"The utopian dream that technology would create vast amounts of leisure time for us through labor saving devices is a fantasy that backfired. Instead we have swelling pockets of empty time. Our lifestyles have us in harness. We are unable to move, spiritually gridlocked. So we look to technology to undo what it has wrought."

Sven Birkerts, Mars Hill Audio (Tape #13)

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Living in Nature and The City
by larry terlizzese

Why do we respond to the city as less wondrous than nature? The city, to be sure, has its own beauty. We might marvel at its intricacies and astound at its architecture. But it does not seem to hold a candle to the wonders we encounter in nature. To us, nature is more awe-inspiring than the city. Is the city opposed to nature? Can they ever compliment each other? The answer, I believe, is yes to both questions.

Nature

The Bible tells us that God created man in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. This was an existence in which man was very comfortable in nature. Adam and Eve were at home in the Garden. We can even say that the Garden was man's created environment. We were designed to dwell in nature. "The LORD planted a garden toward the east in Eden, and there He placed man whom He had formed." (Gen. 2:8) There is, I believe, a glimpse of this harmony in our awe at the setting of the sun, in our gasp at Yosemite Valley, in our relationship with our pets as companions, in our sympathy and concern for animals. Nature remains in us; there is a reminiscence of better times, there is a longing for the days of Eden. There is a desire to overcome the present hostilities between man and nature.

With the Fall of man our harmonious relationship with nature was broken. No longer would it give its fruits freely to us. We must struggle with it to survive. "Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you shall eat the plants of the field; By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread" (Gen. 3: 17-19). We were designed to be in nature. It remains in us. Nature did not die in the Fall. Our relationship to nature was altered, and our ability to live in harmony with nature is strained as a result of the curse of sin. But we remain a part of nature. We need the natural environment in which God created us. We need nature because we are a part of it. We need to breathe its clean air, drink its pure water, walk in its open fields, listen to its near silence, and see its marvelous vistas. Nature evokes self-reflection. We see ourselves as small and God as big as the Psalmist says, "When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; What is man, that Thou does take thought of him? And the son of man that Thou does care for him?" (Psalm 8: 3,4). In nature we gain perspective on who we are. Nature is our teacher instructing us to worship the Creator, as the Psalmist says, " The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork" (19:1).

The City

After the fall we find that our natural habitation in nature no longer becomes possible without some outside intervention to serve as a buffer in our relationship. This buffer we often call technology, but in understanding our comparison to nature and city we may also call it the city. The city represents a technological existence for man, one that shields him from the hostile forces of nature. The city is necessary for human survival in nature. Without it, we could not survive. But the city is different than the natural setting. It is a completely human creation. In Genesis, the city is represented by the tower of Babel as a place where man withdraws from God and from nature, and seeks to create a world entirely of his own making. Recall their gathering together was to prevent them from being "scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth" (Gen. 11:4). This was a direct violation of God's original commission to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28, 9:1). Von Rad says of the city that it "arises as a sign of their valiant self-reliance, the tower as a sign of their will to fame."1

This is the technological existence of man. It is a mummified existence in which technology insulates us and isolates us from the natural world. Nature is cut off in the city. Here technology dominates. We dare not say human existence dominates because this would equate human existence with technology, as though it is technology that makes us human. Rather than humanity dominating in the city, he is absorbed into a technological and artificial existence. His existence tends to be wholly technological without reference to the natural world. In the city we gain our reference and bearings from the clock. Changes of season and the rhythms of nature become incidental. The city as technological paradise may well prove to be an inhuman habitat as humanity itself becomes more incidental. This is true, despite the fact that the city is a haven for humanity against the cruelties of nature. Nature also becomes contrived and ornamental. We see it in parks, as we are saluted by an army of trees planted at careful attention along the sidewalk. It is calculated and contained, stripped down, all its ability to awe us with wonder gone. The city cannot contain natural wonders. It derives its energy from the rhythm of the machine.

