Cities are a long term sore spot in the analysis of most dirt worshipping tree huggers. On the one hand, we like to slander them with all varieties of nasty words, relying on colorful metaphors and hyperbole to further illustrate the depth of our resentment. We’ll say dumb shit like “industrial death trap,” “urbanified culture of lies” and that classic Old Testament hippie throwback, “Babylon.”
Then we invent a hundred and one ways that we, as clear sighted, clear thinking, spiritualized residents of wildlands, are superior to those billions of urbanized minions. We tell them they’re out of touch with the cycles of life. We tell them they’re polluted by culture and civilization. We’ll let them know in exhaustive treatises and shitty screened patches that as those living on land, we are the true inheritors of all that is healthy and wholesome in the world.
Of course, like everything else about treehuggers, this analysis is fraught with irony, ‘cuz let’s face it, rednecks, migrant farmers and black sharecroppers don’t buy our books, come to our parties or attend our workshops. Nor do elk, wolves or pileated woodpeckers share either our hostility towards urban America, or even a remote love for our dirty, woodsmoke smelling asses anyway.
I find this really intriguing (and funny as hell) ‘cuz not six months ago I was still riding high on my ecologically supreme chariot of bullshit. Then July hit and I was standing on a 500’ tall cliff over top of the Little Applegate River dumping six foot thick trees into the gulch, when it hit me. Working in the woods was gonna leave me poor, crippled (or dead) and lonely as hell. I had spent ten years rallying for unity between ecology and economy, for a universal compassion that extended to all living things, including the lowly humans who depend on the woods of the world for their subsistence. And this rallying wasn’t working. Environmentalists, being from an entirely different culture, don’t give a flying fuck about workers beyond how they can be used as a springboard to further some agenda. The timber industry is bound to a traditional mode of operation by policies and monetary systems so far removed as to be an almost invincible form of strict determinism. I was wasting my time and my life on a series of projects that, like punk fests, all ages venues, and anarchist revolution, weren’t gonna work. If I was gonna make the world a better place, I had to try something new. Three weeks later, my heavy equipment was up for auction and all my logger buddies were having a blast buying the grease soaked spoils of my sweat and blood.
Three months later, I live in a dirty, corrupt city of almost a million. I ride my bike or take the train everywhere, leaving my sad old truck alone and underutilized in the backyard. I spend lots of time walking the filthy streets and cavorting with the tons of wonderful people who share my immediate space. I drink lead laced water, breathe car exhaust and smile more than I ever have. I still watch the night sky whenever I can, though instead of from the tops of mountains and deserted beaches, it’s from the middle of the Burnside Bridge or over the UP yard off the bluffs. I am surrounded by people 24 hours a day and hear human voices through the clouds of sleep rather than the playful yelps of coyotes or solemn hoots of owls. And you know what, as much as I feel sick writing this, I fucking love living in the city.
Unlike I would have been spouting off about last year, cities are not apocalyptic wastelands full of zombies. Nor are they refugee camps for people too poor or too stupid to blow $200,000 on a piece of land somewhere. Nor are they refuges for shitbrained people who hate nature and wish themselves free of the cycles of life and death.
Cities are functioning ecosystems with cycles as valid, powerful and invincible as any forest, desert or sea you can find. Sure, the raw materials that comprise cities are far different than those you’ll find in human-free ecosystems, but that in no way denigrates the existence of cities. In fact, in my mind at least, it’s a further appreciation of the diversity and complexity of our world.
Every wild place in the world functions in slightly different ways along consistent patterns. Although the scientific names of resident flora and fauna might differ, the basic plot is the same: Things eat, they sleep, they shit, they fight, they fuck, and they die. Sure, some places have interesting quirks like apocalyptic disturbance regimes, severe weather patterns, peculiar evolutionary circumstances, etc, but for the most part, the world functions the same basic way no matter if you’re 1,000 miles behind god’s back in the Amazon, 50 miles West of Kalispell in the Rockies or sitting in front of Tompkins Square Park with a can of Sparks.
As flippant as this rant is sounding, it’s been an incredibly difficult process for me to get off my disdainful ecosupremacist high horse and start studying cities with the same clarity and love I utilized in studying human free ecosystems. Aside from having to put my foot in my mouth for all the misanthropic bullshit I’ve espoused over the years, I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact it’s much easier to judge things that are external to you than things that are happening within yourself and the larger body of humanity. And this is the whole key to studying cities.
In wild nature, so much of our observation and appreciation is based on the fact that cool critters and bitchin’ trees and massive geological anomalies are different from us and readily available using our five basic senses. They are what they are and that’s that. In cities, the opposite is true. As humans, it’s far more difficult to come to a clear, objective understanding of our surroundings when we find ourselves interacting with literally thousands of other humans. Though it sounds completely counterintuitive to your average nature nerd’s woo woo tendencies, there are far more complex and subtle things going on within a species’ internal interactions than those which take place across species or kingdom lines. Ever notice how whole cities can seem to be in pissy moods on certain days? How some days seem to find everyone walking on clouds and smiling at each other? How tensions and frustrations can be transmitted from person to person like some psychic strain of herpes? How important vibes and body language are to communication?
Although cities are ecosystems that function rather predictably, they’re also special insofar as they’re the only ecosystems where humans figure in with such complete and utter dominance. There are not other ecosystems on earth where you’ll find so many humans piled on top of one another, interacting in such a variety of intimate ways. Just think about how many different interactions you had yesterday and in how many different contexts those interactions took place. Think about how you felt; before, during and after each of those interactions. Think about how you were interacting with the world as you dodged your bike between cars or stood shoulder to shoulder with 50 other people as the train groaned East over the river or windmilled your way through the pit at the Madball show. There’s a tremendous amount of energy being exchanged between people in cities, an energy which gives a depth and complexity to urban relations that are simply not present in a wilderness or rural existence. Whether or not this energy is positive or necessarily well directed is a different story, but for all intents and purposes, cities are giant batteries of energy, emotion and potential.
Portland fascinates the living hell out of me as this is the first time in my adult life I’ve looked at cities as being anything but a debatably necessary evil. It’s been interesting to notice how, for all of the obvious problems with dumping heaps of humans on top of each other, cities are an ecologically essential contributor to overall global diversity. I know a lot of my human hating colleagues are shaking their heads at this, ready to firebomb my old schwinn, but whether they like it or not, humans are part of ecology and the global biosphere. And when lots of humans pile up in small areas, neat things happen that don’t occur elsewhere. Think about the things big cities have that say, suburban sprawl or redneck rurality doesn’t. Think of gay neighborhoods. Art galleries. Good ethnic food. Coffeeshops. Bookstores. Shows with the most musical diversity ever found in human history. Think about the genetic consequences of millions of people who might never have come into contact had the luddites had their way. Think about how like it or not, cities have spurred human evolution in ways that would have never been possible otherwise. Do I think cities are an unmitigated good? Hell no. But they sure have made like as a human on Earth that much more interesting….
Ps- Ever go through your records and start playing all the shit you bought but never really listened to? The stuff you used to like, but for whatever reason stopped listening to? Good thing to do ‘cuz not only will you remember all sorts of random shit from your past, but you’ll also rediscover some of those second tier punk bands that were so good. Speaking of which, English Dogs, The Adicts, Token Entry, The Proletariat, Spitboy, One Way System? Fucking amazing.