There are no edges in nature, only gradients. I first heard this concept expressed in the book “Seeing Nature” by Paul Krafel, and it helped redefine my view of the world. (This is the sort of book that if you get to the end and you don’t think about the whole world differently, you must not have paid much attention.) The past few weeks have afforded us a remarkably tangible experience of this concept. Two weeks ago we were in the mountains of North Carolina. I had been there once before, this past fall, with my brother Brian. Brian had been spending large amounts of time hiking through the mountains of Arizona, and it was in the Smokeys that he taught me about mountains as spiritual places, metaphors for our internal journey. Each rock and root, each turn of the trail, represents our own struggles to transcend what we are. As you near the top, the troubles of the conventional world seem increasingly distant. Existence and the quality of your consciousness shifts radically. Small, otherwise mundane experiences become Cosmic Happenings. The wind in your hair rushes through your spirit. The heart rests, the mind’s shackles loosen and fall away. When you finally reach the summit, just as in the journey through and into yourself, you are free. There is nothing to hold you down, you can see everything, and there is absolutely nothing to be done. How wonderful!
Coming out of the mountains, I underestimated how much I would miss them, and it did not help that our very next night was spent in our car in a Walmart parking lot, choking down the thick, hot, muggy air of the lowlands. I was similarly refreshed, however, upon arriving at our next camping location on the coast of North Carolina. In under twenty four hours, we had gone from one of the highest to one of the lowest points in the state!
The ocean is an entity with which I am not well acquainted, and its power is awesome (and I use the word in its truest sense). Water scares me, and I would not say that quite so bluntly about many things. It terrifies me to be out swimming in open water. I will do it, to an extent, but never without second thoughts! We were on an incredibly pleasant beach at a time when the waves and tides were mild, yet as we played in the water, I could not help feeling that we were dancing on the toe of a giant. Watching the waves crash against the shoreline, I felt as if I am paying a visit to infinity. These waves, after all, have been crashing here since before life was on this planet, and will continue long after life (at least human life) has disappeared. We walked along the sandy remains of the mountains we were enjoying the day before, and after the soul-crushing visit to Walmart, my spirit soared once again! The subtle terror of the expansive ocean was ever-present, bringing a sort of vibrancy to my awareness that never seems to come out of being totally comfortable.
The ocean is not a kind place, nor is it cruel. The ocean, along with the rest of the natural world, is powerfully ambivalent (or ambivalently powerful, I suppose) to our existence, just as we are ambivalent to the existence of individual microorganisms, or miniscule insects. If one dies or comes into being we definitely don’t notice, and we probably wouldn’t care if we did. And so we stand in relation to the enormity of Nature.
But there are no edges in nature, only gradients. As we move north, stopping in Charlottesville, VA, Washington, DC, and making it into the Big One, New York City, it occurs to me that these places are on the same spectrum as the wilderness we recently were calling home. The heart of a city is fueled by the same energy that fuels the ocean waves, the mountain springs, the night sky. It all runs from the same spark, and it is equally impartial across the board. In our recent visit to New York, I began to see the city as an entity of its own, that will readily consume the ill-equipped, weak, or merely unfortunate people. I could look around and see people playing all different roles; the arms, legs, eyes, mouth, of the Beast. I could see people in various stages of digestion, torn to pieces by a lifetime in a terrifying and uniquely modern living situation, while others seem to be able to use the city’s energy to vault up to a mode of existence that would be nearly or entirely impossible to achieve anywhere else.
