Well it’s taken me a long time to write my first post…not that I don’t have anything to say. If you know me, whether as your therapist, a professor, a friend, family member, colleague…you already know this about me. The struggle has been in what to write about first. So many things to reflect upon in this busy, jam-packed life! And though my systemic graduate training and apparently somewhat innate world view says everything (EVERYTHING) is related, one subject continues to rise to the surface. And so, here goes nothing…my first blog post. Ever.
I hear this tide swelling within my various communities around how we define urban landscapes and differentiate between urban and wild. Often times when I read various ecopsychology centered books, articles, conversations, and/or I hear others discuss the power of the natural world, commonly I hear descriptions of how healing it is for humans to be connected to nature, how so many could benefit if we could only get out to it….
So many of my colleagues, friends, family, myownself, wax philosophically and a bit romantically about how we’d benefit from a move to the country…closer to nature. The city is toxic. The urban landscape is killing us. Those living in other parts of the country consider us Portlanders lucky.
“So close to the wilderness!”
I’m hardly one to disagree with any of these threads. I remember my own childhood in the Willamette Valley and in the foothills of the Cascades being a lush one of meandering creek expeditions, crawdad catches, arias to the old growth, hide and seek in the dunes’ grasses. These memories urge me still to consider a country move.
And yet…I am haunted by an English assignment from my high school freshman English teacher, eager to get my bored distracted self out of his class and I assume hopeful to challenge my relentless educational arrogance. He sent me to read Ecotopia in the library and write a thesis paper on its main points. Was this his version of subversiveness in our red-necked town…Mr. Shaggy-Carrot-Haired-Clog-Wearing-English Teacher? Had he intended/hoped that book would change my life and my perspective forever! Even my coming of age experience in the Portland of twenty years ago holds vivid memories of a more wild urban place, less burdened by emigrant infill…the shadows among the statues downtown, the wild alleyways between houses. Empty lots overgrown by foreign nationals and natives alike. And I remember Ernest Callenbach’s imperfect point that humanity would grow too large for us all to move out to the country. Urban living was the environmentalist-back-to-the-land of the future…I believed in reinventing skyscrapers as urban dwellings, as described in Callenbach’s book…the few that we had around town seemed immense to my pre-NYC eyes, and wasteful in their emptiness. For a time, working as a night security guard wandering around I would wonder about the immense emptiness of these spaces seeming to only deserve attention during day time hours. Yes, this could be home! I could easily imagine livability with a simple addition of opening windows and a few more porch options. We’d reserve open spaces for wild wilderness, tempered only by sustainable forestry, train lines, and routine urban dweller visits or forestry work rotations. It all seemed so smart, efficient, reasonable, unlike the vast space upon space left alone, unattended…cutoff from human contact for the other 16 hours of the day, except for my echoing footsteps in stairwells and break rooms.
Additional reflections/studies/experiences regarding racism, classism, environmental racism, ecofeminism and social justice issues in general began to shape my views on what it means to access nature. Who gets the privilege of receiving the healing power of nature and wilderness. How do they get there once the scholarship supported trips are over? Don’t we all deserve to be connected, to experience a connection to heal via a sense of connection?
Fast-forward ten years and I am reintroduced to this city, the one about which everyone raves on its, in my eyes, much diminished wild/green spaces. I see it through my partner’s NYC eyes and I really began to see, really see and to integrate the past ten years of time in wild places, dreaming of tracking, eager to learn and afraid to start. I recognize the way that a trackers vision has become part of my own perspective…though I lived for three years in either a forested outback, or wildly remote Irish countryside. I find myself ever rusty on prints and plants and yet as I observe my reinvented city, I become aware of how acutely tuned in I am to the matted weeds indicating a berth, the scattered remnants of a disposed cigarette, the oily prints of wee bird in the reflection of a concrete mud puddle, and Crows! The language of the Crows…
This is the urban nature upon which we cast our disgruntled gaze…judging toxicity, separated…even the most out-of –the –box environmentalists, outdoor educators, naturalists divorce themselves, blind themselves to these places and shelve them neatly in a linear man-made hierarchy. In the introduction to his collection of essays City Wild Terrell Dixon writes:
“While we assume the city is apart from nature, we ignore how the absence of firsthand, place-based knowledge of urban nature has shaped a culture in which urban environmental degradation is the norm”(p. xi).
