Nature: garden, paradise, or wilderness?

The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City is John Tallmadge’s account of moving to Cincinnati and the slow process of discovering nature in his new home, and with it, a connection to a place he never thought he could like, let alone feel a deep sense of belonging to. The book begins with Tallmadge and his pregnant wife moving from Minnesota to Cincinnati. The opening line of the book states: I never wanted to live in Cincinnati, Ohio. Why move there then? Because Tallmadge has been fired from his associate professor position and with a child on the way, he is forced to take a dean position at Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.

Tallmadge is a wilderness lover, a self-confessed subscriber to the wilderness dream. He loves places like the Boundary Waters and Yosemite, places where it is possible to escape from humanity and immerse oneself in nature. Tallmadge grew up in New Jersey and began exploring wilderness areas such as the High Sierra and the Colorado Plateau as a young man out of college. These remote places hold a sense of glamour and escapism for Tallmadge, whilst places nearer to hand, the places where he actually lives, are easily dismissed: I had no idea that my ignorance of local nature was a problem, nor that it might be abetted by my very devotion to the wilderness ideal. I accepted a priori the idea that wilderness could only be destroyed, never created, that wilderness and civilization were opposed, that nature and wilderness were essentially synonymous… 

At first Tallmadge struggles with the idea of living in a city like Cincinnati, a city known: less for forests and lakes than for jet engines, floating soap, and indigestible chili. His experiences growing up in New Jersey partly explain his aversion to industrial cities. In the motel they stop at on their way to Cincinnati, Tallmadge dreams that he is a boy again, driving with his family through mazes of slums, down narrow streets strewn with glass and lined with dying trees. The next day, as they continue their drive, he recalls the vacant lots where he played baseball as a child, and the way sulfur dioxide in the air would ruin his mother’s nylons hanging out to dry. Tallmadge sees the city as a place of violence, violence against the earth – whole acres scraped bare for construction, the bedrock shattered by dynamite blasts, hills cleft in two for highways – and violence against people – cramming them into apartments where they lived stacked like chickens in an egg factory, or forcing them into ghettoes out of fear or poverty.

Tallmadge comes to appreciate the city and its nature through his children and their lack of prejudice when it comes to nature; through growing vegetables in his garden; and through the life of his garden, the woods beyond, and his neighbourhood, which he explores on foot. At the same time, he also comes to a different understanding of wilderness and of the wilderness dream. In the early days of his tenure in Cincinnati, Tallmadge seems disoriented, and he uses imagery from the wilderness to ground his experiences. Sitting in his office on the tenth story, he likens himself to a climber bivouacked on a big wall. He describes his commute to work: I would slip like a kayaker into the pitching flow, buck the jams, curves, and interchanges. And walking on concrete is like walking on slickrock. However, there is a key difference between the city and the wilderness, between concrete and slickrock – concrete is a product of culture:

People had ground up and baked the local limestone to drive off its water of crystallization, mixed the anhydrous dust with sand and water, and then poured the heavy batter into molds, where it hardened once more into stone. Downtown was full of other mineral surfaces produced by equally strenuous arts: asphalt… glass… steel… aluminium.

This passage contrasts starkly with a later passage in the book, just after his daughter has been born. The experience of becoming a father transforms Tallmadge. He sees it as a fork in the road. The two paths offer a choice: either to help life in its wildness and unfolding, or to resist life by choosing security and routine. It is not a choice between family or wildnerness. For Tallmadge, the birth of his daughter has re-aligned his sense of what wilderness is. It is no longer out there, but right here, in the human body, in birth and the renewal of life:

There was more to this matter of wildness than I had ever imagined, and more to its practice than travel to remote and savage places. Before I had always gone out in search of it. Now, it seemed, I would have to start going in.

In this spirit, just after his daughter is born, he embarks on a walk round his neighbourhood: he sees it in a whole new light. Suddenly, lawns are no longer just grass, but bursting with diverse species. He notices the trees and the birds, the squirrels and the lichens: It was as if I had been sleep-walking, blind and deaf to the other lives going on all around. Towards the end of his walk, he writes:

The path of my walk was now bending back towards the house. As it turned from the mall, the concrete sidewalk underfoot began to feel oddly natural, as if it were only a different sort of deposit. Quartz pebbles, rounded by long-lost currents, gleamed from its matrix of reconstituted limestone. In joints and depressions, algae, moss, and lichen had begun to grow, just as they do on rock ridges in the Boundary Waters… Husks of acorns and other seeds littered the ground, swept into crevices where soil was building up. Frost wedging had pitted the pavement, leaving tiny craters that caught sand and moisture, riddling the edges of joints with cracks that spidered inward as if they meant to deconstruct the whole slab.

