This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
As I’ve written before, urban nature forces us to zoom in, to look at nature on a smaller scale. Nature in the city usually exists in patches and pockets, without the grand vistas of a wilderness area. A number of the writers I’ve read and discussed so far in this series exemplify this close, attentive perspective. Perhaps none more so than Leonard Dubkin, who literally sticks his face into his lawn to watch the life of the insects and creatures hidden away there. Yet unlike those other books Tweit’s book is a book of grand scales. It is a book, as the title suggests, of light, but also of air and wind, rain, snow and thunder, it is a book of mountains and great plains, of forests and rivers. It is also about the passage of time, both on a geological scale and on the scale of a single human life.
The book is set over the course of a year. At the beginning of the book Tweit and her husband and step-daughter are leaving their home in Puget Sound, Washington, to move to Boulder, Colorado for one year, so that her husband can complete his PhD thesis. She spends that year exploring and writing about Boulder. Tweit mentions the different ways in which she and her husband explore the city and new places in general:
I explore only until I find a path or walking route that suits me and then I walk that route every day, learning its details – colours, textures, patterns, smells and sounds – until it becomes familiar. Richard is always pushing at the boundaries of his territory, scouting a new route, a different alley, walking several blocks out of his way to check out a park or place with a view.
I’m definitely in Tweit’s camp. I still remember the first time my husband and I ventured over to Flevopark, after we moved to Amsterdam. It was a crisp autumn day and I remember thinking, this will make a great place to come for walks. And indeed it did. During all the time I was unemployed and searching for a job, and, after I got a job, on my days off, it became the place my feet took me to. Not only that, but I still follow the same route – right across the bridge, along the path through the woods, past the tree I saw fall one windy day, across the path to the pond and through another patch of woods, around the field, past the lake, down the path behind the wooden houses, and finally along the drainage ditch back to the park gates. That same route, in all seasons. Like Tweit I feel I have come to know its details, and there is always something new to see. My husband falls more into Richard’s camp, so I still get out and about to explore the city, but when it’s my day off and it’s just me, I head to Flevopark.
Tweit enjoys walking along the Boulder Creek greenbelt, a thin ribbon of park stretching five miles along Boulder Creek, but she also questions whether she should be allowed to walk there:
I love walking this path, but is my pleasure worth the cost of displacing the myriad species of wildlife from one of the precious few remaining riparian areas? Given the choice between developing a path through Boulder along this creek or putting the path somewhere else and keeping the creek wild… what should we chose [sic]?
What should we choose? It’s a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, putting the path elsewhere would be good for nature and for the many animals that compete with humans to use that space. On the other hand, if people didn’t have access to the creek, would it remain wild? People fight for and protect places they love, places they have had close contact with. As Tweit points out, the creek path helps to educate people about the beauty of the natural world.
The topic of human-animal interactions comes up at several points in the book. At one point Tweit discusses the human-deer clashes taking place in Boulder. During the winter Boulder plays host to a population of deer double that found along the Front Range (the mountain range to the South West of Boulder). How can this be, given that the foothills and mesas around Boulder are less than ideal deer habitat? The answer:
Urban landscaping, with such delicacies as rosebushes, apple and other fruit trees, aspen, not to mention succulent vegetable gardens. Boulder’s toothsome urban landscaping and its geographic position in a stream valley combine to make it deer heaven.
Some, like Tweit, don’t mind donating some of their yard plants in exchange for seeing deer in the city, but others see the deer as a problem and demand solutions, such as shooting the deer or fencing them out. But as Tweit points out, this only treats the symptom, the real problem is our gourmet yards. Tweit thinks the only effective solution would be to remove those plants that deer like to eat and plant hardy natives that don’t need a lot of watering or fertilising. This shows how interconnected we still are with the natural world, even when we live in cities. With wildlife increasingly moving into cities, the way we build our cities, right down to the plants we choose for our gardens, affects whether wild animals are considered a nuisance or whether they enrich urban areas.
Later on in the book, Tweit talks about the raccoons that feed on the cat food left out by a neighbour and about the attitudes towards raccoons and other common wildlife in Boulder: Our relationship with wild animals is a bit schizophrenic: how we behave depends partly on whether we think of the animal as a “good” animal or not; basically, whether they compete with us in any way.
During the winter raccoons will try to shelter in human habitations and out-buildings. So raccoons are bad. In the case of a raccoon or skunk nesting in your attic, these animals can easily be removed and they are likely to find another home, but, asks Tweit, what about animals such as bears? Again she wonders whether we could find it in ourselves to give over wilderness areas to these animals. Especially when they are precisely the places humans are drawn to because of their beauty and scale. A few nights later Tweit hears the raccoons fighting with some feral cats. She notes her preference for the raccoons, because they are wilder, but then wonders: Are raccoons really “wilder” than feral cats?
Our relationship with the animal world is so complex and so laden with value judgements, revealed by our preferences. I too would probably be rooting for the raccoons – after all, raccoons are adorable. They look like little bandits and they have hands. In Wild Nights Anne Matthews writes about her childhood pet raccoon, Shadow, and his seeming affection for her and desire for human company. Cats, on the other hand, are aloof. Raccoons seem more human somehow and because of this I place a higher value on them than feral cats – but I might feel differently if they kept me awake at night, rustling around in my attic!
