Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Urbanature for a New Era

We need a new concept, and we need a new word to describe that concept. The new word we need is “urbanature.” The concept this word describes is the idea that nature and urban life are not as distinct as we have long supposed. Here is why.

Hawks are roosting on skyscrapers near Central Park East and Central Park West. Peregrine falcons are feeding on the Flatiron Building, and owls are nesting throughout Manhattan. Meanwhile, thousands of environmentalists board carbon-gulping airplanes and fly thousands of miles (carrying tons of Gore-Tex) to get “back to nature” in Montana. At the same time, the World Wide Web tells us that Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Over 600 websites say so. But Thoreau did not say, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” He said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This difference–”wildness,” not “wilderness”–makes all the difference.

Urbanature (rhymes with “furniture”) is the idea that all human and nonhuman lives, all animate and inanimate objects on our planet (and no doubt beyond) are linked in a complex web of interconnectedness. We are not out of nature when we stand in the streets of Manhattan any more than we are in nature when we stand above tree-line in the Montana Rockies. When nature-lovers say they long to return to nature, they are making what the philosophers call a category mistake. As Tyler Stalling has recently noted, “There is no ‘real nature’ to which to return. Rather, in the face of burgeoning technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete.”

So far, it is only a handful of artists and designers who have invoked the term “urbanature” to describe this link between city-style and wild-style. Of course, my coinage of “urbanature” has close connections to the lines of Tim Morton’s recent argument about the need to get away from the idea of “nature” altogether (*Ecology Without Nature*). Tim is right not just for the subtle and nuanced theoretical reasons he invokes, but also because post-enlightenment “nature” is like a number of eighteenth-century ideas that have been around so long they are in desperate need of cultural critique. Such ideas–imagination, identity, self, consciousness, among many others–are concepts that often seem tired, worn down, enervated, misunderstood and misapplied. That is why a rigorous critique of “nature” is of such significance to Romanticists. We have the texts and the tools needed to undertake just such a project.

The time has clearly come to apply urbanature–or some concept like it–all around us, from the semi-wild edges of the Sahara and the Himalayas to the ecologically-contiguous villages of the European Alps and the Indian subcontinent. Urbanature, as I envision it, also describes the wide suburban sprawls filled with billions upon billions of flowers, trees, squirrels, and raptors, reaching all the way from the Pacific edge of the Americas to the Ural edges of Europe. Our new linking of urban spaces with natural places will likewise need to include captive and semi-captive creatures, from wild animals in zoo cages and pets in high-rise condominiums to plants and animals on sidewalks, roofs, and skyscraper ledges from Bombay to Caracas, from Beijing to Brooklyn.

We are never fully cut off from wild nature by human culture. This is the central aspect of all true ecology. Nothing we can do can ever take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. We are natural beings from the moment we are biologically born until the moment we organically die. Instead of describing the nonhuman world anthropocentrically—in human terms—we now have many good reasons to describe the whole world ecocentrically [eco-: oikos, house]. Our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home.

The globe is now completely mapped and filmed and photographed, down to the last W.M.D. (we hope), down to the smallest street and streambed. With my own computer mouse—and MapQuest or Google Earth on my computer—I can move from Mauritius to Manhattan in a minute, I can spin from the Seychelles to Seattle in a second. I can zoom onto every housetop. I can see almost every car in every parking lot. But this is not a problem. This is not a loss. In fact, my ability to scan the surface of the globe in seconds reminds me that I am linked to every natural object and every quantum of energy that surrounds me.

Urbanature includes the biggest of big pictures: birds on buildings, fish in fishponds, chemists making medicines, mountaineers climbing mountains, every dolphin and domestic dog, every gust of solar wind and every galaxy. To be “natural” originally meant, “to have been born”: natura—“birth” and also “essence,” as in “the nature of the problem.” The human-made is no less natural because it has been shaped, no less born or essential because it has been fashioned by human hands. The bird makes a nest, and her nest is no less natural than the bird herself. Human hands make a house, and the house–or even the skyscraper–is no less natural than the human hands that shaped it.

