“A promise of happiness” is how Stendhal defined beauty. Here we might revise the definition as follows: a promise of future.
— Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition
On an unseasonably warm day in late April, 2008, I went over to the Little River to see how the spring was progressing there. On the way down to the riverside I walked over many thorny plant stalks lying on the ground, beaten down by weather. They weren’t dead; green sprouts were visible along the stems, beginning the growth that would make the area impassable in summer. I stood on the riverbank under a tree; there was a goose on the river not far away, and while I was trying to compose a picture, I saw in the river the reflection of a large bird that flew up and landed in a tree on the other bank. It was a blue heron. I didn’t try to take its picture; I was screened by branches and I knew it would fly away if I moved to where I could get a better shot. Now there were two large birds in the immediate vicinity. I stayed where I was, not moving. Not very long after, a swan came gliding down the river.
A very large bird indeed. (Later I looked it up in The Sibley Guide to Birds. It was a mute swan. They are 60″ in length and have a 75″ wingspan.) I was amazed but not surprised; I felt grounded by seeing it, that is, my feet felt well connected to the earth. When it got to where I was, it turned toward me and swam closer to the bank, checked me out, then went on downstream.
I took this as a singular affirmation.
My next stop was at Perch Pond, a wide place in the river where Wellington Brook flows into it, near Hill Estates, the home of the plastic totemic animals. Perch Pond, like the wetland behind the abandoned nightclub Faces, is an example of what can happen when a part of the landscape is more or less left to its own devices.
All we have to do is leave a little room and life will fill in the gap. One would not think this would be too difficult.
I continued on to Hill Estates and visited the plastic fox-dog-coyotes that were still gazing wistfully off into the woods as if they would have liked to go there. There were ducks on the pool in the middle of the grass. I sat by Little Pond for a while, watching a pair of geese groom their feathers. In the distance, on the far side of Little Pond, I noticed a streak of white in the reeds; as soon as I saw it, I thought it had to be the female swan sitting on her nest.
I circled the pond, found a gap in the fence, made my way with difficulty through vines, saplings and rose thorns, thinking that the swans knew what they were doing when they built their nest there. Eventually I did get to a vantage point above the female and took her picture. She knew I was there, but she wasn’t budging. I didn’t want to disturb her, but I wanted the picture and in the end it seemed I got it without doing harm. I doubt that swans are afraid of people; geese aren’t, and swans are much bigger creatures.
In my local travels looking for the boundary zone I’ve trained myself, by imperceptible degrees, to notice a certain kind of beauty that wasn’t available to me before. It waits in the messy parts of the immediate environment, the parts we haven’t organized into a state of excessive order, like the plant life along fence lines or in roadside ditches, wetlands, marshes, swamps, nameless streams and ponds, muddy edges, non-manicured conservation land, vacant lots, human spaces returning to nature. This is the beauty of the useless, the ignored, the “overhead.” Every once in a while it bursts out in something unmistakable like a swan appearing where I never expected it, but most of the time it is hidden in plain sight, invisible beauty until it is seen.
I think that because beauty is “useless,” noticing it, focusing on it, valuing it, is a way to “see around” the hard-wired human tendency to view all situations in terms of self as efficient cause. It helps a great deal to notice what happens when nature is NOT under our control, because we are always depending on it to do more than we know how to tell it to do. Spontaneously occurring beauty lacks utility in the sense that it won’t write anyone a paycheck, but the ability to perceive this kind of beauty is a survival-promoting trait. It tells us when we’re in an environment with which we are congruent. Whether we see it or not is entirely about the mind and the way we imagine the living world around us. My whole argument has been that if we change how we imagine our relationship to that world, we can improve our chances of receiving “the promise of future.”
The first step is to go out the door, into the neighborhood on foot or on a bicycle, carrying a propensity to notice and not judge. When you come across a parking lot, go see what’s at the back of it. Check out “vacant” lots, because they aren’t vacant. Remember wabi-sabi: “beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view.” Start with “it is” rather than “it shouldn’t be.” Try to think of the juxtapositions between the humanly constructed environment and the autonomous natural world not as jarring intrusions spoiling the view, but as relationship.