This passage contrasts markedly with the earlier one in which the concrete sidewalk is dismissed as an artifice of human culture. Now, the view is more modulated. Nature and the sidewalk seemed to be engaged in a conversation, indeed, it seems to be an argument that nature is winning, through a slow process of weathering and the gradual accumulation of soil and plant life. One can imagine the next moves in this debate – the trees that will eventually tear up the concrete, finishing the job.

The processes at work in Tallmadge’s neighbourhood are the very same ones at work in wilderness areas. There are other processes at work here too, namely, human deliberation. But Tallmadge no longer sees this as a wholly negative thing, the narrative has been soften, made more complex. Here, he states, nature is rich with the marks of human activity, both planned and haphazard.  These marks represent human stories and those stories are: one more invisible dimension of urban nature, part and parcel of this “damaged” landscape on whose confusing stage I was now, for better or worse, a player. Those terms – rich, confusing – show how Tallmadge’s understanding of urban nature is evolving and changing, acquiring a complexity that was not there before he moved to Cincinnati, and certainly not there in his previous experiences of wilderness.

As Tallmadge’s family grows, he starts to explore his neighborhood with his two daughters, and once again is given a fresh perspective, seen now through the eyes of his children:

From our earliest walks, they brought attentiveness and wonder to even the most common things. Rosalind discovered feathers – blue jay, cardinal, mourning dove. In her tiny hands they looked as big as fans, beautiful talismans of airy life. Elizabeth loved “treasure walks” where we gathered acorns, sweet-gum balls, or dried grass stems as stiff and precise as wands. No discarded husk ever seemed less precious to her than a golden slipper dropped by a passing goddess.

Tallmadge also plants a garden in his backyard. Just as nature and the city are not typically associated with one another, he admits one does not automatically connect husbandry with wildness. However, Tallmadge connects gardening and wilderness through the notion of husbandry as stewardship. In particular, he connects it to the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve acted as stewards, living in an intimate, engaged, and interdependent relationship with nature. For Adam and Eve, tending the garden was a literal act of worship. When they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they were cast from the garden of Eden, to eat bread in the sweat of thy face:

No wonder the act of gardening resonates so deeply. Every gesture of turning earth, planting, pruning, or cultivating carries a trace of the ancient hope that through deliberate, devoted practice we might somehow grow our way back to that original state of grace, where we spoke with animals, addressed all things by name, and walked with God through the garden in the cool of the day.

The garden then, aspires towards that ultimate garden, the garden of Eden. Once cast from the garden, Adam and Eve had to wrestle with rocks and thorns, to bend the wilderness to their will, in order to be able to eat. But wilderness itself has also been viewed as a kind of Eden and those who inhabit it as living in harmony with nature, provided for by its abundance, yet living and treading lightly. Tallmadge warns against this notion of an Edenic wilderness, particularly in the context of restoration ecology, which tries to restore ecosystems to their earlier, untainted state (though how far back to go before you reach that untainted state is often a puzzling question). This view of wilderness holds it up as a kind of baseline, against which all other nature, and humanity itself, can be measured:

Humans are conceived primarily as usurpers, degraders, or despoilers of ecosystems, driven by greed or appetite and abetted by pride, folly, or ignorance… There is no room here for husbandry, responsible or otherwise, no account of the myriad intimacies and symbioses in which we engage, no acknowledgement of the success that some cultures have had in enhancing the diversity and productivity of ecosystems.

One example of such a culture is the Mebêngôkre, who live in Amazonia, in the ecotone between forest and savanna. Far from existing in a state of Edenic nature, the Mebêngôkre practice intensive horticulture. Over many generations, the Mebêngôkre have built up forest islands in unproductive parts of the savanna:

So subtle and refined are these methods that the achievements of Mebêngôkre horticulture were not recognized as such until recently. They were thought to be the spontaneous productions of unassisted nature.

