Lately I have become interested in the variety of conceptions of nature. When I think of nature, two different kinds of images come to mind. On the one hand, there are the images in the news that show us plastic filled oceans, burning forests, and severe storms. On the other hand, there are all the social media pictures of sunsets, sandy beaches, and flowers. One type of image shows something that we destroy and something we should be afraid of. The other type of image presents something soothing, pretty, decorative.
In June 2019, I was invited to speak the annual conference of ASLE, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, at UC Davis, California. I heard an interesting talk by Ursula K. Heise on Planet of Cities: Multispecies Environments and Narrative Futures. Nature seems to adapt with the development of urban planning.
In the 17th Century, cities were seen as the opposite of nature. Nature had to feed the inhabitants the city; it was seen as the antipode of the city. Nature was contained outside the city gates.
In the 18/19th Century, Romantic conceptions of nature came on the scene. Romantics promoted nature as truthful and soothing while city inhabitants began to miss nature. Urban planners reacted and integrated parks and gardens into the urban layout. Nature became a controlled part of the city, designed for human entertainment and recreation.
But as we know, nature is difficult to control. Even in those "good old days", nature was always a part of all parts of the city, no matter how hard planners and architects tried to hinder the mingling of natural and city elements. Think of all the unwanted plans or weed growing wherever they can. Think of all the rats, doves, insects and other unwanted creatures on the streets and in the houses.
In recent years one can observe yet another shift in the ideas of nature and city relationships. The awareness of the importance and connectedness of all plants and animals is growing. We begin to understand how we depend on all sorts of animals and plants, not only on the pretty ones. At the same time, the numbers of inhabitants in the countryside are shrinking, the numbers of inhabitants in urban areas is growing. The concept of the city and nature as two separate entities seems to be replaced by a new idea: Cities are our new nature.
We are welcoming the foxes which come to the cities at night. We are beging to understand that we need to protect the bees and other insects in the city. Urban farming, flower bombs, new concepts for city parks, and plants as architectonical elements mark a shift in our understanding of city as a space we have to share with nature.
But what does nature think of all of that? I am always happy to get news about expanding wolf-packs in Europe and growing numbers of bears in the Alps. Even more fascinating for me are stories about animals looking for new places to live and choosing cities. We all know well-fed college squirrels ( I also like those), but there are also other flocks of newly arrived animal city dwellers. In 2019, apparently 11 different parrot species, like the red-lord amazon, populate Los Angeles (https://pethelpful.com/wildlife/Wild-Parrots-Multiplying-in-Southern-California). With a population of 5000 in L.A. their number has become larger than in their original habitat in Central America. The birds came to the United States as pets. Now they have chosen to stay. They re-connected with their friends from further South and started their own big city colony. No need for lush trees or a Romantic conception of nature here.
The L.A. parrots stand for a picturesque, new kind of Romantic version of the new urban habitat. But nature in the city consists mostly of cockroaches, bed bugs, and other creatures we do not want to see. In 2019 we may have to change our preferred perception of nature. Maybe there is no nature like the one depicted by William Tuner or Caspar David Friedrich anymore. Aestheticization, in terms of beautifying nature, might not work in the smoggy mega cities we share with a lot of other humans, and other animals.
Already in 1836 in his essay "Nature" Waldo Emerson critiques a retrospective and Romanticizing perception we have of nature. He argues for a different and radical new definition: "Strictly speaking (…) all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE."
The question is, will we be able to enjoy the urban landscape as nature as the Romantics did? A nature that includes parrots and foxes, but also termites and silverfish?
Art and Education