Spending time in large cities has always been a struggle for me. It kills me to see the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich walk past each other on the street, the homeless man staring pleadingly at the businessman who does not give him a second thought. I feel uncomfortable with how desensitized I feel after only a few hours in such a place. When you see someone, hopeless, utterly destitute, on every street corner, you learn to deal with it as part of life’s scenery. Scenery! What a way to classify a person, as if the humans with whom interactions are immediately relevant are the actors, the significant characters, and the rest are the scenery. We normalize those who exist in our field of awareness but are not obviously and immediately relevant, much as we normalize horrific news stories, and justify our non-participation with lame excuses, as if doing nothing and merely thinking about the problem (or not thinking about it) is a better answer. Somebody else will take care of the problem. Somebody else with more than me will be generous. There are shelters and food pantries for the people, they’ll just spend my money on drugs or alcohol. Those people who are hungry are three thousand miles away, what am I supposed to do? To be able to feel for all of those in need, to be able to help wherever possible, to be able to retain your humanity and compassion in the midst of such an environment, is all too difficult. When you pour out your heart and soul to people without being careful, you may end up with nothing left. It’s a bit like the oxygen masks on airplanes. If you aren’t able to keep your own head up, you probably won’t be much help to others. Many can do it, some actually do, but it could never be enough. There are too many people. There is too much anonymity. And so arises the ambivalence of cities, another manifestation of the universe’s impartiality.
Cities are what the environment become when we strip away everything that is not made by humans. When a natural area is stripped of its natural functions and components to make room for humans, then we must accept that it is humans that need to fill the gaps. There are many gaps to be filled. Therefore, the various abstract roles of existence are redefined in an entirely human context. We have created a new food in the City: money. It is not particularly new, nor is it exclusive to the City, but it becomes an even more vital component of survival the closer one moves to civilization. City dwellers require more money to do basic things, and it is increasingly difficult to carry out basic survival needs without it. For example, it would be rather difficult to set up a tent, start a subsistence farm, and hunt for wild game in Manhattan.
So what’s the difference? It’s still an extension of Nature; the rules are similar, but the players are different. There is plenty of reason to believe that there is as much suffering in the mountains or the desert or the ocean as there is in the city (unless you hold the strange belief that animals do not suffer). As I spent time in various parts of New York City over the last few days, and Washington DC before that, I was trying to reconcile this. I love nature. I am deeply in love with its unpolished beauty, its harshness, and its mystical interconnectedness, yet all of these things exist in a city as well. It’s the same system, just a different part of it. There are mountains, deserts, marshes, anthills, glaciers, beehives, oceans, farms, cities, all of these are different systems following the same underlying, invisible Way. So what is it about cities that makes me feel so much more anxious, fast-paced, and unsettled?
In the natural, nonhuman world, there are many factors that are dangerous, potentially stressful, and fast-paced. There are reasons to be on edge, just as there are reasons to relax, open your heart, and surrender to it all. In a city, however, there are no outlets from humanity’s pull, from the collective Mind that a city generates, and that, I believe, is the major difference in my mind. There are parks, there are museums and lots and lots of art, but these are no substitution for something entire inhuman. A city without parks is like a room without windows, but windows do not make a good substitute for the great outdoors. In the natural world, my mind more easily opens into a broader consciousness, tapping into a beautiful and terrifying emptiness that is eternally present. The type of emptiness you might access during your deepest sleep. In a city, however, everything I look at is either a human or specifically created by humanity, for humanity. It is like being surrounded by your own neuroses, trapped in a bizarre hall of mirrors but imagining that it is the world. There is a reason why mental illness rates are higher in cities than in the country, and it is the same reason I feel more tense in the heart of a city. There is too much psychological pressure without enough of an outlet! It can break a person if they are not careful, or if their mind is naturally one of those minds that does not fit neatly into our social norms.
Despite how it may sound, I think cities are incredibly valuable to our modern world. They are, in many ways, on the cutting edge of what it means to be human, acting as doorways to an alternate dimension, accessible throughout the world, but only where there are cities. They resemble the future, and leave a wake behind themselves that gradually spreads to the rest of the world. They are like mountain tops, similar to each other, but radically different than the landscapes in between. All of that psychological energy can catapult minds into spirals of ideas that would otherwise never occur, and are of great value to our world. Minds within collective minds, within collective minds.
Wilderness, on the other hand is the empty canvas. It is the air that we breathe without noticing. It is the blackness behind the stars, the silence behind words, and the consciousness preceding thought. There is an infinite world out there beyond us humans, and there is a great deal of value in venturing out there, physically, mentally, spiritually, and then coming back. When we do this, we bring back something, something amazingly intangible, or is it nothing? Either way, it is of utmost importance.