Man And His Relationship With Nature
On Nature, New York City and The Isolation of Modern Life
The subway carried me from one side of Brooklyn to the other, and I left the train at Marcy Avenue, the closest station to my place of stay. I walked under the Williamsburg Bridge and headed, as instinct would have it, towards the river that separates Brooklyn from Manhattan, where I eventually came upon the iron-railed embankment, and rested by the overlook. Beyond the river is the famous New York cityscape of towers and skyscrapers and cement blocks — an impressive, but at the same time oppressive, sight for I who dwells in the gentle small towns and countryside of Yorkshire. This was my first introduction to the United States, and throughout the following week, I returned to this scene many times, always in the late-afternoon when the sun makes its escape behind the superstructures of mankind, and when the emerging shadows sedate the hue and cry of the city.
When you walk through a city like New York — eight and half million inhabitants, of whom a great majority are living on top of each other in tiny, cramped apartments, with no garden or greenery, and the view out of the window is the grey cement block on the opposing street — when you see how the people live, the haste and the nervousness, it is difficult not to feel that your heart is being consumed, that your soul is slowly suffocating. Many things reinforced this impression; for instance, the congestion, the tyranny of the skyscrapers, the monotony of chain stores, the misery of the subway, and the tedious architecture, which makes you feel as if you are growing older the farther you walked; the streets seemed to repeat themselves and persist endlessly, and you worried whether you were losing your sight or if you had walked the same block twice before. It became apparent that this is a city that is occupied by the rich, and serviced by the poor. As such, New York is without soul — without culture, eccentricity, and complexity — and does not belong for anyone, except for ugly glass towers, tourists, and rich transients. The afterglow of its golden age, and the infamous reputation of the seventies and eighties, has persisted; the parts of New York I most enjoyed are legacies and echoes of the mid-twentieth-century. And people still, it is true, come here to escape their small towns and achieve their dreams; I am doubtful that they nowadays find what they hoped for. But, after some reflection, everything I have said of New York can also be said of London, and perhaps of Paris too. It will take a long while for the world to realise that these cities are not what they once were, that they have become expensive, sterile, glossy playgrounds for the rich.
What impressed me most then, and what continues to impress me, was the sheer volume and height of the skyscrapers in Manhattan. New York and the skyscraper are one and the same, but it is not until you see the skyline yourself that you realise how magnificent and enormous it is, but at the same time plain and heartless. One marvels at Florence or Prague from afar, and yet one shudders at New York. The skyscraper is a sort of statue, an archetypal emblem of American prosperity and opulence, and New York resembles the Tower of Babel ‘with its top in the heavens’, settled by people from every kingdom, and of every language in the world. Nothing that they have imagined to do will be restrained from the Americans. And yet underneath the outside appearance of superiority and affluence, the skyscraper is a symbol of deep insecurity and foolish pride. Only from afar can the effect be observed in New York, where the vast amounts of metal and glass stand firm against the horizon, and cast shadows over the streets. The building of taller and taller towers, the reaching upwards to the heavens, is symbolic of the desperate search for wholeness, and the belief that modern man must conquer nature and make himself a God. It is a symptom of the ‘pursuit of happiness’, whereby man longs to achieve the pinnacle, and to watch over and control everyone from the clouds; he wishes to separate himself from his roots, from the earth, and so he endeavours to build his almighty tower, which he hopes will protect him from the outside elements of nature and chance. The Tower of Babel of the Old Testament is a warning that mankind’s ego centred world, which is separated from the natural world, will ultimately lead to tragedy — a warning not just for the United States, but for the rest of the world too, particularly China, which is building, at a terrifying pace, an entire civilisation on feeble and crooked foundations, and on borrowed money.
As the weekend drew closer, I journeyed on a train from Manhattan to Albany, the state capital. From Albany, I made my way north to Warrensburg, whereupon I met an old friend, and later found my lodgings near a lake. Across northern New York, there are vast areas of dense forestland with trees of all types and of all colours. These are the sacred trees of life, which have stood longer than the nation to which they belong, and will remain standing when the nation disappears. Trees are the eternal mother, the passage between the source of light and the roots of the underground, connecting all forms of creation, and I was observing them at their fullest, in the bloom of summer. The forests gave way to great lakes and rivers, including the Hudson which travelled alongside the train tracks from the City and was wonderful company during my journey to the state capital. Occasionally, a town would appear in the sanctuary of the forests. Most appeared to be relatively modern, but a few might have been as old as the nation itself, and it was these that held my imagination; for they do no insult to the natural surroundings, instead they seem to live as nature itself, as if they emerged from the ground and the soil over many years, and with much sweat and labour. Later, the city of Albany appeared across the horizon and awakened me from my infatuation; the cement towers and blocks pierced my illusions, and I was returned to the modern reality. There is little to say about Albany; it is pleasant enough and the people are certainly friendly. But I was anxious to return to the embrace of nature, and thus I pressed on and made my way northwards.