At one point during the year Tweit takes part in a course run by the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University, the first Buddhist inspired university in the US) called Contemplative Natural History. The idea of the course is to learn to experience nature through one’s senses, rather than through factual knowledge. Tweit, a biologist, is sceptical:
I’m not sure that you can develop a meaningful connection with a landscape without knowing some of the facts about it. Part of a relationship is based on feelings and intuitions, unquantifiable knowledge; part on facts and intellectual inferences, quantifiable knowledge. How can you begin to know a place without knowing something about it besides your emotional reaction?
I’m not sure I agree with Tweit. To return to the example of Flevopark, it is a place I have come to know well, but I don’t know all or even some of the facts about the park. I know little about the geological history of the land, I only know the names of a handful of its birds, plants and trees, and my knowledge of its human history is patchy too. But my connection with the park is still very meaningful. Would it be different if I knew more about the park? Perhaps. Some of the experiences I treasure the most include watching the back of a mole moving just above surface of the soil, or flushing a hawk from the Jewish cemetery, or watching the jackdaws roost. These are experiences of the senses. Of course, I relied on knowledge and intellectual inferences to identify these animals, but I’m not sure those experiences would have been any less captivating if I didn’t have that knowledge to hand.
Later on, after another Contemplative Natural History Class Tweit does concede: The emotional experience, the sensing of a place, is what fleshes out our knowledge of it, gives it life and sound and breath and soul.
Boulder and its surroundings form a landscape of valleys, plains and foothills and this provides plenty of opportunities to step up above the city and observe it and the landscape from afar. Early on in the book Tweit describes a walk up Mount Sanitas, where she stops to sit on a rock and observes the view:
I traced the contours of the mountains behind me, followed the hills down to the flat line of the mesas, the mesas out to the eastern horizon of the distant edge of the plains; untangled the lines of creeks and irrigation ditches; mapped the regular pattern of the streets below me. The geology and landforms and vegetation, at first jumbled, gradually sorted themselves into meaningful patterns.
From Tweit’s perspective above the city, it is as though nature and the city have become a unified whole, tangled and jumbled together, but whole nonetheless. On another walk, the city becomes connected to the geological history of the landscape through it’s pavements, which are paved with red flagstones made from Lyons sandstone. The sandstone comes from ancient dunes, formed hundreds of millions of years ago and then buried as the climate shifted:
Life was very different when the dunes were forming… The Rockies that we know wouldn’t be thrust up for nearly 200 million years. The first mammals were at least 50 million years away, flowering plants would not appear for another hundred million years or so. Humans first showed up in Africa about 237 million years after the dunes blew into rippled hills – and we appeared in North America only about 20,000 years ago, just an eyelash-blink of time in the rock’s life.
Although I struggled to follow some of the more geologically focused sections of the book – I’m not much of a geologist and I’m not familiar with the landscape she is talking about – I appreciated this perspective and way of seeing the city. It reminded me of a recent visit to Verona, where my husband and I noticed fossils in the paving stones. We were amazed by this, but unlike Tweit we weren’t able to connect these paving stones to the wider, longer history of the landscape. They probably tell an interesting story, we just didn’t have access to it – nonetheless, we enjoyed spotting them.
Pieces of Light is a book of grand vistas and long time scales. It is also a book about the sky and the weather. Tweit frequently writes about her observations of the clouds and the storms passing over Boulder. They are grand cloudscapes and intense storms. At one point Tweit describes how thunderstorms dissipate: By dusk, the thunderstorm wave usually has moved past us out onto the plains, carried along by the prevailing westerlies like pods of whales in ocean currents. I’d love to see those stormy whale pods!
However, despite these grand vistas, time scales and weather patterns, it is also a book about home and our sense of home in the world. At the beginning of the book, Tweit has to fly to California. As the plane is taking off she thinks of Richard back in their apartment: pouring his orange juice and grinding his fragrant coffee beans. The book is full of small moments like this – those small moments that add up to create the flavour and texture of a life.
Towards the end of the book Tweit flies to Wyoming to visit the place she grew up in and takes a drive around Yellowstone National Park. She ends her drive at Jackson Hole, where she stays with a geologist who knows and loves this place intimately:
[T]he Jackson Hole country is the home of his heart. He knows this landscape as a lover would – knows its history, its secret places, where the hot springs rise steaming in the cool morning sun, where the antelope and elk come to lick salt and other minerals from its slopes, knows its quirks and its charms.
It struck me that I feel similarly about Flevopark, my local park in Amsterdam. I also know Flevopark’s secret places. I have seen it in all weathers, on stormy days that tear its trees up by their roots, and on bucolic summer days when children and dogs play in the grass. Although Tweit still longs for the wilder landscapes of Wyoming, she obviously feels a strong attachment to Boulder. On their last day before leaving Boulder, Tweit and her husband go for their usual walk, and as they walk Tweit recalls scenes from the last year: [m]emories streamed up like bubbles rising to the surface of a fertile pond. But she has made those memories through her dedication to exploring the city and its nature, she has laid that fertile groundwork.
On the whole I found Pieces of Light to be a beautiful and evocative book that made me want to visit Boulder, to experience its dramatic surroundings, large skies and abundant nature. So I’d like to end on possibly my favourite passage from the book. Tweit and her husband and step-daughter have been wildflower hunting and they are just returning home:
The vacant lot behind us is full of blooming crab apples and wild plum sprouts. At night the sweet scent pools along the ground like a snowdrift, pouring into our bedroom window in dense, intoxicating clouds.