There is a place just south of the town where I live that I go to be wild. I go there to wander trails made of dirt and rock, to duck my head down under low stone curtains and into caves, to stand on bluffs and look down at ravines the depth of which could kill me with a false step. I love this place, because although I have not yet learned all of its paths – indeed, I only started going there this year – I recognize its form, its logic. I have been going to places like this since my boyhood, always in response to the same urge to nature.
We call this place Rock Bridge State Park, one of dozens in the Missouri state parks system. In knowing one of these parks, one understands the logic of them all. This applies to the obvious features — the state parks all have signs painted the same colors bearing the same legends — but also to the construction of the hiking trails and the riverbanks.
Recently I hiked through a white-blazed path in those woods and found a spur of un-blazed trail. I pushed my way through the trees and grasses that hung over the spur and soon found myself standing on the dry bank of a slow creek, perhaps 50 feet from the main trail. I had never been there before, but I felt a powerful sense of déjà vu. As I stood there on the bank of the Little Bonne Femme Creek, I found myself also standing on the bank of the Big River in St. Francois State Park, the place my parents took me camping in my youth.
I did not find that identification comforting. I understood the resemblance as more than just the natural similarity between two landscapes sharing the same basic geographic area; it pointed also to the standards by which the Department of Conservation maintains the parks. Each landscape has its own character, but a Missouri state park looks like a Missouri state park. Even here, in the part of the park listed as a “wild area,” human hands have manufactured the wild.
Is this a problem? Missouri’s state parks still take care to preserve much of the natural landscape and to accentuate its distinctive features – Rock Bridge is named for a literal bridge of rock. The hiking trails have a rugged quality that, while obviously human-made and human-maintained, lets us at least lose ourselves in a dream of wildness for a time. I often find myself slipping into chants while I walk those trails; there I feel very Pagan. But thinking about those trails makes me think of parks in general: those strange constructs, “green spaces,” built to allow urban-dwelling humans to experience nature without having to encounter the wild.
My city abounds with parks. These places have trees and grass and rabbits and songbirds, but they also have running trails lined in concrete and asphalt. The grass is mowed and the trees are spaced far enough apart that no human travel is impeded. They are full of metal exercise equipment; rowing machines and pull-up bars and weights that draw on the mass of the user to determine their loads. They entertain children with their playgrounds and basketball courts. They are immaculately maintained, and I loathe them. My recreation of choice is walking, and there’s no pleasure for me in walking on a smooth concrete path. And despite being advertised and conceived as places for urbanites to be among the green, the landscapes have been shaped so much towards utility that they bear little resemblance to the forms they must have once borne. I am glad that my neighbors have a place to play basketball — really and truly — but the city park has only slightly more resemblance to the outdoors than the buildings that surround them.
The thought has been, since the Industrial Revolution began bringing humans into the cities for industrialized labor, that something vital to our experience of human life would be lost in our newfound urban quarters. Humans, it was argued, were meant to live out-of-doors, toiling in the clean air and verdant greenery rather than the smoke-filled factories of modernity. (Whether the pre-industrial agricultural life really had such a perfect relationship to nature is another question, but this was the argument.) The idea became widespread that what cities needed was “green space” — sections given over to plant and small mammal life, patches of land where humans could go to experience of their prior connection to nature — but always in a strictly utilitarian way: the park offered leisure and recreation to workers, and public spaces to promenade for the moneyed.
This focus drew itself from the essentially capitalistic motives of the urban planners: the loss of our agricultural way of life meant workers had poorer health, which meant a loss of their labor, which meant a loss of profits, which could not be abided. The alienation of humans from their environment sometimes came up, but in practice, I doubt a sincere desire to re-enchant the bond between humans and nature ever held much sway with the planners and businessmen; if only because the preponderance of evidence indicates they had no real problems with disenchantment, so long as it made profits.
The desire for green space eventually transcended utility and became a fetish. The ultimate expression of an absurd lust for greenery came in ideas like the architect Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, which would have centered the city on a massive lawn filled with identical skyscrapers. The idea involved quite a lot of green, to be certain; miles of it. But that green space would have been utterly tamed, made to conform to the desires of the city rather than to itself. Ironically, Le Corbusier himself wrote that the aim of the future city’s task would be “taking man back to nature,” unaware of the alienation endemic in his own concept. Where the Radiant City has manifested itself in completed buildings, its green spaces have frequently been shunned, flatland uncanny valleys. These spaces may be green, but they have hardly any nature, and nothing at all of the wild. The phenomenon of “green space” is a symptom of our disenchantment more than a solution to it; it attempts to shape nature in the shadow of the city, when the essence of the wild is its defiance of human whims.
Le Corbusier’s dreams of a lawn filled with skyscrapers has little bearing on where I stand along the Little Bonne Femme; I am lucky enough to have this place, somewhat more wild, available to me. But this remains a space outside and beyond my ordinary life, and therefore, something of a placebo. If a Pagan romance with the world of nature is limited to only those places designated by the state as “wild,” then Paganism is itself circumscribed by the state. This realization, I suppose, should be obvious, for what in modern life is not thusly circumscribed; and yet if my Paganism, my love and embrace and longing for the wild, means anything, it must mean finding ways to break that circle and invite the Wild out of the bounds of the park.
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