Now, most of us never consider these lenses in our daily lives, familiarity breeding first complacency then apathy before neglect. We take the city for granted or, perhaps worse, abandon it like so many other relationships which disappoint us.
The city, however, is the “child” of humans and the Earth. As I noted elsewhere, we have forgotten how this came to be and what our responsibilities are and so fail to fully appreciate the worth of our “child.” Now, what do I mean by this? The city-as-child metaphor? Simply this – Wilderness predates humankind as we know it, the world divided into flora and fauna (in the most simple explanation here – apologies to my friends in the scientific community, especially those five blocks away at CalTech!). When these two collide for procreative purposes, what we find is the city. The wilderness trades its “wildness” with the transient constructions of the Homo Sapien and voila, the city springs forth. Some (and I say this tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well I am playing with a metaphor here) are children we do not want to claim, bastards and abortions as they are. Others, like the metropoli, we are eager to claim as our own. And so the world has been fighting for territory ever since. The wilderness preferring her natural daughters, flush with waters and voluptuous hills; humankind preferring his shiny steel sons, erect, tall and strong.
Where to the philosophers of the Axial Age come into all of this? Which “child” do they seem to prefer? Nature or the city? Well, they seem to be conflicted. Even perhaps undecided. The Romans, for all their conquering and constructions seem to prefer the reprieve of nature at all points and so Socrates, Plato and Aristotle pass on wisdom that tries to balance love for both children, nature and the city. Jesus seems to be comfortable in both, often withdrawing to mountains and seas as much as the bruising cities which will eventually kill him. Buddha, I think we can agree, preferred nature and the insight of the feminine wilds with whom he spent most of his time, while the Hebrew prophets seem to want to stay in the city even if they want to “correct” his behavior.
In short, arguments about nature and construction have been around for quite a while. In fact, we see that the earliest traces of humankind endow nature with sacred qualities even as they are leaving it and building cities. Karen Armstrong in her book, The Great Transformation, takes great pains to assemble what this choice meant theologically for our foreparents. And so it is no surprise perhaps, to see that the Enuma Elish, Book of Genesis, and Epic of Gilgamesh each tell the tale of Babel with a sense of removed awe and reverence. If you are anything like me, you read the story of Babel with a looming question mark. What really happened? Why? How did this come to be? Something about the tower/ construction was upsetting to the gods/G-d. So much so, in fact, that it seems we have been restless and skittish ever since. Should we move to the city? Then, once we are there, Should we move out of the city? Maybe the suburbs? Maybe a cabin by the lake? We enjoy the easy benefits of having things readily available and conveniently in one place, and yet we are not sure whether we want to raise our kids there.
My own parents are a good example, maybe. From both of their opinions, I can tell that they enjoyed their time in New Orleans before I was born. They were young and fabulous, enjoying all of the comforts of bistros and concerts and modern convenience. But, despite all of the luxuries they had come to love, once I was born they were not sure they wanted to raise a child there. It was good for them, but not for a small child. The dangers they had grown accustomed to were now ever-presently lurking behind streetlamps and streetcars. What were they to do in the hostile and brutal city?
They moved to the suburbs.
Naturally, I would assume that I was the cause – that I had “ruined” their idyllic world. Except for the fact that they were trying to level out their balancing act. Years earlier, they acquired a pasture in the cane fields of Louisiana and, each weekend, retired there after their week in the city. The suburbs, for them, were the best of both worlds. Modern convenience, but not as intense as the metropolis or as slow as the country. Like the third bowl of porridge, moving to the suburbs of the North Shore was just right. They had to figure this out for themselves, apart from (as much as from) whatever cultural construction was being developed during the early 1980s.
But why do people choose one over the other? And how do they do it? I think the answer to that is plethoratic. There are a myriad of reasons. However, much like our political views, we will settle into the grey areas – the hybrid “centrist” position of suburbia. Of course, I say “settle” in the gentlest way, with as much criticism as I would hold for someone sitting in a recliner. The suburbs are easy, convenient, family-friendly and there is nothing wrong with them. Take not that I am going here, at least at the first, to discuss the polarities before I try to discuss the moderate locale of suburbia. That said, again, we choose the middle ground for a number of reasons but I think the way in which we discuss “city” and “wilderness” must be articulated first. We must acknowledge the reasons as much as the ways & means in which we are promoting one region over another.