Thursday, October 27, 2016

thoughts on/in "open spaces"

I just returned from Jersey, where the sister robot was celebrating her birthday with the folks. I've mentioned before that I appreciate the Tri-State hinterlands I'm visiting Jersey because the sister robot is celebrating her birthday with the folks. Having lived in Philadelphia for a thirteen months now, I find I sometimes forget how the crisp autumn air brightens the stars, or that late October has a scent to it, and it never finds my nose in South Philly. I wonder if I'm not destined to conclude that urban life just isn't for me.

During a visit to the ol' woods (I believe I've mentioned them before) I came across a plaque. I've passed it a hundred times if I've passed it once, but until then I'd never inspected it. It reads:


I dwelt on the language of the inscription for a while. (About until I stepped in some feces left by a coyote or fox, and then I dwelt on that instead.)

"Open space." What a funny way of putting it.

I often use the term "open spaces" in reference to the forests, hills, and swamps in my life, and always with some reluctance. It smacks of institutionalized solecism, like "pro-life" or "get on the plane." A Walmart parking lot is absolutely an open space, and yet I doubt Mrs. Brundage would have wanted any of her bequest allotted towards the bulldozing of more trees and the laying of more asphalt.

I try not to say "natural spaces," so as to avoid the funky taste it leaves in my mouth. Humanity and its affairs do not run independently of every other process tree on Earth and the solar/galactic/cosmic locale. Every space is natural; an "unnatural space" would have to stand in complete isolation from the rest of the universe and its operating principles, and that's absurd.

Sometimes I say "the green" to signify the object that "open spaces" and "natural spaces" aim at—but despite its facile poetic flair, the synecdoche is really no less unwieldy. What if we're talking about a forest during the winter months? What if we're talking about a desert during the dry season?

Sometimes I say "wild spaces" (or "wild places"). This formulation would be ideal, I think, if "wild" weren't laden with connotation and bias. Think of what you think of when you hear the expressions "wild things," "gone wild," or "wild card." Beyond meaning "unmodified by human activity," the word "wild" implies savagery, unpredictability, danger, hurelyburley. Even though the 2,000 acres of woods in the town I grew up in might technically be called "wild spaces" because their flora and fauna are generally left to their own devices, most English speakers feel funny qualifying with "wild" a place where suburbanites go to jog and let their pugs gallivant off-leash in the leaves. (One might even say it sounds unnatural.)

"Undeveloped spaces." I dislike this formulation for the teleology it presumes. As though a place that hasn't been logged, mined, and paved over hasn't yet achieved its purpose in being. As though every change Homo sapiens foists upon a landscape is an improvement.

"Un/nonanthropized spaces" won't pass spellcheck, but it does articulate exactly what we mean when we're talking about places that aren't co-opted by human activity. The awkwardness of the term in spite of its specificity speaks volumes about the conceptual blind spots of our ethnolinguistic community—as does, for instance, the ease with which Nathaniel Hawthorn employs the word "desert" to signify the pristine forests beyond the borders of colonial New England's European settlements. (He does so in "Young Goodman Brown," a perennial favorite of mine, and a very good Halloween read.) I clearly remember being struck by that particular usage when I first read the story some twelve, thirteen years ago, and it wasn't until the last few years that I came to recognize how it evinces the attitudes of the white Anglo-Saxon protestants who erected the cultural and infrastructural pillars of American civilization. From the beginning, the philosophy of Manifest Destiny was steeped in the zeal of the Christian missionary: the wilderness was a pagan entity to be converted and incorporated into Christendom. (In proposing a Puritan settlement in the New World, John Winthrop asks why should "a whole continent as fruitful and convenient for the use of man to lie waste without any improvement?")

(It has been pointed out that the Abrahamic religions emerged from sparse and persistently harsh desert regions, while polytheism and animism flourished in areas where plants dominated the landscape. The fact warrants attention when we consider the intersecting sociological and ecological impacts of Christianity's annexation of Europe and the European invasion of the Americas.)

Asher Brown Durand, The Catskills (1858)

In a 1976 piece for The Environmental Review, historian and environmentalist Roderick W. Nash smartly epitomizes [European-]Americans' change of heart with regard to the deserts and unimproved wastes of their host country. From the colonial period until the mid-nineteenth century, the forests and plains were adversaries to be subjugated and exploited. But the intellectual influence of British Romanticism and the local Transcendentalist clique seeded a reverence for "natural" landscapes, and members of the American elite came around to recognizing "open spaces" as less a luxury than a necessity to be preserved and democratized for the pleasure and edification of the public. (Edna T. Brundage was clearly stirred by this current of thought.) a Nash quotes Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park and a leading advocate for conservation in the latter half of the nineteenth century:
Olmsted noted how "men who are rich enough...can and do provide places of needed recreation for themselves." From the Babylonians to the aristocracy of nineteenth-century Europe, Olmsted explained, "the enjoyment of the choicest natural scenes in the monopoly, in a very peculiar manner, of a very few, very rich people." This, he declared, was a tragedy because the persons most absorbed in the daily grind of constant and low-paying labor are precisely those who need occasional contact with nature. It was not just a matter of having fun. According to Olmsted, mental health depended on finding temporary relief in the beauty of nature from the pressures of civilization. The subjects of the kings of the past, he reasoned, had been dull peasants and serfs because the ruling classes monopolized chances to develop "the esthetic and contemplative faculties." Scenic beauty and outdoor recreation was, in Olmsted's mind, one of the best means to such development. It followed that the establishment and perpetual preservation of parks and recreational reserves for the free enjoyment of the people was entirely appropriate in a democracy. Indeed it was, in Olmsted's concluding words, a "political duty" of "free governments."
Nash later explains the crux of Olmsted's case somewhat more succinctly:
Wilderness appeals as a place to knot together the unity that civilization tends to fragment. Contact with the natural world shows man his place in systems that transcend civilization and inculcates reverence for those systems. The result is peace.
Okay. First: are Olmsted and Nash correct, or are they mistaking sentiment for fact?

Tony Bennett (yes, that Tony Bennett), Central Park,
New York

A growing body of research appears to bolster their case. A 2015 National Geographic piece outlines some of these studies:
In England researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health). In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases——including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines——in people who lived within about a half mile of green space. And in 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space. ...

A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Japanese researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot: Overall they showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. 
Also mentioned are EEG experiments demonstrating that subjects on a three-day backpacking trip showed an improved performance in cognitive tasks, and the booming business of "forest healing" agencies in South Korea.

So if we grant that our outdoors enthusiasts are or at least might be right about the beneficial properties of "open spaces," a second question is prompted: why?

Why should a human being feel at peace and in situ in an environment in which he is (in most cases) incapable of sustaining himself? We aggressively transformed these spaces into our spaces to improve our quality of life, and as security against hunger, exposure, interference, inconvenience. Why, then, should we be refreshed to step out of our bastion-bodies and into an indifferent (or outright hostile) other where our species spent hundreds of thousands of years starving, freezing, drowning, and getting poisoned, gored, bitten, and ripped to shreds?

The jury is still out. From the same National Geographic piece:
It’s difficult to tell from these kinds of studies why people feel better. Is it the fresh air? Do certain colors or fractal shapes trigger neurochemicals in our visual cortex? Or is it just that people in greener neighborhoods use the parks to exercise more? That’s what Richard Mitchell, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, thought at first. “I was skeptical,” he says. But then he did a large study that found less death and disease in people who lived near parks or other green space——even if they didn’t use them. “Our own studies plus others show these restorative effects whether you’ve gone for walks or not,” Mitchell says.
I find the hunch of Yoshifumi Miyazaki (mentioned above vis-à-vis the Chiba University study) most appealing:
Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. Our senses are adapted to interpret information about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises.
If not the most likely, it's certainly the most interesting explanation.

Our genetic endowments are equipped to negotiate with environments possessing a certain set of characteristics; our acquired endowments condition us to act in completely different ways in completely different settings. Civilized or urban life is "unnatural" in the same sense as a ballerina's movements. Human beings aren't hereditarily endowed to live the way we do in the settings we do. We must be trained, and some degree of strain follows from learning and executing the motions. (Cf. Civilization and Its Discontents.)

Underlying our relationship with "open spaces" is a hostile paradox between nature and nurture. We're too domesticated to survive in the wilderness, but the artifacted and outered environments we've engineered to spare us from state-of-nature privations debilitate and sicken us, even as they keep us fed, sheltered, warm, and entertained (reinforcing behaviors acquired in the anthropized milieu while stunting or extinguishing our capacity to act in an "undeveloped" setting). We depend on anthropized spaces to sustain us; to mitigate their deleterious effects we need nonanthropized spaces. The existence of one comes at the expense of the other.

There's room for optimism that this cultural design flaw is being recognized and may be addressed in some fashion—but down-the-road potentialities aren't doing much good for the lifelong inner city native who lacks the means or the "training" to relocate to green spaces from time to time. If there's anyone we should be concerned about, it's the people who aren't even aware an integral part of themselves is being starved.

Given our discordant relationship history with the wild, it's no wonder we have no words but malapropisms with which to address it.


  1. After all this talk about terminology, how do you feel about "Anthropocene"? Which is now officially, I understand, the name of the era we are in. The argument in its favor is manifest: we are changing things. The best argument against is quite flip: if the Anthropocene ever ends, we will never know it. Pity a species that is powerful and feckless.

    I think it bears noting that all our affection for green spaces, wild places or what have you is predicated on our ability to control them or escape from them. There's a park I visit every day on my way to work. I'll testify enthusiastically that it soothes our zivilisationskrankheiten. But would I, after all those mornings, ever consent to remain in the park overnight? Not on your life.

    Parks in suburban North Carolina are about as tame as wild places get, but the same principle applies further afield. Campers, hikers, climbers, rafters and their ilk enjoy their frolics in the knowledge that they will end. If they don't end it's called being stranded and it isn't fun anymore.

    Environmental activism is the same. Most people (including myself) who want to preserve the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge have no intention of ever visiting it. We just want it to be out there somewhere.

    I think this is telling. It's in our nature to change our environment, to control it, to commodify it. In that sense, unfortunately, this altered world of ours, and the one we are building now, are home.

    1. I dunno. There's a chance we (humanity) might be around to see the end of the Anthropocene, but one possibility is undesirable (civilization collapses, the human population dwindles) and one is fantastically unlikely (we figure out how to make fusion work, reduce our total carbon emissions to a fraction of what they are now, achieve a zero-waste society, gather most of the human population into cities, grow crops in space and let the pastures and suburbs re-wild themselves, etc. etc. etc.). I'm really upset that I won't live to see the latter should it come to pass, but even more bummed that my gut tells me the first scenario is more likely.

      I get that I'd have a very different relationship with the woods if I couldn't leave them. I often daydream about being able to survive in the wild, but I'm pretty sure it's not in any cards in my deck. It requires a skillset one probably needs to start acquiring from a very young age, and unless you have other people sleeping on rocks and picking mushrooms with you, the isolation might drive you bad crazy.

      The winters would be awful, too.

      "Zivilisationskrankheiten." Why does German get to just combine words however it pleases? Why doesn't "civilizationsickness" work at ALL?