Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head
~The Lovin’ Spoonful
“… in cities … one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces,”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our truck bounced up the desert canyon, red rocks and red dirt broken a scattering of sagebrush and rabbit brush. Everything was harsh and hard. Well, not hard exactly. The stone was softened by erosion, formed by the wind and water into smooth curves, or crumbly and shattered into sand where it had fallen to the ground. Unforgiving, maybe, but the sandstone offered a tactile surface pitted and grainy to the touch.
The path through the pine forest crossed the ridge line and immediately fell into a grove of aspen. The soft forest soil and duff masked my footfalls, and I was surprised at the silence in the woods. There was the occasional rush of wind through the trees, a random chirp or song from an indistinct bird, and the intermittent chittering of a squirrel. The shade made it cooler, and the silence created a sense of dreaminess, floating along through the white trunks and flickering leaves.
I walked up the canyon of downtown buildings amid a crowd of office people, and the unrelenting hardness of the pavement, concrete and glass buildings offered neither forgiveness nor refuge. Sounds bounced off the hard walls and aggregated into a constant indescribable background growl. A small opening between the buildings revealed a splash of green — planter boxes full of flowers and grasses — that broke up the harshness and provided a respite from the constant movement and hard walls a few feet away. Others joined me in pausing out of the mainstream, catching their breath, resting their ears and calming their taut nerves.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean … But alone in distant woods or fields … I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine.”
For me, it doesn’t take a huge exposure to nature to help me ‘center’ — even just a glimpse of a bird or a valiant growing thing helps restore my sense of self. On YouTube, some New Yorkers videoed a rat carrying a piece of pizza down a busy street, laughing at the incongruity of it all. When the neighborhood cottontails played among the cars in the parking lot view from my office cube, it would brighten my day. A flock of geese soaring above the freeway pulled me, momentarily, out of my commute (and nearly caused me to rear-end the also-distracted driver in front of me).
This need we have to touch nature and be touched by it, is deeply human. We may ponder our role in the universe, but are at our best grubbing in the soil. From backyard bird feeders and gardens to expensive recreational vehicles, we are driven to get out ‘there’ in some way. We can make our office air fresher, our lighting more like daylight, and our work spaces softer and more green. However, none of that matches a twenty-minute break sitting in the pocket park between buildings, the leisurely stroll along a tree-lined path, or a few minutes on a bench feeding the pigeons.
We just need something to soften the hard surfaces, and help to sort out the sounds and noises bouncing around us. That something is nature.
We need to make our places more natural to help us become better humans. Our world is full of conflict, anger and fear, eroding our humanity. Much of our current politics and social unrest is centered on the stress of a world filled with uncertainty and a ‘failure to communicate’ (per the Captain in Cool Hand Luke). It becomes difficult to listen and impossible to hear when you are surrounded by hard surfaces (and hard people) reflecting every noise.
To me, that means we need a view of greenery and the sky, vegetation either in our parks or from green walls or houseplants, and contact with those non-human beings (dogs, cats, birds, others) that help us understand our humanity. The benefits of vegetation in our lives are legion — mitigating noise, cleaning air and water, cooling cities, and attracting creatures of all kinds.
Walt Whitman opined, “Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”
Our need to connect with nature is obvious, it’s as if we are a part of nature and nature a part of us. Nature makes us once more feel grandly related and makes us more human.
It’s only natural.