Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ex Nihilo, X-Factor

Pluvialis continues to spellbind in reports on her goshawk adventures. If you haven't been following along, you're missing the show. A recent update included a remarkable observation about the kind of out-of-body experience common to many who love the countryside but live in the city.

I hope Pluvi won't mind a lengthy borrowing. Thinking of the hills to which she and her gos escape, she writes:

"These days, when I go into town, I’m increasingly finding excuses to park my car in the Grand Arcade car park, because I know that if I reverse the car into the open-air section of the fourth floor, I can lock the car, lean out over the rail and stare at these very fields. They run like a backbone across the horizon, scratched with copse-lines and damped with cloud-shadow.

"From the carpark, there’s no sense that the hills and the town are conjoined. A strange complication arises. Something of a doubling. Leaning out over the rail, I can feel myself standing up on the hill, miles away. There’s a terrible yearning to this intuition. It's almost as if my soul really is up there, several miles distant sitting on the hill in a den of salad burnet and dried thistles, watching my soul-less self standing in the car-park, with diesel and concrete in its nose and anti-skid asphalt underfoot. With the car-park self thinking if she looks very, very hard, perhaps through binoculars, she might see herself up there.

"Is this because I know that land intimately, every hedgerow, every thin track through dried grass where the hares cut across field-boundaries, every rusted bit of agricultural machinery, every warren and tree? Certainly the high spires and towers aren't graspable in that familiar way. They're no-one's habitat. You can't walk them. Nothing lives on them. They're designed to command, not engender the small-scale familiarity and love common to field-margins, ditches and hedgerows full of herbage and birds."

What a beautiful way to express this feeling I know so well! Steve and Rebecca can attest to how uniquely falconry can sew one into the landscape, but I bet the same feeling is common to other hunters, to farmers and to many who cannot be satisfied except to walk off the pavement.

Lament enters whenever we pause to consider we live mostly removed from the places we know and love best. Clearly, it is not impossible to love a town or a city. But my sense is that we are equipped as animals and (more importantly) as living things, to perceive a greater depth of detail and richness in our surroundings than we are given in views of artificial planes and angles. We need the full package of sensory input we're designed to accept; only a living environment can provide this.

As Pluvi said, it is not just biophilia that draws her to the hills, but that must be part of it.

"It's not biophilia per se that makes it better up on the hill. Not just that there are animals up there. But that there are many animals up there who see the land in different ways and live on it in different ways, and I think this just makes the land richer, thicker, more interesting and loveable..."

How do we reconcile this disconnect? For falconers, our hawks and dogs provide part of the answer. Trained animals serve as conduits---that's how I see them, anyway---between the built environments we work and sleep in and the relative wildernesses we recreate in. Our animals at home, preening on perches and curled on couches, come alive in the field in a way we recognize immediately and can share almost as fully. A place for us is made as participant observers and passive directors of a team hunt. It's an old place we've grown into.

To travel around Baton Rouge is to cross, by necessity, a lot of hard concrete and to pass parking lots for newish, square-fronted buildings. Certain destinations are pleasant and walkable and worth seeing, but the journeys are mostly stark and unappealing.

And I LIKE Baton Rouge! It's home. It is actually an old city with a long human history spanning several cultures and more than two centuries. But it's getting newer by the day. It's turning itself upside down and re-facing its surfaces with more of the hard planes and angles that leave a guy like me desperate for sensory input. I get desperate for complication and richness and the kind of "difficulty" Pluvi finds in her Cambridge hillsides.

Trying to be generous to older cities and understand why they endure, I mentioned to her of a day in New Orleans---our city of respectable endurance if a questionable future.

Walking along the French Quarter, I once spotted through a crack in the asphalt a stratified history of the street’s pavements. The oldest seemed to be of raw cypress planks, set into the mud on end to make a kind of wooden cobblestone effect. I don’t know when it might have been laid down.

I tried to imagine the entire street paved in milled posts. A neighborhood of stone and cypress-walled houses painted Creole pastels and roofed in wood shingles. Mules pulling carts, stray dogs mingling with horses and people in the streets. Wading birds passing in formation twice a day. Windows and doors open, cooking fires going, the French Market rough and alive.

There was then in the city of New Orleans malaria and yellow fever and cholera but probably no sensory deprivation!

What else can we say about the difference between the built and more natural (not necessarily wilderness) environments we may prefer? Can anyone help define the x-factor?

No comments: