Between & Beyond: Nature

Living in a college town has its pros and cons. My youth was spent in Rockland & Bergen counties. Quickly as my own value system developed, I grew disgusted with the suburban sprawl of the area. The gas station and strip mall wastelands of Route 17 or Route 59 made me feel soul sick, and the idea that my parents and their parents came here to escape the Bronx and Yonkers only a short time before I was born didn’t offer much consolation. Old tales of motorcycle rides through pungent strawberry fields made me hate the fact there were five McDonald’s on the 13-mile strip between Nyack and Suffern. What had been acres of Bergen farmland for my father and uncle had been reduced to the small tract of my childhood woods and even that was under threat of condo development. So I made way upstate and found a balance that I had been craving. Suddenly there was space. Everything seemed far less claustrophobic and cluttered. I could breathe comfortably and feel calm.

But, on to the cons: the economy here is deeply shadowed by the college’s presence. It’s geared toward students and tourists, and it doesn’t truly reflect the need of the community nor the ideological sum of its parts. Into this mix throw the ever expanding hunger of the college. Enrollment has increased year after year, and these new students need a place to sleep. So the time has come to build new dorms.

Serendipity would have it that these dorms are planned for what is ostensibly my backyard. I was lucky enough to find myself in a small place on the edge of an old apple orchard. I have a fire pit and a garden and acres of overgrown land to wander through. It is nothing short of a dream come true. But here I am: The virus that had swallowed Rockland and Bergen long ago has crept far enough north that it stands to swallow my escape. The community here has stopped impending suburbanization in the past. The same kind of threat to the economy, the psychology, and the civil engineering of the town that the defeated project posed all apply here. But there’s the other voice that always finds itself in the backseat of these issues and that’s the voice of nature, the voice of space, the voice of quiet. It’s a voice worth listening to, and I often do.

I have always been able to access a sense of awe. I feel like that’s the only way to put it. I know it’s something that has always been with me from childhood and when I studied literature and found this idea embedded in certain philosophies and movements, I paid attention. I took it all very seriously. Most people have no relationship with nature at all. They don’t know where the sun sets on the horizon or what time the moon rises or whether they are listening to a bird or a frog or a bug. Everything is background to the forefront steeped in cultural reality: bills, appointments, loss, triumph, and failure. For those that do have a relationship, it’s often built via material science which seeks to categorize and quantize. This is a very practical relationship and one that serves many purposes. It’s good to know what’s going on with ecosystems. It’s important to maintain a sense of stewardship but this avenue also often leads to domination and extortion. On what seems like the opposite end of the spectrum is a relationship via beauty. Nature is cherishable because it is scenic and aesthetically or sensually pleasing. This is not too far away from my own sense of awe. Beauty is certainly part of awe, but this relationship can definitely be an act of superficial consumption and merely a clever extension of the cultural paradigm.

What resides at the core of my relationship to nature is what W.S. Merwin describes in his poem called “Vixen” about an encounter with a fox on an evening walk: “When I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars/From the creeds of difference and the contradictions/That were my life and all the crumbling fabrications…” I’ve encountered foxes here in my orchards, and owls, and deer, and cicadas, each of them entirely other. Each is an instance of being that lies outside of our conventions and definitions of reality. Each of them offers an opportunity to recognize that our relationship to the world is not to be taken for granted. That there are many ways of being. That what we believe to be infallible, inevitable, and indestructible is in reality, as Nietzsche put it, “hanging in dreams, as it were, upon the back of a tiger.” Here, a sense of humility arises which results in the same stewardship offered by the scientific worldview, but from an angle that avoids exploitation. Here the same sense of beauty arises but with a genuflecting reverence that avoids consumption. To know nature as a living breathing other is to bow before a framework larger than the mundane. This presence is what I found here when I decided to call this place my home. And this is very much worth preserving and defending.