Learning from Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau didn’t particularly like cities, including New York, all that much.  “The pigs in the street are the most respectable part of the population,”he wrote while visiting in 1843.  Thoreau was a country mouse at heart, not a city rat.  He was neither the first nor the last to believe that there was a hard line between nature and culture (or wilderness and civilization, or natural and unnatural). 

This separation between the outside and inside may be a basic human characteristic, one as old as the species.  When there are dangerous things out there, we seek protection in here, drawing into our shell like a snail at the first sign of danger.  But has the border between the inside and the outside ever been that tight?  Didn’t insects, snakes, and small mammals slip into the cave?  The ancestors of the domestic cat and dog certainly came into the ring of light projected by human-made fires, and they stayed.  The categories overlap to a surprising degree and always have. 

Pigeons, house sparrows, roaches, and rats are the best-known animals of the city.  In ways we are only beginning to understand, they have co-evolved with us, for we are ones who provide them the food and shelter they need to be so incredibly successful.  But considering the often-visceral loathing for these creatures some people manifest, what do we get out of this relationship?  One answer might be framed with another question: who produces the garbage these creatures glean?  Indeed, imagine the city without these natural gleaners; we might very well be up to our knees in our own waste.  Thoreau’s pigs, too, were scavenging the city of everything edible.  Of course, it wasn’t the pigs the old boy was dissing.

We have to remember the city he was visiting.  Nineteenth century cities were pretty grim places for all but a few.  In New York in 1843, Central Park was still a dream in the mind’s eye of William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing.  There were very few street trees even.  Immigration – the city’s population was 79,216 in 1800; 696,115 in 1850; 2,507,414 in 1890 – made for over-crowding and ethnic and racial division.  The city’s tiny elite had a self-justifying and exculpatory laissez-faire ideology that just made things worse.  The streets were muddy and horses often died in their traces on them.  It’s in this context that Thoreau also wrote “in wildness is the salvation of the world.” Not wilderness, of which there is less and less the world over, but wildness.  It’s an important distinction in a human world that is now predominantly urban. 

For there is wildness everywhere, if you look.  Even in the city.  When coyotes appear in Central Park, red-tailed hawks build nests on Fifth Avenue, a buck deer swims to Governor’s Island, lion’s mane jellyfish clear off the beaches of the Rockaways, and a minke whale probes the mouth of the Gowanus Canal, it begins to become obvious that the boundaries between wildness and us are in our head.

Mammals and raptors, o my!  These big ticket items of nature, and the dangerous ones – can you imagine the tabloid whoop-de-woo if we had some big sharks off Coney?  — hardly need any more sensationalist attention.  They need sober understanding, and a little humility from us.  But it’s the little things, which little or no PR, that need to be brought to our attention.  Everywhere we look there are forms of life, often small, often obscure, but still a piece of that vast and intricate web of planet earth.  Plants and animals abound; it’s only a question of seeing them, but, of course, that turns out to be a skill like any other.  Everybody obviously looks, but few actually see – that was one of Sherlock Holmes’s lessons to the ever-patient Dr. Watson.  The penultimate line in Thoreau’s journal – more than two million words detailing his observations from 1837-1861 — is “All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most.”
The things that I have passed by without noticing them would fill far more volumes than Thoreau’s journal, but I am working on it.  I have a pile of field guides, the Internet, a digital camera (treading lightly is more important than a trophy).  But most of all, I have my backyard, which is surprisingly, wonderfully, full of life even though it’s small and mostly concrete.

“Nature will bare the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect’s view of its plain.” That’s Thoreau again.

I invite readers to journey with me across the few square feet of Brooklyn I call the Back Forty (Inches) and beyond.

Cionella lubrica, the glossy pillar snail

 

(I first discovered these snails last July. As of yesterday, they are still stuck to the back wall of my building. I will be posting on them in the near future.)

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1 Response to “Learning from Thoreau”


  1. 1 Sara K. March 4, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Lovely post! I for one, respect the birds, rodents, and insects who make their homes in urban environments (ok, I’m working on respecting the insects). After all, we’ve built them an ideal environment just as surely as an ant farm is built for ants, or one of those gerbil houses for gerbils, if not better.


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