We now know that we share genetic material with chimpanzees and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert our human genes into other species. We are genetically related to, and dependent upon, countless species in countless ways: gorillas, whales, dogs, fishes, foxgloves, fungi. Where would we be without penicillium, that invisible fungus spore that flew through Alexander Fleming’s window in his London laboratory in 1928 and led to penicillin, a drug that has saved tens of millions of lives? Was Fleming operating in wild nature or in urban culture when he came upon that fungus? He was functioning in both. A “purely” natural object (the airborne penicillium) landed on a “purely” cultural production (a Petri dish smeared with agar) and the result was penicillin, a natural product of human culture that has changed life on our planet forever.

Urban culture and wild nature come to much the same thing. Urbanature.

–Ashton Nichols

Monday, February 9, 2009

Why is Darwin So Important?

A Young Man on Some Old Islands

In 1831, Charles Darwin thought he had “wasted” (his word) his college education. The 22-year-old was thus sent off by his father on a five-year journey that would change our understanding of our place in the nonhuman world. After five weeks on the Galápagos Islands, far out in the middle of the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador, Darwin’s observations and drawings of finches and tortoises led him to formulate the idea of natural selection, the centerpiece of his version of evolution. As he walked the sandy shorelines of these craggy volcanoes, he suddenly realized that the birds around him had variable beaks because natural selection had selected certain beaks as more useful than others: some for gathering seeds, others for crushing nuts, a few for spearing termites. The he saw iguanas swimming in the ocean, unlike almost any other lizards on earth. Lizards were land animals, but these spiny creatures found their food in the sea, just as the dinosaurs had. The young naturalist climbed these rocky hillsides, and he noticed that many of the creatures he saw were isolated from one another, trapped on their individual islands. Galápagos tortoises grew gigantic because there were no large, vicious mammals here to compete with them for food or space. Darwin’s ideas at this point were not new, nor were they complete. Indeed, his grandfather had implied that species change over time (as had some ancient Greeks). Now, however, the grandson’s emerging explanation of the way species evolve by means of natural selection would literally change our world.

Separate Creation or The Origin of Species?

Charles Darwin made himself literally ill with what he knew. He paced up and down the garden paths at Down House--not far from London--for over a quarter of a century, fretting himself sick because he possessed a secret that would upset the world. He spent countless hours in his book-lined study, pouring over boxes of beetles and barnacles, convinced that every living creature on earth must be related to every other creature, living or dead. Darwin was so disturbed by the power of his own idea that he refused to publish his conclusion for more than two decades. When his beloved 10-year-old daughter Annie died of a ravaging scarlet fever, Darwin lost whatever trace of faith he might have had in a just God, or a well-planned universe. He put his major scientific conclusion on paper for the first time in a letter that conveys his sense of the danger of his own insight. To even suggest that species might be mutable, he said, was like “confessing a murder.” In fact, he was right. Within months of Darwin’s public presentation of his findings, shouting matches broke out on the floor of learned societies throughout Europe. His critics called him “godless.” His enemies said that his ideas were evil. They put his head on the body of a chimpanzee. At he same time, they could not prove him wrong. In one five-page paper, Darwin had explained the process by which all life on earth had developed.

Two Centuries of Evolution, and Counting

Bible believers can say what they will; but, according to Darwin, creation is underway today--in fact, it never ends. Species are constantly changing, adapting and modifying, under the pressures of selection by natural forces, because of the random chances of mutation. During the same decade that On the Origin of Species was published, an obscure Augustinian monk in Austria was planting 30,000 pea pods in his monastery garden. This genius, Gregor Mendel, figured out the precise part of cells that causes changes in organisms, but he did not call these cell-parts “genes” yet. He went on selectively to breed a hybrid variety of honeybees that had to be destroyed because they were so aggressive, much like our current strain of Africanized bees.

Indeed, a garden full of vicious bees was the birthplace of modern biology. Half a century would have to pass before Mendel’s genetic discoveries were connected to Darwinian thinking. When Mendel’s peapods were finally linked to Darwin’s finches, however, the results would be staggering: genetically modified foods--“Frankenfoods”--cloning, fertility treatments, hitherto unimagined cures for virulent diseases. In 2005, in his landmark decision in the case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, Judge John Jones said that so-called “intelligent design” is nothing more than a version of creationism and that creationism can never be taught in public schools. So our story is far from over. Darwin and his successors have had powerful impacts on biology, ecology, paleontology, and social theory. In addition, evolution continues to influence religious thinkers and atheists, literary and visual artists, psychologists and politicians. Hard to imagine? Perhaps, but Darwin’s ideas, like the ideas of his powerful predecessors, have affected all human beings who have tried to understand nature from 1809 until 2009.

