This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral is a complex series of intertwined stories. The overarching narrative takes place on a single evening in Siebert’s New York neighbourhood of Crown Heights. As he writes about the approaching night he recalls the last few months spent in a crumbling log cabin in the middle of the Canadian countryside, called Wickerby; his travels in Central and South America; the mumblers of New York; his childhood; and his father. These narratives provide the backdrop for a broader reflection on humans, nature and the city.
What compels Siebert to drive from New York to spend the spring and summer in a tumbledown cabin he is not even sure will still be standing? Ostensibly it is a hole in the road. The road outside his apartment is being dug up for the second time to repair the bad job done by the first construction. The first time the road was dug up Siebert’s neighbourhood entered a stage of heightened madness. During the drive to Wickerby, Siebert recalls that period and his mind is aswirl with images of lopped-off rooster heads, shot-gunned zoo bears, stolen elms; of upturned streets and restless Egyptian mummies in the bullet-riddled night. Clearly the reappearance of the hole in Siebert’s street is a bad omen.
He is also spurred on by the fact that his near-wife (she has been married before and refuses to get re-married), Bex, whose family owns the crumbling Wickerby, has not returned at the appointed date from a trip to Africa, where she is writing about a film crew that is following a nomadic tribe.
So he packs up his car (after retrieving it from the hole, into which it has fallen during a mud slide) with some clothes, books, and his pets, Lucy the dalmation and Rasteedy the caged bird, and just like that they set off. And what, exactly, does Siebert find there, in his near-wife’s log cabin? After all, he is clear that he didn’t leave Brooklyn: to achieve some Thoreauvian ideal, to shed all inventions and conventions by way of arriving at a more essential self.
Whilst Thoreau might not be his thing, he does dip into a collection of Emerson essays during his stay at Wickerby:
The path of things is silent… Will they suffer a speaker to go with them. A spy they will not suffer; … The condition of true naming … is resigning yourself to the divine aura which breathes through forms, and accompanying that.
And so, Siebert goes into the woods and sits on Bex’s Rock, trying to accompany things:
I’d hold on as long as I could, as though by doing so, by fully accompanying things, some previously unseen trap door might suddenly open and readmit me into what, I now understand, none of us were ever expelled from to begin with; readmit me into the very place that I already occupied there up on Bex’s Rock, and that I occupy here tonight.
That place we seek to be re-admitted to is nature. But there is no trap door and we do not need readmitting because we are already part of nature, we already occupy it – even Siebert occupies it as he writes from his apartment in one of the most densely populated, urbanised places in the world. Siebert refers to the idea that we have been expelled from nature as that one little catch, that snag:
It’s the snag, the spur, the genomic gaff that explains how the original descriptions of the very garden paradise from which we were supposedly cast out could, in fact, have been inspired by the sight of a city in the first place: desert-wandering Hebrew tribes suddenly coming upon the plush gardens growing inside the walls of Byzantium.
I love the notion that the Garden of Eden may have been inspired by a city. It’s also interesting to note that we call it a garden – we chose to think of our original home as a garden. We were expelled from that garden home into the wilderness and we have been trying to keep the wilderness at bay ever since, all the while longing for a garden version of “nature”.
We’re certainly not pining for the version of nature Siebert discovered in the Amazon and the Cockscomb Basin in Belize, a version that will eat you alive at the first opportunity. He gives a few gruesome examples. There’s the man who loses his fingers in an accident involving the chain and drive socket of a motorbike. When someone returns to the site of the accident to try and find the fingers, they are already being carried off by ants. And there’s the pig caught in a trap that has a scratch above its eye. A day later the pig’s eye is gone, the empty socket filled with screwworm larvae. No, this is not the version of nature we wish to return to.
If we were never really expelled from nature, then what might the logical conclusion of that train of thought be? Siebert takes that next step. Since we are part of nature, since we were never really expelled from nature, then the things we make are also part of nature, including the cities we build:
Why is a cemented aggregate of homes arranged in a tall, tight cluster any further from nature than Wickerby is, than one wooden home within the woods? Is it because the city is so thoroughly man-made? But we wouldn’t call the towering carpenter ants’ nest that I found one day in Wickerby’s collapsing southeast corner “ant-made.”
A skyscraper may not be the same as a tree, but one is no more natural than the other, and both are, in the end, habitable outgrowths of the same skyward longing. Birds make good use of either. So do we.
Indeed, the things we make aren’t just part of nature, they are natural, organic even. This idea was first planted in Siebert’s brain by his father, who worked in a tool-and-die plant. On one of their Sunday outings together they missed the last ferry to visit the Statue of Liberty and ended up standing before a dirty shop window, peering into a room full of dusty old tool-and-die machines. His father started to talk passionately about the machines and described the way they work, described their body parts, their “knees” and “heads”. His father was so passionate about the machines, he could barely find the right words, and used mime instead – he quite literally animated them for his son. But the machines don’t just share similarities to humans, they are, in fact, our own best wishes for our hands. They are also part of their own ongoing process of evolution:
The ancestry of any object I could think of, he said, minute or massive, could invariably be traced back to a tool-and-die machine … Indeed, the very machines we were looking at were all made of parts fashioned by tool-and-die machines, and they, in turn, made the parts for the newer tool-and-die models that were already replacing the ones there before us in that window.