And my new love now shows me through his NYC lens the wild spaces upon which I have previously looked down my own nose. We walk, my resistance tempered only by my passion for adventure and love of him, down the train tracks, under the bridges, up to abandoned rooftops, and eventually along our new found home, the Columbia Slough. The edge, the balance between wildness and industrialization exists here…the transitional zones where one can imagine a post-apocalyptic natural uprising. It’s already begun in so many places in our city. And the beauty is astounding. It’s not the beauty of my younger life on the Mackenzie, the Skykomish, the Olympic forest and within the aggressive waters of the Pacific Ocean. But it is beauty…and it’s vaguely familiar. Perhaps it reminds me of the Roman forgotten alleys and neglected city parks I’d wander during my hung-over mornings away from the hostel desk work…observing, exploring, comforting myself with bite after bite of Pizza Bianca…dropping purposeful bits for the efficient or reckless pigeons that dared to follow, or perhaps it touches on this innate desire, described so eloquently by many of my elders, to know place. As we humans move across the landscape, constantly cajoling it’s details and features to conform to our needs….or neglect…our relationship with the urban landscape co-evolves. We urban dwellers make daily choices based on the specific weather, flora, fauna, soil, water, and creatures around us in this locality, that shape our landscape. Our urban human communities continually conspire with the urban wild to co-create the city as it grows and shifts shapes around us.
And seeing, truly seeing this relationship, this movement, this wilderness around us requires a tracker’s wide-angle vision, a tracker’s stillness, and exquisite patience and eye for detail. Tom Brown talks about these qualities of what is called “coyote teaching” in most of his various tracking books. However in Tom Brown’s Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness, his descriptions of the sensorial acuity required by urban inhabitants of all kinds is paradigm-shifting. It is almost a kind of evolutionary stretch each species must make to not only survive but also thrive in a traditional urban setting and those of us that can build the tools to notice what exists around us find a wilderness revealed. My heart recently filled as I reread his introduction to the Forgotten Wilderness:
“We have been conditioned to divide the world into two entirely separate entities, one being the “natural” world with all its grand scenic beauty and the other the inhabited or sterile, world of the cities…People feel that they have to travel great distances into the national parks on reserves to experience nature and its beauties. Books depict the wild and wonderful areas of this country and television and magazines probe the depths of distant panoramas and monuments of creation. But there is hardly any material disclosing the treasures of natural beauty and phenomena that occur right in our own back yards. Falsely we have been led to believe that the natural world exists only outside our communities and that we must venture into these wilderness areas to truly understand…all natural areas are our teachers and great sources of inspiration, learning and beauty. We do not have to wait for the long trips into the far places; we can discover and enjoy nature every day.” (pg 6-7)
Apparent as it may be in the transitional zones of industrial neglect and remediation, the subtleties of the urban wild require an observant vigilance in the starker, less expected places. This urban place IS nature…encompasses a wilderness. And while Portland does do a great job starting this transformational conversation with our urban surroundings, how do we find nature here? Now? How do we integrate the urban and wild and carve out time and space for a reunion of the two…to not simply surrender to a discovery of the existing urban nature, but to actively cultivate and shape a more ‘wild’ urban living To live in an urban landscape must one submit to a toxic, concrete jungle? I reject the either/or and encourage the consideration of the both/and perspective. How do we build BOTH urban infill and increased dwelling capacity, thereby relieving the encroaching human burden on our surrounding wilderness, AND also continue to build integrated access to wild pockets of nature within our urban boundaries. Portland may look better than many urban areas and yet I can’t help but challenge, push, cajole further consideration of how we can continue to reduce our urban toxicity, increase our connection with our natural world, natural cycles, natural time. And how might these ongoing shifts in our external landscapes ease the tensions and dis-ease found within our internal landscapes? Surely one can feel, however dim or bright it may pulsate, a connection…
I told you I had plenty to say…