it from naturalism in other landscapes — is the intentional effort to find new ways to aid in the flourishing of natural life, flora and fauna, in one’s locale.   People complain about the lack of “nature” in urban settings, but what are they doing to help nature to flourish?  And furthermore, I think we have to have a vision of flourishing that goes beyond our own private properties.  (A number of my favorite writers have fleshed out this idea using the idea of “commonwealth,” especially Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben.  My friend Joe did a great review of McKibben’s Deep Economy last year that gets to the heart of the notion of commonwealth.)  So, guerrilla gardening is one way we are just starting to explore as a means to assist in the flourishing of public and vacant spaces in our urban neighboorhood.  Brent did an excellent review last week of Richard Reynolds’ recent book, On Guerrilla Gardening: A handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries.  It’s worth your time to look at that and I suspect that you will see much more here about our forays into guerrilla gardening as we roll into spring and summer.

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.

I read the following passage today from Liberty Hyde Bailey’s Outlook to Nature.  It’s bit anachronistic to use the term “Entertainment culture,” as I did above, but Bailey’s words seem to ring as true today (if not truer) than when he wrote them in the days before television, computers and the internet!

Some of us do not enjoy nature because there is not enough sheer excitement in it. It has not enough dash and go for this uneasy age; and this is the very reason why we need the solace and resource of nature so much. On looking over the lists of Christmas books I was surprised to find how often the word ” sensation” occurs. In the announcement of the forthcoming number of a magazine, I find twenty articles, of which at least nineteen are to be ” tragic,” “thrilling,” “mystery-laden,” or otherwise unusual. The twentieth one I hope to read. One would think that a piece of writing is valuable in proportion as it is racy, exciting, startling, astounding, striking, sensational. In these days of sensational sales, to have a book sell phenomenally well is almost a condemnation of it. An article or book that merely tells a plain story directly and well is too tame; so even when we write of nature we must pick out the unusual, then magnify and galvanize it. From this literature the reader goes out to nature and finds it slow and uninteresting; he must have a faster pace and a giddier whirl of events. He has little power to entertain himself; and, his eyes never having been trained to see what he looks at, he discovers nothing and the world is vacuous and void. He may find temporary relief in some entertainment provided for him out of hand, as the so-called news of the newspapers or some witless frippery on the stage. Yet, unless all poets and philosophers have misled us, the keenest and most resourceful delights that men have found have been the still small voices of the open fields.

There is another objection to much of the nature writing,—the fact that it is unrepresentative of nature. It exploits the unusual and exceptional, and therefore does not give the reader a truthful picture of common and average conditions. …  The best nature writing, as I conceive of it, is that which portrays the commonplace so truthfully and so clearly that the reader forthwith goes out to see for himself. Some day we shall care less for the marvelous beasts of some far-off country than for the mice and squirrels and wood-chucks of our own fields. (12-14)

(Emphases mine.)

We’ve gotten 10+ inches of snow in the last day, so most things were shut down around Indy today.  Kind of nice to be forced into a Sabbath of sorts (Okay, so my wife will point out that I didn’t really take the day off, but I did nix my plans to run errands and instead caught up on email and spent awhile this afternoon just sitting and reading).

Jeni and the kids played outside for awhile this afternoon, shoveling walkways, trying unsuccessfully to build a snow man (snow is too dry) and decorating the snow in front of our house with spray bottles full of water and food coloring. I’m so glad that we’ve actually gotten some real snow this winter, even if it did take this long to get here.  If it’s going to be cold, I’d much rather have snow than not!

On Tuesday, I hiked out to the largest unused “wild” space in our neighborhood, which I have decided to call “The Wilds.”   This strip of land lies at the southern end of the Englewood neighborhood,  is about 300 feet wide and spans that entire end of the neighborhood from East to West.  You can see most of this area from the following Google satellite photo.

Those are railroad tracks that run along the center of the photo from left to right, and as best I can tell The Wilds is owned by the railroad company, but about one-third of it, the strip along the northern edge, is undeveloped.   There is a strip of forest about 40 feet deep that butts up against the development (mostly industrial) just north of this land.  Just to the south of the forest strip is a strip of thick prairie-like grasses and small trees that range in height from 3 to 6 feet.  This prairie strip is about 60 feet wide.  The remaining land on this strip is composed of the railroad tracks and strips of mowed grass on either side of the tracks.