Dostoevski on the City

As the growth of the city increases, its inhabitability declines. The larger it grows the more it becomes like the "anthill" or "chicken coop" spoken of by Dostoevski. He argued in the nineteenth-century that the Crystal Palace (the symbol of human perfection and technological achievement as it is represented in the modern city, in a word--utopia) meets all of humanity's physical needs, but kills him spiritually. The Crystal Palace achieves mechanical perfection, but neglects the human spirit. Hence, it is really no more than an "anthill" or "chicken coop." Humanity likes the processes of development and achievement but not the final goal. To reach the goal would be instant death. The cause of his death would be boredom. What's left to do? In the process of attaining the Crystal Palace we end up with chicken coops in lieu of mansions. Places that keep us dry from the rain, but offer us no spiritual satisfaction:

You see, if it were not a palace but a chicken coop and rain started, I might creep into the chicken coop to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the chicken coop a palace out of gratitude to it for sheltering me from the rain. You laugh, you even say that in such circumstances a chicken coop is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to avoid getting wet.2

So we exist in mechanically perfect cities planned to the nth degree. But in this world of perfect shelter and isolation from nature we find that man is bored to death. This boredom sends him on an incessant journey of relief:

Then--it is still you speaking--new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and computed with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in a twinkling, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided. Then the crystal palace will be built. Then--well, in short, those will be halcyon days. Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment now) that it will not be, for instance, terribly boring then (for what will one have to do when everything is calculated according to the table?) but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. After all, boredom even sets one to sticking gold pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that for all I know people will be thankful for the gold pins then.3

The boredom here is spiritual malaise that results from the rationalization and mechanization of life in the city. To Dostoevski, the Crystal Palace is nothing more than a chicken coop for people or an over sized anthill. It imposes impersonal forces, monotony and a mechanical existence that caters only to humanity's physical needs, while we are left to wallow in spiritual apathy.

The Human Element

As the haven for humanity, the city runs on human sensation, from the energy derived from the crowd's interaction with the machine. It becomes an eerie place when empty. Think of downtown at night, certain sections seem like a ghost town. It doesn't seem right to have wide streets, tall buildings, bright streetlights--and no inhabitation. The haunting emptiness of the city at night is another indication of its existence as a purely human creation. Contrast this with night in the forest. There is the sound of stillness, quiet and peace interjected with but not interrupted by the melody of the night orchestra. It seems right. Here the machine becomes the intruder as the perfect night may be easily disturbed by a low flying aircraft or by the sound of a car engine from a nearby road. But night in the city, with its empty streets and lights that change automatically despite the absence of the automobile, reminds us of the hollowness of the city without its human element.

The city as a human creation is not an entirely evil thing. Just as human nature is divided between its own sinfulness and the image of God, so all that humanity creates is a mix of both good and evil. It bears the reflection of God's image but also the indelible imprint of sin. The city also represents a refuge from nature. Nature, although man's created environment, is also the scene of his most dangerous enemy. The city offers us safety in numbers from nature's overwhelming power. It is an impregnable fortress from nature's encroachment on humanity's living space. While nature is beautiful and awesome, it is very difficult to live in without the formation of a human community that provides resistance. We need the city as a place where humanity may grow and develop intellectually and spiritually without the constant strains of battling natural forces.

The city and nature are both allies and enemies of humanity. There are different fears, problems and enjoyments in both. And both are necessary for human existence. One of the greatest struggles we face is being able to balance the city with nature. How do we keep the city from gobbling up the natural world? How do we save nature from encroaching technological development? Earlier in the modern world the concern was reversed. How do we wrest a city from nature? How do we keep nature out? We have succeeded in locking nature out of human existence in the modern city. We are now faced with an unforeseen problem of reincorporation. We are beginning to realize that "man does not live by bread alone," that is, we cannot live by only meeting our physical needs. We also must live "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God," meaning, we also need spiritual sustenance to live. And that comes through the word of God and that word is found not only in the Bible but also in the creation (Ps. 19:1).

1 Gerhard Von Rad Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961): 148.

2 Fyodor Dostoevski Notes From Underground trans. Ralph Matlaw (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1960): 32.

3 Ibid., 22, 23.


©1996-2003 Communiqué: A Quarterly Journal. All Rights Reserved.