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 is bemused. The city is teeming, overflowing, with life.
But so is the countryside he finds at Wickerby, though its life is farther down the phylum—animal life, bug life—and it gives him the creeps. Siebert’s descriptions of Wickerby, while no less lyrical than those of Brooklyn, are suffused with this sense of creepiness, and dread.
“The quiet was enormous,” he writes of his first night at the cabin.
I could almost hear the stars seething in their distant sockets. The cabin seemed to be trying to resituate itself around me—around my still-racing blood and the steady thrum in my ears. Everywhere, in scuffling increments, the mice were reclaiming their hold. Along with the woodstove’s mounting heat came the unforgettable essence of baked snake slough and cobweb. On the underside of the floorboards beneath my feet, I felt a slow, vibratory rubbing, as though of a heavy wire brush wielded by a drunk. A porcupine, I later determined, dining on the cabin’s insulation.
What seems to amaze Siebert and inform most of his thinking is that he finds the city, with its guns and crazies, less frightening a place than Wickerby, with its spiders and woodchucks. Yet the fact that Siebert, a lifelong New Yorker, feels unsettled at Wickerby (so unsettled that he keeps an axe under his bed) says more about him than it does about the place. Unpeopled, Wickerby is a tabula rasa, and blank pages always daunt writers. Still, the story he writes on it is only about himself.
“I went day after day into the deep silence of those woods only to learn why it is that we, ultimately, can’t stand a stand of trees; why we are, in fact, impelled by the woods to leave them…,” he says confidently, implicating us all. I myself happen to live in the woods, so my example alone might seem to refute this—but that is not the point. The point is that Siebert assumes that the woods exist for humans to love or despise, for them to stand or not, to choose or not. Siebert lapses into pseudo-Gaiaistic thinking—a reductive biophilosophy to the effect that anything done by man is by extension also natural—when he writes, “A skyscraper may not be the same as a tree, but one is no more natural than the other, and both are, in the end, habitable outgrowths of the same skyward longing.” It’s a convenient point of view since it sidesteps questions of human agency and morality—a field of broken beer bottles tossed from the windows of passing automobiles being no less natural, in this way of thinking, than a field of daisies. But of course it is.
“There is no such thing as nature,” Siebert also asserts in apparent self-contradiction. “There is just the earth and us, the namers, standing upon it, naming those places without us ‘nature.”’ It is a curious declaration, given the discomfort he feels at Wickerby, with its bats and other winged creatures, and in its surrounding woods. But if nature is only a roster of names, what is it about it that unmans Siebert in its presence? Eliminate the name and there is still the thing itself—the porcupine, with its readied quills, the thirsty mosquitoes, the sticks and stones that could break his bones. Only names, one assumes, could not hurt him.
What Siebert understands intuitively is that attempts to apprehend nature through language are purely human exercises: scientists’ attempts to codify the laws of nature, for instance, are more like journalism than jurisprudence—they simply record how the physical world seems to work, apart from human consciousness. It is the independence of nature, the total disregard of him, that, more than trees, frightens Siebert. He feels vulnerable in the woods, or under the night sky at Wickerby, because he recognizes that the more he knows about the natural world the more he understands that it is not really knowable, if knowledge means mastery. Contrast this to his run-down Brooklyn neighborhood where, after a while, “you realize just how much safety, how much plain old static normalcy there is at the heart of a so-called trouble spot.”
To claim that nature doesn’t exist, or that the wild does not exist, is, to say the least, to ignore the empiricism of our own lives. When Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond it was a timed experiment—he left after two years. Siebert went to Wickerby for five months. In both cases they found, in their voluntary seclusion, the time, distance, and quiet—the solitude—to reflect on the human condition. That, historically, has been one of the uses of places apart from civilization. Coming back, returning home, is not a measure of defeat or of the triumph of one kind of habitation over another, but, rather, an acknowledgment that there is more than one kind of life, more than one kind of place. A truly civilized culture acknowledges, allows, and maintains that diversity.
Back in Brooklyn, after his sojourn in Wickerby, Siebert gets nostalgic for his idyll, and begins to think of returning. Until he does, he says, he’ll telephone the cabin, knowing no one will answer,
…and then, around each unanswered ring, I’ll begin to imagine all the twitched heads and wide-eyed stares, and the thick scatter of the rooftop crow, and the startled flight of the deer that had just then been rubbing its flank against the collapsing southeast corner, and its near-soundless hoof squeak through snow.
Call them what you will, the snow and deer. As Siebert finally discovers, listening to that ringing phone, it does not matter what they are named, so long as they exist in the world.
Like Charles Siebert, Robert Sullivan is most comfortable in wrecked urban landscapes. An easterner who moved west, Sullivan found himself longing for the thirty-two-acre swamp that sits—percolates?—just five miles from the Empire State Building, the tract of no-man’s-land called the Meadowlands. “I would walk into the woods outside of the city where I ended up living and see beautiful trees and huge mountains topped with spectacular glaciers that altogether only made me miss the world’s greatest industrial swamp,” he writes in his wry, breezy, devastating paean to the place, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City.
When this happened, I began taking cross-country trips to the Meadowlands and spending more and more time there. I also began making more intensive surveys of the area, and the Meadowlands turned out to be a lot bigger than I thought. I hiked and I walked and I rented cars and in the end I figure I covered close to three thousand miles in rented cars alone…. In the process of hiking and canoeing and digging and just otherwise exploring the area, I learned a lot about what happens inside old mountains of trash, about all of the inventions that were invented in the Meadowlands, about a great mosquito trapper, about people who enjoy spending as much time in the Meadowlands as possible, about a lot of old crimes.
The Meadowlands, it turns out, was not always a place where water flowed the color of antifreeze, not always a slag heap of old cars and demolished buildings (including the old Penn Station) and household waste and heavy metals. It was a meadow, alive with blue irises and white saxifrage and spartina grass, and a dense cedar forest, and a waterway filled with carp and salmon and bass and shad. Beaver lived there, as did wolves and bears and pheasants and mountain lions. The Lenape Indians hunted the meadows, though by the mid-eighteenth century they were gone, victims of white man’s diseases brought by the early Dutch and English settlers.
Once the Europeans arrived, the future of the Meadowlands was ordained. Not only was the land privatized—Sullivan recounts that “there was so much meadow in the Meadowlands that the first landowners gave it away free to the incoming citizens who had purchased land higher up in the valley, as if the meadows were something in a Welcome Wagon kit”—it was developed to serve human interests. By 1750, the cedar forests had been logged to extinction, the wood making an excellent material for boat-building. The clay soil was dug up and fired into bricks, leaving the ground pocked and pitted and ideally suited, once filled with standing water, to breed malarial mosquitoes. A copper mine was excavated, then abandoned and plowed over. (Not long ago it reemerged, in a couple of New Jersey backyards.) Newark, which Sullivan calls the capital city of the Meadowlands, went in sixty years from what one European visitor described in 1801 as “the most beautiful village on the continent” to one of the most unhealthy cities in the world. Those sixty years brought rapid industrialization, for which the Meadowlands served, conveniently, as a giant sewer.