Fresh Air Blues

Of all the conventional wisdoms about the city, one is so widely shared it would appear to be irrefutable. It is that the city stands apart from nature. Indeed, if definitions were made from what things weren’t, this absence could be one of its meanings. In The Culture of Cities, Lewis Mumford describes the movement to this condition in nearly tidal terms:

As the pavement spreads, nature is pushed farther away: the whole routine divorces itself more completely from the soil, from the visible presences of life and growth and decay, birth and death: the slaughterhouse and the cemetery are equally remote and their processes are equally hidden.

In this view, cities beget themselves by shutting out the natural world, which becomes alien, uncomfortable, unknowable, unknown.

The city, of course, is different from the countryside, and the differences are too obvious to recite. But this obviousness has resulted in a kind of mental shorthand, a false dichotomy that puts city on one side and countryside on the other, as if their only relation were in opposition. The unstated assumption here is that the countryside is consonant with the natural world while the city is willfully exempt from it. In fact they both exist within the natural world, which is persistent and encompassing. The city, with its bad air, cockroaches, pigeons, and inconvenient bouts of weather, may not offer an especially salubrious expression of the natural world, but it offers one all the same.

In Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral, Charles Siebert tries to explore the question of the nature of nature. Siebert, a confirmed Brooklynite, spent a few months in rural isolation in a run-down cottage in Canada called Wickerby, just over the Vermont border. He was on a lark, his girlfriend having recently decamped for Africa; the cabin belonged to her family. With no one to talk to except, occasionally, the phlegmatic caretaker, Siebert engaged in an interior monologue to help himself make sense of the displacement he felt at Wickerby. Set down on paper, it is by turns insightful and solipsistic, less a rational, philosophical argument than a thoughtful, shambling discourse akin to Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

Siebert is a better writer than he is a thinker—which is to say that he is a very good writer. His descriptions of his Brooklyn neighborhood (Eastern Parkway, on the edge of Crown Heights), in particular, capture the vitality and weirdness of the quotidian landscape. Here people construct and inhabit virtual apartments on the sidewalk, complete with area rugs and electric lights. They fly kites from apartment building roofs. They command monstrous excavating equipment whose “huge, extended claw [pulls] up sections of street surface like a finger dragged through stale cake icing.”

They trade bullets that Siebert, lying in bed, can distinguish:

…the faint balloon bursts of the .22, the deliberate, driving pops of a .38, the rapid tappings of the nine-millimeter machine-gun pistol, or “street-sweeper,” as it’s commonly known here.

Siebert is undaunted. He…

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