This idea that machines evolve and are in some sense alive, has stayed with Siebert every since:
At times I wish my father had not steered me past that window of tool and die, had not so tellingly animated for me the inanimate. I hardly make a distinction between the two any more. To me, we and machine are, despite our divergent authorship, essentially the same, are both uniquely ordered, ephemeral arrangements of atoms, brief stays against the universe’s prevailing disorder. I can’t see a machine without seeing something of ourselves. Can’t cross a bridge without thinking of the different bolts that bind it: the ceaseless shifting weight upon them, the winter’s bite, the summer’s swell in every joint. I can’t see this room or its furnishings; can’t see the whole lighted array of rooms around me … I can’t see the streets that bind these buildings, or the parked cars, or the bent metal trash container on the corner of Washington and Lincoln, or even trash … as anything but what they all are: extensions of us, and therefore, of nature …
We are part of nature and the things we build, our cities, are extensions of us, therefore, they are also part of nature – even parts of the city like Crown Heights; the parts many people would prefer to shake their head at, lament its decline, and walk away from.
This also feeds into another radical idea that Siebert puts forward. It is common practice to bemoan the fast pace of modern life and as we’ve seen, it is also common to yearn for a romanticised version of the wild. We do this partly because we see it as a way of escaping our fast paced modern life, of returning to simplicity and slowing down.
I remember the first time I visited Walden Pond and wandered round the gift shop, which sold Thoreau memorabilia. There were rows of shirts all with the same quote from Walden printed across them: Simplify, simplify.
Yet, Siebert argues, this impulse to simplify is just another symptom of that snag of consciousness that tricks us into separating ourselves and naming everything that is not us, nature. And it is a symptom we have been falling prey to for as long as we’ve been conscious.
In Weeds, Richard Mabey discusses the Genesis Creation myths. They are, he argues, a lament for the lost gradualness of the hunter-gatherer way of life. Stone Age Mesopotamians gathered wild greens, as well as an abundance of wild fruits: chestnuts, almonds, figs, olives, apricots and pomegranates. With the development of agriculture they now had to toil in the field in the sweat of thy brow:
What is striking in the ecological subtext of Genesis is its sense of bitterness about the arrival of agriculture. Farming here isn’t the sacrament of later Western Christianity, in which ‘to plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land’ was seen as a metaphor of God’s sowing the earth with righteousness.
We eventually catch up with our lost gradualness – farming eventually became a symbol of man’s righteousness, rather than his cursed downfall – but never for very long. Read the novels of Thomas Hardy – they echo with the lost gradualness of the plough and the coming of a more mechanised agricultural era.
Upon arriving back in Crown Heights there is a fair going on, organised by J, the local newsagent owner and self-appointed Mayor. Whilst wandering around the fair, Siebert comes across a stall selling old black and white photographs of his street, Eastern Parkway. He buys one of the photos:
As I stare at the photo now, I feel that play of the past upon our minds, that illusion of a slower, more grounded day. But to the people in the photo, walking out on the promenade over a century ago… it was simply a day, a Sunday, perhaps, like this one, and there was time enough for languor and yet not enough time, and, in the back of everyone’s minds, was the same abiding fear of loss of gradualness, the same illusion of a world speeding away on the back of our own unbridled industry.
It is our unbridled industry, our machines, that we blame for that lost gradualness but, as Siebert has already argued, our machines and the cities we have built using those machines are part of nature – just as we are also part of nature. By way of this realisation, Siebert has been able to get back in touch with that gradualness and he gives us a sense of it throughout Wickerby, through the very fact that the book is framed around a single evening. It is as though time moves so slowly in Siebert’s version of the city that an evening is long enough for languor, long enough to write an entire 200 page book.
The idea of writing an entire book in one urban evening may be a conceit too far, but I can certainly attest to having discovered a sense of gradualness in the city. Last summer I lived alone in Amsterdam and a summer day, at this latitude, when you’re alone, can feel very long indeed. But it wasn’t necessarily a negative experience. There were times when it felt like a luxurious gift. I would go for an evening stroll in the park, having spent all day reading or writing in my apartment, and the sunset seemed to last for hours. Indeed, that whole summer stretched out until it felt as though night, and winter, would never arrive.
Siebert is also alone with his thoughts, his near-wife having still not returned when he gets back from Wickerby. Another group of urban dwellers who have managed to hold on to that sense of gradualness is the mumblers who keep pigeons on the roofs of their apartments. The mumblers release their pigeons in the morning: for the very act of letting what they love go, and spend their days in little shacks on their roofs, waiting for the pigeons to return. Siebert recalls a mumbler he knew in another neighbourhood he lived in:
It was as if he’d perfected a way of leaving the city without actually having to; as if he’d achieved the next stage in the evolution of the urban dweller: to have gone from living on a fully paved-over earth to never having to alight there at all.
Meanwhile, those of us who have not achieved the mumbler’s stage of evolution are, by and large, urban naturalists, temporary keepers of the fearless forest. And during our temporary dominion we separate ourselves from nature, lament our separation from nature, and deride our machines, which we blame for that separation. But, Siebert argues:
There is no such thing as nature… There is just the earth and us, the namers, standing upon it, naming those places without us, nature.