Poems by John Peterson

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Wilderness in the City

by John Peterson

From Canary February/March 2009

        As we look for a means of repairing the break between nature and culture, the psychic as well as the physical break, we eventually find ourselves up against a peculiar situation.  We find that we must look for and learn to recognize wilderness inside that greatest bastion of our defense against the onslaught of nature—the city.  This requires a different kind of approach, a different set of perceptions from those we are in the habit of employing.  Natural oases in the city, such as Golden Gate, Balboa, or Central Park, though they are fundamentally important to our well being as inhabitants of cities, are not the solution.  And the wildness of lawless gangs and pop music culture cannot generate the sense of the wild missing from our city lives.  Rather we must change our internal way of being inside of cities.  We can no longer accept city life cleaved off and alienated from the land out of which the city grew.  Changing our perception of where we live has the capacity to change not only ourselves but our surroundings.

        Some years ago I took on an extended exercise in changing perception while living in San Diego, a city that is set amongst carved canyons, mesas, and mostly dry river beds.  Through foresight on the part of the community, much of the canyon land has remained intact and is off limits to development.  And, through lack of foresight, heavy development occurred in the Mission Valley area around the mostly dry San Diego River, dry except in the few heavy winter storms when the river floods and creates havoc with the excessive development.  I lived near Balboa Park and, while making a concerted and long-term effort to recognize the elements of nature and the wild, began to see and experience a very different city.

        The city, I discovered, was full of wild creatures: possum, skunk, foxes, and, further out, coyote. The mildness of San Diego’s weather became a subtle barometer where even the smallest changes in temperature became cause for excitement.  At the same time it was disconcerting to recognize areas where nothing remained of the natural landscape.  In parts of the city nothing was visible except concrete, asphalt, buildings, cars and spits of planted grass and trees.  Still, training perceptions to see nature and the wild was enlivening. 

        There is a longing in all of us, whatever our level of success, to return to the wild.  We may purchase a cabin in the mountains, a house in the country, buy a boat to motor or sail the lakes or oceans.  Apparently out of instinct, we seek to return to the land, to reconnect and be nurtured.  And yet this deep need fulfillment is mostly unavailable to the economically modest or disadvantaged. 

        I worked at one time for the Forest Service in the Palomar Mountain area of San Diego County in a Youth Conservation Program and was both amazed and shocked to find 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old youths who had never been out of their city environment; some had never been off the few blocks around their homes.

        It seems important that we find a way of experiencing the wild, the ultimate source of our being, no matter our economic condition.

        To do this we will need to learn how to move our perception so that we are able to see the wild that is before us.  We’ll need to find a way to bridge the gap between the city and the wild and to be with nature without fear, without romanticism, because this is a necessary condition of our well-being.  We’ll need to relax our understanding of what constitutes the wild in order to appreciate the natural world that surrounds us even in the city.

        We need to remember that cities are already in wilderness.  There is soil under us, creeks that have been redirected under our feet.  Cities have arisen in the heart of wilderness.  This has always been so and it cannot be otherwise.  In this sense, we are already in wilderness.

        Some years ago in Fresno I lived in what was called a freeway house.  It was one of the many homes that were bought up by Cal-Trans to be demolished for Highway 41, slated to be built in years to come.  I lived with my family in a 1/4 mile wide stretch of open land that lay out in front of us for miles.  It was a wilderness in the heart of a city.  Left to its own wildness it was a haven for animals and birds, dogs and humans to run through. It brought to mind the forests of medieval Europe that were left as communal areas surrounded by villages, for all to use and enjoy.  I so enjoyed the short time I lived in this free wild place.

        Wilderness first off is a visceral thing, and we come to it when we remove the constructs of mind laid over our ancient visceral connections and move into a place very much known but very much shielded from our knowing because of centuries of conscious and then unconscious disconnecting.

        Most of us, when first approaching the subject of wilderness, conjure up vast tracks of land without roads or dwellings, inhabited by wild, dangerous animals, lacking in the amenities to sustain our life and visited by the furious elements.  Mostly these areas have contained things to fight against, tame, overcome, control, resist and civilize.  The wild became the enemy of our safety, and cities became the bulwark against that which in the wild is overwhelming and dangerous.  This disconnection was our way of winning the struggle for survival by shutting out the wilderness itself, and while this separation was necessary in our evolutionary survival, we have allowed it to lock us into a world where life is a constant struggle for existence.

        Standing on a roadside next to the Kings River in the foothills of the Sierra, I saw a turkey vulture fly towards me low to the ground, maybe twenty feet high.  After this great black bird with wide stretched wings and small red head flew by, I watched in awe as it did a complete barrel roll and continued to fly off into the setting sun. 

        I stood there looking over the lush green fields and I knew then that Winston Hibler, the voice of all those wonderful Disney nature films I remember seeing as a boy, was wrong.  It is not about survival in the wilderness, it is about joy, playfulness, excitement and fun.  These creatures live inside of the full complement of life, survival being only one element.

        So while we are certainly facing an urgent need to save the natural world today, we must save ourselves and our connection to this natural world before we will have the impetus and the skills to save the trees, the air, the creatures.  The first issue is saving our own lives, saving the cities and the land on which they stand, standing inside of the life that is here, trusting that life and rolling with it.

        It is a question of who shapes the world that we experience.  If we hold the mind open to experience wilderness in our bellies, in our hearts, we might just find the way to experience wilderness in our minds, here in the city. 

        We might begin to break down the mentally constructed barrier between city and wilderness and experience them both together, in the same place, here in the city that lies like a hollowed out place etched into the wilderness, connected by roots that reach deep into our past, deep into the lives of the living things around us.

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