Tuesday, December 06, 2011

finding bearings in a disorienting landscape – Urban Nature as Chaos

Urban nature is not sublime…There’s too much sterility in the form of roofs and pavement, and, oddly enough, there’s also too much wildness, too many weeds and wooded borders and tangled banks, not to mention vacant lots going to brush.

Of course, “wilderness” won’t do to describe such landscapes either. Despite the degree of wildness, there’s too much human impact, too many alien species, too few large animals to meet the legal and cultural criteria.

The fact is that urban landscapes are just too mixed up, chaotic, and confused to fit our established notions of beauty and value in nature. … Maybe it’s not really nature at all, not a real ecosystem, just a bunch of weeds and exotics mixed up with human junk.

- John Tallmadge. The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City (2004)

Tomorrow I do the last lecture of my fall series on urban ecology and urban nature, and I will focus on the growing genre of urban nature writing. The quotation above from Tallmadge’s book about Cincinnati illustrates the conflicted responses one finds in these books. The writers search for a redemptive moment of nature encounter without analyzing what they seek to redeem. The City? Modernity? Capitalism? Degradation? Themselves? As I argue in Marginal Nature, our ideas of “real nature” rely on ideas of nature that are literally and figuratively out of place in urban landscapes. Thus, Tallmadge seeks something (The sublime or wilderness) in the urban landscape that, by definition, cannot be there, and then he struggles to comprehend his experience of what he finds “a bunch of weeds and exotics mixed up with human junk”. However, what he actually finds, his redemptive moment, is a heron near the city’s wastewater outfall, and he cannot comprehend what to him is a bird out of place.

I find it so interesting that he and other such urban nature writers never embrace these places as coproductions of humans and nonhumans or recognize that the encounter goes both ways. The heron drew him there to its place and observed him watching…the encounter is a coproduction as well. Is this not sublime in the old sense of “gloom and glory” as Marjorie Hope Nicolson characterized the mountains?

I think that the sublime may work quite nicely to assess the experience of nature encounter that these writers seek. However, it is a different “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused” than old Romantic notions of nature. Unfortunately, it is those old Romantic notions that are still misapplied to urban landscapes leading to confusion, despair, and disgust with the “chaos” of urban nature.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (1963)

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