David Cogswell | July 21, 2015 12:00 PM ET
Understanding the City in the Country
I was driving on Interstate 91 in western Massachusetts recently when I came to the top of a tall hill from which point I could suddenly see a broad expanse of the surrounding landscape. From that perspective the highway looked like a tiny ribbon of concrete running through a vast forest.
What I was seeing from the hilltop was actually the correct proportional ratio of highway to forest. Interstate 91 is, in fact, a tiny strip of paved ground through a vast forestland dotted with settlements along the highway. The road surface area is actually infinitesimal compared to the surface area of the forest.
But that is not how I normally see it. Normally I see the human artifice of civilization as huge and all encompassing, while the natural elements are just the fringe, just the negative space out there beyond the city limits.
When I am driving down the highway, my mental image of my surroundings is that I am riding along on an expanse of concrete with trees along the edges. I can’t see how far the trees go, and it is no time to be trying to examine it when I am piloting a vehicle at high speed.
It’s just a blurry piece of scenery sweeping past at 70 miles an hour. While I drive unconsciously, guided by reflexes, my mind could be anywhere. I’m probably imagining what I’ll be doing in the next city, because we all know that what is between the cities is just empty space. The map says so and it is never wrong.
My normal mental image of my surroundings as I drive down the highway is the perspective of the map. In my mind I am driving on a line between cities. In between the lines and the dots on the roadmap is just space. It’s not relevant to the purpose of the map, so it as if it is nothing.
Living in civilization, always surrounded by manmade objects, enclosed by fences and boundaries and barriers, I see a distorted image of reality. It is distorted by the fact that I spend most of my time within artificial human environments. Those environments often serve to cut off interaction with the natural world. I tend to see the artificial part of reality magnified in its size relative to the natural component. We see our civilization dominating and overpowering nature, which is far from the truth.
If you want to get an idea for how far out of balance that perspective is, consider this: The Columbia University Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center Gridded Population of the World and the Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project (GRUMP) recently calculated that the amount of land on the earth’s surface that is urbanized is only 2.7 percent of the world’s land mass (excluding the Antarctic).
This data is comforting in some ways, but the point here is that we see the relationship of human environments to natural environments in a distorted perspective.
I don’t think I am alone in this. I think this is how living in civilization molds our perceptions and our world view. This is why I think it is so important for people to travel to the remote areas and experience the wilderness. It is the only way to gain a full, realistic perspective of the relative scales of man and nature.
What I have gradually come to understand from experiencing the country beyond the human boundaries and fences in places where you see nature in its raw state, is that the city is in the country. The city is built upon the natural foundations of the site upon which the settlement was placed. To properly understand the city, you need to understand the context, the environment in which it exists. And that is the country, the wilderness.
Spending most of our time in artificial environments we tend to develop a view of ourselves as separate from nature, as if nature stopped at the city limits, and we stay inside of that boundary in a totally artificial human domain. But that’s not true. If you dig down into the concrete you will come back to the earth. Nature continues to operate fully in the city, even if we let the human artifice obscure its workings from our view.
Unfortunately it usually takes a natural disaster for us to be reminded of the relative power of nature compared to human power.
For me spending time in wilderness environments has enhanced my appreciation for the nature that is fully alive and active in the city: the birds, the trees, the squirrels … the humans! Humans are part of nature. Nature is working in every body cell. Also, the so-called inanimate things, wind, rain, gravity, heat — those are also elements of nature. And it is very important for human wellbeing to be well placed within nature and in tune with it.
Nature is the engine that drives the universe and the more we hide ourselves behind walls and remain out of touch with nature, the less access we have to that energy, and the less healthy we will be, physically and spiritually.
Being out where nature’s normal operation is not impeded by human intervention gives you a picture of nature in as pure a form as we can experience it. And once you have a firm grasp of that, you will always know what everything else is constructed on.
When Carl Jung attended Basel University after growing up in country villages, he felt that living in the country had given him an advantage over the city folk he encountered at the university,
“I came up against the steel of people’s prejudice and their utter incapacity to admit unconventional possibilities,” he wrote. Many things he had grown up with as commonplace in the country, such as the behavior of animals, seemed to be beyond the understanding of the city folk he encountered in the academic environment.
“I asked myself what kind of a world I had stumbled into,” he said. “Plainly the urban world knew nothing of the country world, the real world of mountains, woods and rivers, of animals and ‘God’s thoughts’ … I realized that for all its wealth of learning, the urban world was mentally rather limited.”
Richard Louv, author of the 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods,” proposed a theory that many people living in the U.S. and other industrialized countries today are suffering from too little contact with nature. He even coined a term for the condition: Nature Deficit Disorder.
“Nature-deficit disorder is not meant to be a medical diagnosis,” he wrote, “but rather to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world.”
Louv referred to many studies that show the health benefits of exposure to nature and physical activity (connecting with the nature of our own bodies).
He says that our increasing immersion in computer screens and other related influences are making the trend worse. “An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature… has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”
Louv believes the alienation from nature is an important factor in obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder and mood disorders, among many other things. Increased contact with nature has been shown to have a positive effect on those conditions.
The increasing alienation with nature is reflected in the prevalence of dystopian movies and stories in our culture now. Young people today do not have positive images of their future. And that, says Louv, is in part a symptom of their alienation from nature.
I think much of what Louv says rings true. For me all this comes back to my point that travel into the wilderness is a very important experience for contemporary people to have. The African safari is my favorite way to do this because it is the ultimate wilderness experience. But any wilderness is good for reconnecting with the power of nature.
More by David Cogswell
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Airlines & Airports
Hotel & Resort
Destination & Tourism
Airlines & Airports
Airlines & Airports