This doesn’t mean that everything we do is automatically okay. It means that we are not the singular exception living outside or after nature.
One can get very practical with this mind-set: empty lots become assets, instead of a blight and a liability, when someone imagines them as places where people can grow their own food. This is happening now in Flint, Michigan, a city whose economy was dependent on manufacturing and is now devastated by the near-collapse of the auto industry.
This point of view suggests three questions to ask on a regular basis:
What is the already emerging order around me?
How can I get out of the way enough, leave enough room, and stay out of the way long enough, for life to find its own way forward?
And how can I do this while continuing to live my own life well enough?
Philip F. Henshaw, who has spent years on what he calls the physics of natural systems, poses essentially the same questions in this way: How can a human economy become part of nature? Here is one small example of what it looks like when, almost inadvertently, we happen to accomplish that.
Power transmission line corridors cross the landscape like ignored, overgrown highways, thought of as an unsightly intrusion on the land, a necessary evil of civilization. Because power companies don’t want trees to grow tall enough to touch the high-tension power lines, they regularly send workers (at least in New England) to selectively apply herbicide to saplings of species that will grow high enough to be a problem, leaving the other plant life alone. This encourages growth of native shrubs, grasses, and smaller trees, which eventually also makes it harder for new tree saplings to grow. In essence the power company keeps the corridor at an early stage in the cycle of succession, neither a clearing nor a mature forest. This “early successional habitat,” it turns out, is crucial in preserving various plant and animal species that otherwise are running out of habitat as the New England forests mature – a bee that some feared was extinct, the seldom-seen New England cottontail rabbit, birds that would not live in a fully grown-in forest. Biologists are starting to realize that a power line right-of-way might also serve as a migration corridor, or as a route for species to move in response to climate change. What was originally the absolute opposite of nature – a clear-cut a couple of hundred feet wide slashing through the landscape – has unintentionally evolved in such a way as to benefit the ecosystem.
The current management of the power-line corridors follows or interacts with centuries of other management by human beings. The land was cleared by Europeans for farming several centuries ago, drastically changing the forested landscape; we got rid of beavers (and still do) which would have flooded large areas and drowned trees, creating clearings; the region became less and less agricultural, so forests began to mature; we fight forest fires, preventing them from clearing forest and returning the succession cycle to square one. We can’t “just leave nature alone”; we can discover what we’re doing that inadvertently works.
The lesson of the power line corridors is that what we must do some of the time is preserve the minimally managed. The corridors are managed, but in a loose way that leaves room for a great deal of spontaneously arising self-organization. Order as defined by humans is not maximized in these spaces. If it were, people would be controlling the corridors far more strictly – growing something there, probably, which would require preventing countless competing plants from growing. What are described as native plants in the context of a power line corridor would be described instead as weeds, and strenuous efforts would be made to eliminate them.
But “weeds” are not inherently weeds. Weeds are plants that we say are in the wrong place.
The power line corridors could be made still more useless; that is, one could manage them in exactly the same way without the power lines. We could deliberately create such corridors of early successional habitat. But it took a consensus on usefulness to give power companies the authority to cut these corridors straight across country for mile upon mile. Imagine trying to get the permits for that without the power lines – it seems impossible. An environmental purist’s version of this project would probably never happen; the impure, inadvertent version of it is happening, and now that we know how it’s working, we can keep on in this promising direction.
We have to learn the value of not maximizing humanly defined order. We can do so by realizing that another kind of order is defining itself around us, and that our self-interest depends on its continued success. A good step would be to say we’re going to maximize something different: biodiversity. Possibly a better step, one that runs counter to the whole American culture, would be to say we don’t always have to maximize.
We have to preserve access to the undergrowth, to that which is not obviously organized. When we don’t maximize, we recognize the use of the useless, the value of overhead. Ruin and disrepair, less than perfect maintenance, weedy ex-gardens, “vacant” lots, marginal spaces that are too wet, too steep, too something for human use – these are spaces where life finds its own way. We need them, and we need access to them, just like the other animals do.