Monday, January 12, 2009


It is the summer of 2016. The price of gasoline has stabilized at $3.00 a gallon and electric cars, along with natural gas-powered vehicles, now fill America's roadways. A new hydrogen-powered furnace has recently become available for widespread domestic use. It links to solar panels and miniaturized wind-turbines along the roof-line of the home in order to provide unlimited energy for minimal cost.

Thirty million new jobs have been created since 2009, over half of them in the manufacturing sector, the remaining positions divided among high-tech, international and a variety of service start-ups. Average family income has reached a peak for the twenty-first century, close to $50,000. The mortgage and real-estate crisis of the late 2000s is a distant memory. More Americans, as a real number and as a percentage of the overall population, own their own homes than at any other time in U. S. history. Interest rates hover between 4.5 and 5.0 percent.

America's standing in the world has never been higher. Our relationship with our European allies has given way to an expanded version of NATO that now includes countries reaching across the Mediterranean and deep into the former Soviet republics. President Obama has been mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize short list after the detente he has established with the new, moderate Iranian leader, with Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and with the post-revolutionary parliament of North Korea. Those who argue against a Peace Prize for Obama cite his crushing defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and his 2012 capture of a frail Osama bin Laden, not in a frontier cave but in a dingy hotel room in Peshawar.

Vice-President Biden has just announced that he will not campaign for the presidency in the upcoming election and has hinted that he may throw his support behind former Virginia governor Mark Warner. Michelle Obama has been mentioned as a potential running-mate for Warner, or for Hillary Clinton, Warner's leading opponent in this year's hotly contested series of primaries. Ms. Obama's political prospects surged after she a truth and reconciliation commission that produced remarkable results at the end of the Iraqi occupation.  The Boston Red Sox have just won their third World Series in a  row.                                   --A.N.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Creationism in a New Key

Richard Keynes—the British physiologist and a direct descendant of Charles Darwin—has recently noted that it was actually mockingbirds rather than the finches that led to Darwin’s earliest intuitions about the mutability of species. Darwin's ornithological notes first point out that Spanish sailors can tell you the precise island that any tortoise comes from based entirely on the shape and size of its saddle-shaped carapace ("galápago" in Spanish). Darwin then adds, of his own recently collected specimens of mockingbird, that each "kin" (species, type) is found "exclusively" on only one island. If each of these islands has a different tortoise, and each a different mockingbird, then these different species must have gotten here somehow. Since they could not have all traveled here via water, some creatures must have been "created" here. They must have taken shape here. They must have evolved. In the next sentence, Darwin drops the scientific bombshell that will send shock waves shuddering through the next two centuries. The facts that Darwin has recorded, he says, a few simple observations about tortoises and mockingbirds, might—here he almost pauses in his own syntax—"undermine the stability of Species." God did not make every type of creature in a fixed and unalterable way in seven days, or seven eons. The laws of nature have generated creatures since the beginning of life on earth, and those laws continue to make new creatures today. Creation is happening right now.

All plants and animals on the Galápagos Islands are aboriginal, native and indigenous. Even today many are still found nowhere else on earth. All of these creatures, however, "show a marked relationship" (Darwin's diction) with their distant relatives on the mainland. Darwin could not say "their genetic relatives" because genetics would have to wait half a century for Gregor Mendel to start breeding and cross-breeding his peapods in clay pots. But Charles Darwin soon understood, as his grandfather Erasmus’s poetic description of evolution had implied, that all the giant tortoises on Albemarle Island (later called Isabella) had a kinship with their much smaller relatives back in Guayaquil on the South American mainland. These might all be aboriginal creatures, but they were all also linked to similar species on each of these islands and, even more remarkably, to their mainland relatives. Darwin called the Galápagos archipelago "a little world within itself." The idea behind his metaphor suggests that our entire planet might also be small enough to be covered with creatures that are all, in complex ways, related. He was right, of course, and the truth about that set of relationships is precisely the truth that his "Origin of Species" would confirm in 1859, more than two decades after the Beagle voyage ended.

