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The Urban Thoreau: A New Nature in the City

Posted: 10/25/2013 11:08 am

"None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin." I was relieved to find these words in the early pages of Thoreau's "Walden." Here we have the doyen of nature writers, environmentalists, and the radical simplicity movement telling us that we are allowed, at least, a chair. The chair should not come new from a warehouse, God forbid, as there are plenty of chairs of the sort Thoreau likes best in "the village garrets to be had for taking them away," an early version of Craigslist. With such riches at our disposal, pumpkin-sitting would be mere "shiftlessness." But it must be noted that Thoreau equivocates on the subject. Thirty pages earlier, in a rant against dissipation and luxury, he declares: "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion." What is this obsession with pumpkin-sitting?

It might be cliché, but as a nature writer by profession, I dutifully wade through "Walden" every few years, discovering anew a text that is beautiful, challenging, a bit snobby, a bit sanctimonious, but enlivening overall. I try to apprehend, again, how Thoreau's summons fits into my life, and to act on this understanding. In this I join countless Thoreauvian pilgrims, among whom there are two characteristic responses to the book. The first is to long for a cabin in the woods from which to properly contemplate the questions Thoreau raises. I have been in this camp--who has not? The second response, less common for practical reasons, but still popular, is to take hammer in hand, acquire some open space, and actually build a little cabin (then write a book, or at least a blog about it). But the most authentic response to Walden is not, I think, a mere mimicking of Thoreau's actions. In a work that is often thought to be a series of nature of essays or a back-to-the-land manifesto, Walden Pond itself is not even described until nearly a third of the way into the book. Thoreau does not declare that he has gone to the woods because he thinks it is the best way for people to live but because he wants to live deliberately. It is not the building of the cabin but this question, as old as Socrates, and older still, that forms Walden's central project: the living of an examined life. Thoreau goes so far as to decry any notion of copycat lifestyles: "One young man of my acquaintance, who has inherited some acres, told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the means. I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself [which is indeed true--Thoreau's tenure at Walden Pond lasted only­­­­ two years], I desire that there be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way..."

We live in what I call a New Nature. The realities of habitat loss and climate change force us into the unwelcome recognition that the natural world is no longer a secluded, pristine place, the sparkling, shady stream of the Sierra Club calendar. Instead, all of nature, no matter how remote, is touched by human activity; it is affected by what we do, and how we live. This is a reluctant knowledge to be sure--the romantic concept of the unspoiled wild was a place of spiritual sustenance, of bodily adventure, of intellectual repose. But the New Nature can be enlivening in its way, imbuing the tasks of our daily lives with potent meaning, with a practical connection to all of life. There is poetry in this view. "In wildness is the preservation of the world," Thoreau famously wrote. Conservation of the remote wild is an essential challenge, but it will require a personal wildness--the wildness that is a habit of mind, a quality of imagination, a creativity of endeavor. It will require that we live well, every day, where we are. Forays into natural places where trees are many and humans are few are essential, both for our personal well-being and for our inspired commitment to conservation efforts. But Thoreau's first order of business was to borrow an ax, head to the woods where he intended to build his house, and "cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber." With few remaining wildlands, and multitudes of non-human creatures threatened with habitat loss, Thoreau's venture becomes less defensible in modern times, no matter how well intentioned the Walden-toting crusader may be. For urban dwellers, the most authentic way into Thoreau's challenge might involve staying right where we are, living the questions from our city homes.

Which takes us back to the pumpkin. Attention to the domicile--its furnishing, its feel, its sense of beauty, its central activities--is a way in for urban Waldenites. Thoreau's "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" is no mere abstraction. Thoreau found three pieces of obsidian and loved them enough to set them on his windowsill, as we all do with brick-a-brack or found rocks and feathers. But when he discovered how much dusting they required he threw them out. It's not that Thoreau had no sense of interior design, but his sensibility was one of natural minimalism, and it grew from the inside out. Creating a home is an internal-external endeavor. It involves paring down the superfluous distractions and the mental clutter so that our lives themselves become essential. "Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation." For Thoreau, the inspiration for this inner-out beauty is best cultivated "out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper."

But again, this need not mean rushing out to build a cabin in the woods, or driving an SUV to a forested trail. Anyone with a door has an entrée into the outdoors. Even in the most urban of places we dwell among birds, and squirrels, and trees, and weather, and we turn our faces to a night sky with a changing moon. Daily, attentive connection with this natural world matters tremendously--it makes us more creative, inspired, intelligent, and happy. t lowers our blood pressure. More than this, the urban wilds, no matter how simplified and scrappy, serve as a reminder--a thread--between our everyday lives, and the complex lives of wilderness creatures we will never see. There is kinship between the urban gray squirrel and the woodland tree squirrel, between the flicker (a common urban woodpecker), and the large, red-crested pileated woodpecker that populates healthy forests. By paying attention to urban nature, we are connected to wilder nature. Thoreau proudly recounts his "appointment with a beech," in which he trudges through snow to meet, and linger, with a favorite tree. An appointment with a park maple will do just as well. We might carry a feel guide to the birds (or download one of the many bird identification apps to our phones), and learn the species in our urban neighborhoods. "When I know the name of a creature, I find it difficult to see," wrote Thoreau. It is a pretty notion--that we might discover more about an animal when our observations are unsullied by human intellect. But I have never found this to be true (and it is entirely disingenuous coming from Thoreau, who knew the name of every plant and bird within miles of his cabin). Knowing the names of the birds among us is an act of natural intimacy, of neighborliness, of hospitality. It is an act of connection, fuel for the deliberate life that Thoreauvians seek.

We all find our own way in this new nature, this urban Walden. Thoreau's most prescient guidance appears early in the text: "If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?" Living deliberately in the city entails willful ingenuity, movement outside the socially endorsed norms, a breaking down of the old distinctions between urban/rural/wild. What will we do? Eat the dandelions, sleep in a backyard tent, wear flowers in our hair to attract hummingbirds, study starlings, meet a tree for lunch. Call in sick or keep the children home when there is something better to be had than work or school: a low tide, a promise of thunderstorms, an influx of migratory warblers, a sudden pressing urge to bake bread. Refuse the prescribed "good behavior." With autumn coming on and local pumpkins ripening, I'm of a mind to visit a farm, buy the largest orange specimen in sight, set it alongside the dining table, and finally decide for myself just what sort of chair really is best.

 
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