The parking lot of the abandoned nightclub Faces, near the old channel of the Little River, is gradually turning back into land.
One of the first organisms to make significant headway in the process is moss, which appears to be thriving on the asphalt, and also on the nightclub’s decaying porch. To me the moss on the parking lot is like islands, archipelagos, coastlines against an asphalt sea, a tiny green landscape that a human being can see, step over and around, but not exactly visit.
One phase in a slow transformation. If it’s allowed to continue, one day this will presumably become a meadow. For now, though, it’s property guarded by a fiftyish man with a pit bull growling on a short leash, who accosted me while I was taking these pictures and wanted to know who I was working for. When I told him I was a professor trying to write a book he seemed slightly mollified. He told me (while his dog continued to growl and strain at its leash, trying to get at me) that there are plans to build an apartment building on the site, with units of affordable housing.
The reflexive environmentalist response to this plan would probably be to try to stop this development from happening, but I’d rather apply the questions I asked before and see where they lead. What is the already emerging order? Clearly, it’s a meadow on the edge of a wetland. How can we leave enough room for life to find its own way, while still living our own lives well enough? Both are excellent goals. Cambridge can use all the affordable housing it can get, and with luck the project might in the end create better access to the beautiful wetland behind it, which I believe cannot and will not be built on. What effects would such a development have on the marsh? I don’t know. Would the addition of an apartment building increase the runoff from this site, or not? Maybe not. It’s already paved, though the pavement is breaking up, and I would propose that some of it be allowed to evolve into meadow. How would the new population affect the sewage and wastewater treatment system? Would that make it more difficult for the city to do away with the combined sewage outfall (CAM #401A) that is a few hundred yards away? If more people live next to the marsh, some of them will probably start caring about it, appreciating it — unless it gets fenced off . . . would it be possible to pass an ordinance guaranteeing public access to wetlands, the way coastal towns often maintain and defend public access to beaches?
Suppose there were access; what would it consist of? Again, the critical guideline is not to maximize our notion of order. There would be some point at which paved paths and picnic tables would lead to trucking in gravel to solidify muddy spots, then to grooming the landscape first at the edges, then farther in, and so on in the direction of domesticating as much of the marsh as possible, ironing out its spontaneity. That would defeat the purpose. Yet at the same time, in order to provide access it would be necessary to neaten the situation up a little bit so that people didn’t have to climb over fallen trees and sink into mud in order to get to the place where they could feel like they’re within the marsh, not merely looking at it from a distance. Maybe a boardwalk would be the best compromise, going far enough so that people could immerse themselves in the self-organizing space, while leaving it room to remain its messy self. The purpose would be aesthetic, and practical (flood control, water purification, protection of the water supply), and in my view ethical as well. That life has a claim on that land which is as strong as ours. We have already turned nearly everything surrounding it to our own purposes.
It would help all this happen if the people in the thousands of cars that pass near this spot, jamming the highway twice a day at rush hours, knew that this is only a couple of hundred yards away:
What we value, and what we therefore do, rests on lived experience, and lived experience of self-causing, autonomous life around us is more available than one might think. I’ve come to believe that if people seek out the spontaneously emerging life in their immediate vicinity, if they observe and keep observing, eventually they’ll see something very interesting. It is mostly a question of being able to imagine that it’s there, and imagining is one of the things we’re very good at. We aren’t emperors of the world, but we are creators. We need to remember that we are constantly making the personal reality we find ourselves facing, that we collectively generate new consensus about new metaphors, and that we are always capable of originating a world-view. What we need to recognize is both the power of our personal and collective reality, and the extraordinary world that lies beyond it.
When one wakes up to the phenomenon of life, the sheer fact of it is awesome – the mystery of it, the fact of how little we know, the fact that life works so differently than the way we conceive the self, the fact that we are this amazing deep thing that seems infinitely greater than us. We live in an astonishing reality if we only know it. Like water, life itself will find a way.