The idea of an Edenic wilderness has led us to believe that the Mebêngôkre live in complete harmony with nature, that they are outside of human history and devoid of culture. We don’t have to look too far to see the implications of this view, we can see it in the violence enacted against indigenous people around the world, and in the extinction and near extermination of countless species due to human activity.

The nature vs. culture divide is an important theme through out The Cincinnati Arch. In the beginning, Tallmadge sees the city as the ultimate artifice of human culture, as standing in stark contrast to the natural world. In opposition to the dominant narrative that aligns culture and civilisation with history, Tallmadge instead sees wilderness areas as being more storied, more historical:

A gnarled tree is expressive because it wears its history: each forked branch denotes a winter storm, each annual ring measures warmth and rainfall. It’s the same with a forest mosaic or a wrinkled face: each mark is earned, embodying a story revealed to the seeing eye… And every wild creature and wilderness landscape bears the marks of its history.

For Tallmadge, wilderness is profoundly historic, all place, not because of any human impact on the land, but in its own right. In contrast, urban space is no more than an empty geometric form:

The soaring towers looked grand and imposing, but they could be gone in a decade or a year, leaving no trace of the lives and works that had filled them. The location on which they stood would be reoccupied, like a slate wiped clean and inscribed by some alien hand.

I found this contrast between wilderness and the city odd. It made me ask a question I had never thought to ask before: what, exactly, is history? I tend to think of cities as being profoundly layered and historical, all place. If anything, cities are where history happens. And yes, a building can be knocked down, a whole city can be razed to the ground, as many have. But those buildings, those cities, live on precisely through history, and through the memories of people who knew those places. Wilderness, on the other hand, is only historical in so far as people interact with it. When I visited Yosemite a few years ago, I was fascinated by the Giant Sequoias. We visited the Tuolumne Grove and as we approached the grove, along the trail, we kept pointing at giant pine trees and wondering out loud if they were Sequoias or not. Then we rounded a corner and saw the base of a giant tree and we knew instantly that that was a Sequoia. It was monumental. We gazed up towards its branches high above and tried to comprehend its size. We posed next to it for photos, struggling to fit the tree into the frame.

Down in the main section of the grove there is a stump of a Sequoia that had a tunnel carved through it. The tunnel once straddled the Old Big Flat Road, a route used by tourists in carriages. I tried to imagine the slow pace of travel in a carriage, on dusty, rocky roads. I peopled the landscape with these long dead visitors. I read the interpretation boards, describing the history of the grove, the tourism and the logging. Then I touched the trees and realised what their size represented, the many thousands of years that these giants can live for. They’re strange creatures, existing in one small part of the world, in mixed groves – as though the world could not contain that much wisdom. As I touched their bark, I felt like they did know something, that they had seen us, born witness to us, at our best, and at our worst.

I thought of the Sequoias and the Yosemite wilderness in human terms. I thought of the people who had visited in the past (I probably didn’t think enough about the people who had lived there before European settlers arrived), and I thought of the Sequoias on the scale of human history. These trees had seeded when the ancient Romans and Greeks were wandering around in togas. Tallmadge made me reconsider the Sequoias, to see them on their own terms. It’s not hard with trees, which, scientists are beginning to understand, actually communicate with each other.

But Tallmadge warns against going too far the other way and pitting culture against nature:

[I]f nature is seen as superior to culture, then it can be used as a convenient standard against which to measure societies, institutions, or individuals. In benign forms, this leads to an ethic of wilderness preservation and restoration. In extreme cases, it can lead to an idolatry of nativism and a dream of reducing the population by any means necessary.

Tallmadge finds a sense of balance between the two extremes of culture and nature in his backyard, which contains both native plants (a product of nature) and alien plants (a product of human activity and therefore culture) flourishing together. As Tallmadge reminds us, there is no going back to Eden – a global economy means a global ecology. How, then, can we feel at home, how can be become native to a place, in this mixed up global world?

It requires time and attention… It is a life’s work and more than a life. Better begin at once, then, on the ground beneath our feet, which is the only ground we know. Even this unprepossessing soil with its grit, liter, and ragged weeds, its microbes and earthworms and layered dreams, can shine with promise in its becoming. It’s a place in process… and it can bring us together. For the nature we have in common is not sublime and remote but modest and near at hand. It’s where we live and work. In fact, it’s home.

If you want to learn more about tree communication, have a listen to this episode of Radiolab: From Tree to Shining Tree


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