The Galápagos Islands on which Darwin landed in 1835 were not the desirable destination of today’s eco-tourists. Herman Melville, writing two decades after Darwin’s visit, called them "heaps of cinder" in an isolated expanse of ocean, more desolate than any spot on the planet. Darwin himself called them beautiful, but he was referring only to the symmetry of their volcanic craters, a geologist’s paradise. A page later he says that no landscape could be less inviting than one’s first sight of the Galápagos island then called Chatam, now called San Cristobal. We can draw directly on Darwin’s own diction to give the full effect of this first sight. The lava looks like waves, he says, broken by great cracks and fissures, the whole scene covered with sunburned and stunted scrub-wood. There are almost no signs of life. The surface is parched and dry. The atmosphere is sultry and close. You feel as though you are standing next to a burning stove. The bushes literally stink. Even this greatest of all specimen collectors found it hard to collect here. On that famous first day ashore he had collected only a few wretched little weeds that seemed as though they should have come from an arctic landscape, not from the sunny equator. The shrubs looked as leafless as in winter, but in fact their tiny leaves were fully out, and even their flowers were in bloom. He had to get magnifier-close before he could see this indistinct detail of natural history. The tiny flowerets and leaves were almost invisible, a good lesson for any nature watcher. Only after a season of heavy rain were these islands even partially green. The same is true today. Not a very likely tourist destination, perhaps, but then it is Darwin’s own writing that has changed all of that a century and a half later. Luxury ecotouristic yacht trip, anyone?    (A.N.)

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Crucified Cardinal

A juvenile red-tail hawk, in the wood lot behind our house, roosts regularly in one tall honey-locust tree. On a cool morning recently, he has slaughtered a large male cardinal, leaving him splayed in a crucified pose on the path that cuts back toward the corner of the nearby field. The cardinal's wings are angled into the level-straight clean horizontal. His head is gone, his once rounded midsection now flat and wide open--all of its organs gone--leaving a blood red mass in the middle of the body cavity that matches the color of his feather almost perfectly. One small curl of grey intestine hangs down over his reptilian legs, trailing out onto the hot, dry ground. His tail is fanned out perfectly, as though it has been arranged in this feathery fashion by some unseen and homicidal hand. 

The next morning the crucified cardinal is gone. He has disappeared. No remnant of his raptor feast remains, nothing at all on the dusty dirt path save one tiny fluff of blood-red cardinal feather-down. On that same midday the juvenile red-tail is still perched above his cozy killing field. Later that afternoon he is joined by a second hawk. The two hunters stand mere inches apart, their heads twirling from side to side silently, their eyes surveying the wide fields beyond the trees, out off toward the northern mountain ridge and the sunset western distance.  
--A. N.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Hypertext and Nostalgia

Recent critiques of ecocriticism have worried about the element of nostalgia in all ecocritical thinking. That may or may not be a problem. Here is an etymology for the root of "nostalgia":

Indo-European root: nes-1
DEFINITION: To return safely home. 1. harness, from Old French harneis, harness, possibly from a Germanic source akin to Old English, Old High German (in composition), and Old Norse nest, food for a journey, from Germanic *nes-tam. 2. Suffixed o-grade form *nos-to-. nostalgia, from Greek nostos, a return home. (Pokorny nes- 766.) [American Heritage]

Food for a journey that leads us home; I’ve got no problem. If oikos from eco-logy is a form of “home,” then eco [home]-criticism is a critique of home, nostalgia by definition. But critiques of home can lead us forward as well as back. Oikos widens out from house to household, family, and finally to home. We all came from one home: the family into which we were born or by which we were raised, but also the nonhuman world in which we found ourselves as we came to consciousness (an apartment building, a farmhouse, a townhouse, a skyscraper, the edge of the Sahara desert, an Alpine village, the African rain forest).

But we are all headed to a new home as well: our life as adults, the family we make, the places we choose to live, the environments in which we work, or play, and through which we travel of necessity: the Upper West Side, Patagonia, Cleveland, the Grand Canyon. Each of the neutral locations can also become part of a meaningful home. So let thoughts of home continue as always already part of our rigorous critique of the homes–human and otherwise–out of which we came and to which we will return . . . or maybe not? Using your construction of the problem, I would argue that we do not work outside of nostalgia; rather, we work our way out of nostalgia into a world that of necessity houses us: roosting, perching, rousting, resting.

More significant over the long term--and to a wider world--may be the fact that hypertext and hyperspace are themselves tools for nostalgia. Hypertext is based on the principle that units of information, bits and bites or sentences and webpages, are always saved, kept even when they are "deleted," and often archived or preserved in various stages of development or revision. So twenty versions of my homepage may exist in various locations on the web, because my page was created over chronological time, was saved with different extensions and URLs, was housed on different hard drives and servers, was copied or printed by various users for various reasons. Even my emails have potentially been copied or saved at every junction server through which they have passed.