Whenever you arrive in the countryside from the city, you have the immediate impression that the air is different — clean and pristine, washed by ancient rivers and streams, and blessed by singing birds. Here was an elder air, of centuries old, to which I was a guest for the weekend. The ancient country unfolded a landscape of green grass and trees blended with blue sky, rolling hills and a silver lake, and there were brown-and-grey farmhouses and solitary lake side cabins. The lake fascinated me, and in the mornings, when the ground was wet with dew and the air was fresh and not yet disturbed by the heat of midday, I was content to spend my time sitting beside her shore, surrounded by the trees and amongst an infinity of life which lived in the water. Then I returned in the evenings and watched the sun fall beneath the water, and once darkness had almost set, I said my farewell and headed for home, lest the master of night capture me, and awaited the arrival of the new day. This is the real world, I thought, the womb of life, from which everything arises and descends, and which permeates through all creation and form — and this will forever remain true even if the rootless and shallow metropolis succeeds in devastating our senses and reason. So long as we live alongside cement and plastic, our thirst for new highs and novelties and dramas will persist into invincibility. Man is suffering from a need of simple things — for empty places, silence, and nature. These are the things which we have forgone for our great cities.
On the Saturday evening, a fire was lighted near the shore of the river, and I and a small group sat around and enjoyed the warmth. At some point in the evening, there was a lull in the conversation, and I looked up and saw, for the first time in a long time, the stars and the moon in the night sky. They were as clear as they could possibly be, full of wonder and mysteries; the lights travelled along the lake and flew into the night with the fire and the smoke as its companions. In the city, the stars are erased and dissolved by the electric lights and sounds of modernity. You see, the stars are no longer mysterious and inspiring in this age. Once we discovered that stars are merely big exploding balls of hydrogen and helium, we removed the soul, the living spirit from them, and they became a scientific object, subordinated to reason and fact, and separated into different categories and stages. For the Western mind, the stars are a matter of fact, and yet, not so longer ago, the Native American thought of stars as divine spirits, as the afterglow of their ancestors, and they honoured each with a name and symbol; they were the Above People, or the Sky Beings, creations of gods and miracles. It is no wonder our age is irreligious and devoid of true and honest meaning when its people do not see the stars at night, and when they are blind to their beauty.
I had a conversation with the receptionist of the hotel I was staying at in Brooklyn, and I happened to mention to her that I would be going Upstate on the weekend. And she, with a narrow face, said, ‘Upstate, Yeah? There is a lot of nature up there. I’ve never been.’ This response was innocent enough. But she pronounced her words, and her manner, with disdain, as if whatever is ‘up there’ was not worthy of her time, or her topic of small talk. I do not mean to read too much into what others say or do, but I could not help think her attitude was revealing of the wider relationship between the Western mind and the natural world. Nature is not here, it is somehow ‘out there’, as if it must be discovered and conquered, and then exploited for its resources. It is believed, perhaps unconsciously, that intelligence, love, and emotion all reside in the human, and that everything else in nature is merely blind and ruthless. Man thinks of himself as separate from nature, as an intruder and a soldier in conflict against everything outside of himself; he believes that he did not grow out of the world as the flowers and the trees do; instead he came into the world as a stranger who does not belong. The loss of participation in nature, and the current neglect of the spirit and the psyche, have resulted in a sense of not only social isolation, but also of universal isolation — that is to say, the belief that the world is purely mechanical and material has caused man to feel his life is without serious purpose.
Here I have described two worlds — the abstract creation of the conscious mind, and the natural presence of the unconscious mind. On Monday a new week began, and I returned to New York City feeling rather mournful and sad. The mood passed over after a short while, as moods should. It was indicative of the separation from union and wholeness, which is anticipated in times of divorce or death, but not when one returns from the country to urban civilisation. However, I do not mean to propose that returning to prehistoric mankind is the answer to our worries. And there is no sense in protesting against the machines either, for their consequences, however harmful, are always irresistible; and whilst one might say that they wish for a simpler time, given the choice, they will always choose to stay in the here and now. But are we reaching a point in time where the slogans of progressivism and economic growth are becoming rather tiresome? I refer to the United States itself, where the futuristic optimism of the nineteen-sixties has become something of a joke, and the noble ‘American Dream’, the pursuit of materialism, has lost its relevance. The age in which we live is the American age, the pace with which we move is the American pace — and this will continue so long as America holds it nerve. However, this pace appears to be waning, and perhaps, one can hope, America’s definition of ‘progress’ is no longer limited by big profits, big buildings, and big cars; perhaps the psyche of this great nation is slowing down and turning inward. I sincerely hope so, for the world is in need of a civilisation which is cautious of the dangers of runaway science, and in which ‘progress’ is not determinable as serving the profits of a small elite.
Harry J. Stead