I saw some signs that this property does get some human traffic (litter, footprints) and knowing our neighborhood, some of the activities that go on here (mostly after dark, I presume) are undoubtedly nefarious.  However, especially considering its location in the middle of the city, and its being almost completely surrounded by human develpoment, the signs of human use of this land were relatively few.  This fact could possibly be attributed to the present winter season, so it will be interesting to see if it still seems so “wild” come spring and summer.  The forest and prairie strips at the northern end teemed with all manners of plant and animal life.  I saw a flock (is this the right word?) of 7 or 8 cardinals, some other random birds that I couldn’t get a good look at and a number of bird’s nests, including one on a small tree in the prarie area that was so low that I could look down into it; for anyone who is wondering, it was empty.

As I was walking about on this land, I was thinking about how peculiar it was that this land exists relatively untouched in the middle of the city, which got me to thinking about wild spaces and developed places and the relationships between the two.  I was reminded of the following passage from Wendell Berry’s essay “Preserving Wilderness” (in the book Home Economics):

. . . If I had to choose, I would join the nature extremists against the technology extremists, but this choice seems poor, even assuming that it is possible. I would prefer to stay in the middle, not to avoid taking sides, but because I think the middle is a side, as well as the real location of the problem.

The middle, of course, is always rather roomy and bewildering territory, and so I should state plainly the assumptions that define the ground on which I intend to stand:

1. We live in a wilderness, in which we and our works occupy a tiny space and play a tiny part. We exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance.

2. This wilderness, the universe, is somewhat hospitable to us, but it is also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us, sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.

3. That we depend upon what we are endangered by is a problem not solvable by “problem solving.” It does not have what the nature romantic or the technocrat would regard as a solution. We are not going back to the Garden of Eden, nor are we going to manufacture an Industrial Paradise.

4. There does exist a possibility that we can live more or less in harmony with our native wilderness; I am betting my life that such a harmony is possible. But I do not believe that it can be achieved simply or easily or that it can ever be perfect, and I am certain that it can never be made, once and for all, but is the forever unfinished lifework of our species.

5. It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively. We cannot intend our good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place-which means, ultimately, the good of the world.

6. To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently impractical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical   way that we can intend the good of the world; practice can only be local.

7. If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.

What these assumptions describe, of course, is the human predicament. It is a spiritual predicament, for it requires us to be properly humble and grateful; time and again, it asks us to be still and wait. But it is also a practical problem, for it requires us to do things.

In going to work on this problem it is a mistake to proceed on the basis of an assumed division or divisibility between nature and humanity, or wildness and domesticity. But it is also a mistake to assume that there is no difference between the natural and the human.

Hmmm… A lot to think about there as I continue to explore “The Wilds.”

Well, after reading Mary’s comment this afternoon, I had to go out and see what exactly what the strands of material were in the bird’s nest that the kids and I had seen on Monday.

Alex wanted to do some tree-climbing, so he agreed to go out and take a look with me after I got home from the office.  The tree that the nest was in did not have any branches low enough to allow him to climb it, so I hoisted him up on my shoulders and told him to pull a strand of the material off the nest… gently.  And he did.  It looked to me exactly like Easter grass, but it had these weird lateral stripes that alternated between colorless and blue.  Having collected that, and with plans of showing it to Mary and others to get their opinions, we set off for one of Alex’s new favorite climbing trees.  While he was making his way up the tree, I was pondering what the material from the nest might be, and surveying the landscape around us, when what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a chain link dog kennel with a frayed tarp hanging off it.  I practically screamed to myself with excitement, borrowing a turn of phrase from Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a tarp!!!!!”

I went over, and upon closer inspection, this tarp was undoubtedly the source of the strands in the Rural St. nest.   So Mary was mostly right, the strands were indeed from a tarp, but not from her tarp several hundred yards away, but from this one that as best I could tell from pacing off the distance was about 75 yards away from the nest, as the crow — or whatever kind of bird this was — flies.  Here is a closeup of the fraying tarp:

Later this evening, I taped the strand that we had garnered from the bird’s nest into Alex’s nature book, so that it wouldn’t get lost:

It was thrilling to unravel this mystery (thanks, Mary!), but even more exciting are the realizations that this was found within 100 yards of our very own back yard and that there are many more wonders of this sort that lurk around about us, if we would only take the time to pay attention to our surroundings.