Thursday, December 23, 2010

Urban Despair and the Need for Nature

Why is it so hard in the city to be content and happy? Why does it seem like no one wakes up in the morning, looks out the window, and says, "Ah, life is good, the world is good!"? Well, I'm gonna tell ya why (you knew that was coming, right?). It's because the city landscape is a soul sucking enemy of life.

Okay, hyperbole alert. There might be happy people in cities, who really knows. But look, the human species lived close to the natural world and its rhythms for 99.999% of our history, over two hundred thousand years. These rhythms are in our blood, our cells, our DNA. If you careto consider that all of life has always lived at one with the natural world, we can say it's been 4 billion years.

Urbanization is new. We've had cities for five or six thousand years, sure, but they were very small, and only in a few regions for much of that time (Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, Mexico, yadda yadda yadda). Rome was pretty urbanized, and look how fucked up they became. Then we returned to normality for the Dark Ages, back to the land. But cities began to grow again in the Middle Ages and into the Rennaisance. Still, it took the industrial revolution to really kick into the urban life, starting less than 200 years ago. Before that, only about 3% of the humans lived in cities. Now we're over 50%

Vista on he Appalachian Trail in Virginia

Okay, history lesson over. The point is, our minds are not able to take in this way of life. It is profoundly unnatural. I know I'm a nature nut so I'm biased, but I when I was on the Appalachian Trail, or doing conservation work in Utah, or stuck on a cold, wet mountain in Vermont last fall, I'd still just have this feeling of well being about me. It's a sort of ocean of peace lifting beneath the boat of your daily life and its specific issues. You get up at dawn, look out at the trees, and you might be cold and your feet might be wet, the work might be hard and your cabin might have mice, but out there things are as they should be: the trees reach for light, the mosses creep, the leaves drop and decay. Deep down, your spirit is relaxed.

In an urban environment, you look out the window and see hard, agressive lines and forms, hordes of people all rather drawn into themselves against the surging masses, the noise, the bad air. Our schedules have nothing to do with daylight. Our work has nothing to do with the land. Artifice rules every interaction and activity.

A lot of people say they don't like nature. I accept that on one level, but in the end believe it's just that they're accustomed to comfort and ease, to climate control and screens to keep the bugs away. That's fine, I don't demand that everyone immediately start working on a farm or go live in some cabin in the woods. But I know that on a biological level, they don't hate nature. They ARE nature. And their nature is deeply missing the greater nature, and resists the artificial world that has been built in its place.

Surveying the Porcupine Mountains
in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

This goes on below the level of awareness, of course. I don't think anyone really understands this great discontent and where it comes from; most are hardly even aware of it, though they struggle constantly to placate it with consumerism, drugs, alcohol, bad relationships, and of course, the electronic hallucinations of cell phones, video games, and the TV. The upshot is that this conflict happening in our inner natures bubbles up as the negetivity and complaining that is the constant song of our urban civilization.

I know life will always be complex and tricky, and living in nature isn't a cure-all. But I know that for myself, being in a natural landscape, working with my hands, outside in the sunshine and open air, is something that at least eases a part of my spirit, such that I can tackle life's issues with a positive mindset. I know it is possible to be happy anywhere, but it is easier out there.


  1. I think I feel pretty much the same way. I prefer natural landscapes to urban environments. But I do need books. I would not be happy without access to books. That's one of the main redeeming virtues of living in a larger city, is access to a good quality public library system.

    But other than that, I suppose it depends on what you do for a living (or want to do for a living) that determines the most suitable place to live. Some people love the city life. Why? What does the city have to offer? A concentration of people and culture. Some people thrive in the city. It's the best place for them, while others wither away in despair.

    I think the ideal world would still have cities, but they would be cities that are in harmony with nature. Small scale villages designed along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller.

    But as it now stands, the larger the city, the uglier the city. Then again, one must never lose sight of the fact that each city is a reflection of the people who live there.

    Do you hate where you live? Well, as long as you continue living somewhere that you hate, you're sending out a vibe of hate, a vibe of despair, and that's bound to contribute to that dismal situation.

    Great cities tend to be inhabited by great people, by people who actually love where their living. So seek to be wherever you would feel most happy and free.

    Some people love the city, some people love the wilderness. All you can do is do whatever is best for yourself, and if you hate living in the city, then by all means do whatever you can to make a life possible living in the wilderness...if that is what makes you happy.

    P.S. That's a good picture of you with the walking stick. Reminds me of a scene out of the Lord of the Rings movie. Did you know that movie was filmed in New Zealand? I could see you hiking there someday.

  2. Taoist writer-artist Deng Ming-dao observes that we were more socially cohesive when we were less urban. Agrarian tribes were more supportive than in cities where everyone has to look out for himself. In an agrarian rustic society, everyone knew their role; the city encourages, requires, individualism.

  3. Many, many moons ago, I was a firefighter with the US Forest Service. While out battling fires in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon, it seemed no matter how tired, dirty and hungry I was, I thoroughly enjoyed the peace of mind of waking up in the stillness of Mother Earth. It didn't matter that I faced another 18-hour day of working amidst fire, smoke and soot; for those few moments (far back from the fire line), everything was perfect.