The nostalgia of hyperspace is a bit more complex, in part because hyperspace is not yet a clearly understood or fully theorized concept, but also because hyperspace is a nonmaterial entity--it is space; it does not exist anywhere that can be fully circumscribed (except perhaps the planet earth)--and yet it is also a material entity, since it exists in the atoms of computer chips, silicon surfaces, and motherboards, and if all the computers in the world suddenly ceased to exist, hyperspace would also cease to exist. So it is space rendered real by the material objects that bring it into being, but it also exists only as energy, as the tiny quanta, or charges, that travel through wires--but also through wireless space.

The nostalgia implicit here should now be clearly evident. We long to return to places we have been before in hyperspace, and we long for the texts that we have seen, or created, or revised. We bookmark pages and sites. Indeed, the bookmark may be the undeniable proof of the nostalgia-laden web. We also print out our favorites and create our own home out of our homepage, the homepages of others, and the places we have been in the universe of hyperspace (the "hyperverse") to which we long to return. Desire is the central principle and all true nostalgia: desire for an earlier time, desire for another place than the one in which we find ourselves. No realities in twenty-first century life are more laden with desire than the World Wide Web and the Internet. Whether and when these new spaces and places will become elements of our own homes remains to be seen.

Ecomorphism and Ecoromanticism

     Ecomorphism is the antithesis of anthropomorphism. Instead of seeing myself at the center of my world, I can now see my human activity—and yours—in terms of our connectedness to nonhuman life. For centuries the poets have said, “that mourning dove is singing a song as sad as I am sad” or “that cloud looks as happy the way I am happy as it skitters across the sky.” Now we need to reconsider both the tenor and the vehicle of such anthropomorphic metaphors. The vehicle is the subject—humans—from which the characteristic (sadness or happiness) is taken. The tenor is the natural subject (bird or cloud) to which the human characteristic is given. Poets and other imaginative creators should now consider reversing this metaphoric order in the interest of ecocentrism. No longer should we just imagine ants as resembling humans. We now need to point out that humans often act like ants, or birds, or even clouds. A bird does not build a house the way I build a house, but I can roost just the way a bird roosts: ecomorphism.
     This difference between anthropomorphism and ecomorphism is subtle but significant. Science has revealed to us that ant-colonies are like human communities, but equally important is the idea that human colonies are like ant colonies. Both are adaptive responses to specific social conditions. Likewise, butterflies do not use mimicry and thereby make themselves disguised the way humans use disguises. Humans use forms mimicry, derived from mimicry in butterflies and other “lower” creatures, to accomplish similar goals. Humans gather and store food the way squirrels do, not vice versa. Humans seek mates like the rest of sexually-selecting nature does. We are more like them than they are like us.
     If it ever made sense to describe the nonhuman world as human, it no longer makes sense to talk about the “melancholy mourning dove” or the “anxious anteater”. It now makes much more practical and poetic sense to describe ourselves in relation to the rest of nature than it does to humanize the nonhuman. If we want to keep thinking of ourselves as special—as superior to ants, and wasps, and birds—that is fine, but we should also recognize that we derive directly from, and are thus always linked to, the rest of wild nature. They came first. We arose out of them in the first place. We were not self-generated. Our humanity is deeply intertwined with and invested in all of the creatures that predate us on the evolutionary scale. Our own special status—when it exists—derives directly from our self-interest, nothing more, nothing less, but so does a chimpanzee’s special status.
     Ecomorphism sees human activity as dependent upon—and interdependent with—all ecological interactions on earth. At the same time, human activity plays an increasingly important role in all ecological systems. Human fires pump countless tons of airborne waste products into an ecosystem that has always produced its own “destructive” elements: volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Now, however, the three-pound blob of our human brain is always the self-conscious definer of the problem. Destruction only makes sense from a human point of view. No dinosaur worried about rapid climate change on the planet. No trilobite was troubled by alterations in ocean temperature. Even from our human perspective, the flood that brings death and destruction to the Nile or the Mississippi deltas also brings moisture, and nutrients, and life.   
-- A.N. 
[ . . . for more of this post, please see