First in a series of commentaries on the essays in the book Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).
In his essay “On the Sublime in Nature in Cities,” Robert Rotenberg begins by asserting that city dwellers in the United States lack “a meaningful language to talk about [their] connection to landscape.” It’s almost as if many urban dwellers don’t even think of themselves as living in a landscape at all.
Rotenberg is an urban anthropologist who has been studying urban gardeners. He has been studying urban gardening in Chicago, and at the same time has research partners in Vienna, Austria. He found that American urban gardeners do not understand their gardens to be a part of the urban landscape:
Urban gardening in Chicago exists on a continuum between the amateur and the agriculturalist. Amateurs include home gardeners who plant small beds for aesthetic enjoyment… Their design rules and landscape tastes derive from popular media such as Martha Stewart’s magazines and Home and Garden TV, on the one hand, and the more serious magazines, such as Organic Living, Organic Gardening, and Horticulture Monthly.… The urban agriculture end of the continuum is characterized by for-profit and nonprofit community gardening…. The nonprofit version aims to build community and… is characterized by such ideologies as sustainability through intensive soil-building practices [etc.]. The for-profit organizations supply locally-grown, high-quality produce for restaurants and food pantries. [Emphasis added.]
By contrast, the Viennese urban gardeners make direct connections between their gardens and the greater urban landscape:
In Vienna, my partners connected their home gardens to public gardens, and through public gardens to several different discourses, including the relationship between activity and health, and between the individual and the community.
Rotenberg believes that here in America, the meaning of “nature” has become limited to wilderness. If an American wants to get out into nature, he or she will get in a car and drive away from urban areas. Because of this, says Rotenberg, when we talk about nature in cities, we are likely to talk about “concerns of sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.”
Case in point: here in New Bedford, there’s a local group called “Friends of Buttonwood Park,” a citizen’s group that wants to support beautiful Buttonwood Park, which was designed by Frederick Olmstead. But the Friends have faced stiff resistance from the city government when they have tried to plant more trees in Buttonwood Park. Even though the new trees would be consistent with Olmstead’s vision for the park, the city government does not want any new trees because that just means more leaves to clean up in the fall. Thus, the discourse immediately turns towards sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.
Rotenberg goes further. Here in America, he claims that we have gotten to the point where we understand the sublime only in the context of wilderness. The sublime is an experience of nature which can overwhelm us, terrify us. But we tend to ignore sublime nature that exists in cities. Rotenberg gives two examples of sublime nature in cities: wild animals and extreme weather. Here in New Bedford, we have seals in the harbor, which stay at a distance in the water and seem kind of cute and cuddly rather than sublime. But we also have peregrine falcons; in fact, a peregrine made the front page of the New Bedford Standard-Times a week ago Thursday. Pergrines have no qualms about sitting outside office windows and ripping apart a bloody pigeon to eat it; watching any large raptor eat can be terrifying enough to be sublime. As for extreme weather, any community on the New England coast experiences weather extremes. I happened to go into a supermarket the night before the blizzard hit on February 12. You could almost smell the fear as people stood in long lines at the checkout counters; I’d argue they were anticipating a sublime natural experience.
Rotenberg points out that by denying the sublime in nature that already exists in our cities, we are “debilitated from experiencing [nature] in its fullness,” and, worse yet, we “deflect attention from the nature that already exists in the city.” He ends his essay by saying:
To invigorate urban life with a more direct experience of nature means to embrace the sensibility of the sublime. The embrace of the sublime has already begun to occur in the reclaiming of spiritual and nonrational experience that is often associated with postmodern social movements. It may be merely a matter of time before our sense of the desirability of nature in the city has more to do with trembling fear than quiet beauty.
So what’s the role of liberal religion in reclaiming the sublimity of nature in our cities? One big stumbling block for my own faith community is our over-insistence on the primacy of reason — which by definition means denying the sublime. Unitarian Universalists are still stuck in the extreme rationality that dominated modernism in the past century. Yet if we look back at some of our spiritual forebears, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, we would find that they made room for both rationality and the sublime. We will have to move beyond Thoreau and Emerson, however: they had the unfortunate tendency of only seeing the sublime in wilderness and ignoring the sublime in the city. Yet their embrace of nonrationality and their acceptance of the sublime in daily life could serve us well, as we try to grow into a postmodern religious movement.