(Just to forewarn you, this post will be rather different, both in style and content, from anything I’ve written here before. This is not a permanent shift in focus; I’m deliberately keeping this blog free of any theme or organization, so that I have the freedom to explore whatever subject interests me at a given moment. I’m still quite interested in the topics I’ve written about so far, and I expect to write plenty more posts in a similar vein. So if you find this particular post incomprehensible or unpalatable, don’t worry: I’ll be back to blogging about “ordinary” topics soon. For instance, the next post will discuss the interaction between rationality and intuition, and I’m also hoping to write some stuff about epistemology soon.)
The city of Baltimore imprisons me. I wake each morning to the sight of it spread beneath my window: buildings and roads stretching as far as the eye can see, roads swarming with cars and the sidewalks infested with people. Of all the things I observe, nearly all are made by man. Here nothing of the unknown, the wild, the mystery of nature remains; there is nothing but the dead fixed grid of city streets and the cold square vaults of endless buildings. We’ve banished the mystery to where it can’t meddle in our neatly-organized lives; we’ve scrubbed the world clean of all danger and uncertainty.
To the forces and beauty of nature, we give but a token acknowledgement: trees are planted between the sidewalk squares, flowerbeds placed in front of buildings. But the trees we plant here are pet trees, kept in cages; their roots curl backwards on themselves where they hit the sidewalk walls. These trees were placed here by humans; they do not grow of their own accord. Only the weeds spread by any will of their own, and their uprisings are quickly suppressed.
We build our cities to hide from the uncertainty of the world. But the wilderness has a harmony to it, a stillness that the city cannot attain. Always the forest breathes and pulses with life; always it moves with its slow and powerful rhythm. We have forgotten how to dance to that rhythm, so the pulses knock us off our feet. Then we flee to the cities where the rhythm cannot reach us; we take comfort in disordered cacophony, where no such rhythm can form. So great is our need for control that we’d rather live in dirt and noise of our own making than listen to a hauntingly beautiful melody composed by forces beyond our comprehension.
I cannot stand it here in Baltimore. Am I the only one who perceives the horrible grinding, screeching noise and stench of the city? Am I the only one who feels my senses assaulted by its sheer and constant insanity?
When the tangled chaos of the city grows too loud, I pull my senses back into the shell of my imagination, and I dream of the empty and desolate places to the North.
In the North, the Lord of Winter is still strong, and few choose to live in his domain. But where the people don’t go, the trees proliferate. For hundreds of miles they cover the ground. Always straight-backed, they keep their perpetual vigil, their black branches bearing the weight of the snow.
A year ago, the Lord of Winter summoned me, and I visited his stronghold. I loved it there; it was such a glorious refuge from the chaos of the city. Each day I looked out the window and saw the clear light of the North. I saw the spruce trees standing there, wrapped in their blankets of snow, patient and silent. Whenever I felt a disquiet within me, whenever my calm was broken, I could look out at the trees, and their stillness would calm me. Whatever drama shook my life, it could not bend their sturdy trunks. Over time I acquired their stillness; my life’s oscillating chaos slowed until it matched their steady cadence.
It wasn’t just their physical stillness that calmed me. The trees showed me that a world existed beyond my human concerns, that something was there which my problems could not touch. The city was different, because in it there was only human life. In the city, when drama sent ripples through my social life, there was no sturdy foundation that remained unmoved; this is why my human concerns seemed earthshaking and dire. But the spruce trees reminded me just how trivial and localized my concerns really were. The trees existed in a world where all of my worries were irrelevant.
I think this must be why social anxiety proliferates in urban environments. Surrounded by the world of the human, there’s nothing to remind us how little we matter in the grand scheme of the cosmos. There’s nothing to curb our delusions of grandeur.
I wanted to stay in the North forever, but the Lord of Winter sent me back to Baltimore. He told me I had a duty to fulfill in the human realm. So I went. But before I left, I asked him, how could I withstand the city that I hated with every atom of my being? How could I live in a land so desolate, stripped of any sign of the natural?
The Lord of Winter lent me his strength and armed me with his wisdom. He told me: concrete is shallow but the soil is deep. Beneath the crust of the city lies millions of years of history; beneath the dead veneer we’ve painted atop it, the earth is still alive. In order to withstand the city, I must reach downward with my awareness; I must force my perception down through the layers of concrete to rest it against the living body of the earth.
The trees may be slaves in the world of the city, the Lord of Winter told me, but they remember what it was like to be free. The trees are patient, the most patient of all the creatures of the earth. They will bear this indignity in silence; they will not lament or complain of their plight (as I am doing here). They will only stand and wait, century after century, as long as is necessary, until the cities crumble to dust and the world is theirs again. Then they will gather their age-old knowledge up from the roots of their memories. They will make new seeds and spread across the cold, dead earth, filling it with breathing life again.
But I’m afraid, so afraid, that the Lord of Winter is wrong. I’m afraid that the Age of Trees will never come again, that humanity will blot out nature entirely. Ours might be one of the last generations to witness the glory of nature. We might be the last to look upon vast uninterrupted stretches of forest and marvel at the unknown.
The ancient strongholds of the trees are diminishing. We encroach ever further on their domain; we corner the wilderness. It retreats into the uninhabitable places; it hides in the coldest, windiest reaches of the frozen and desolate north. But the population swells larger each year and floods across the land; the climate change melts the ancient frost. Soon even these untouched places will be settled. Then we will look down on earth from space and see nothing but a single stretch of city lights, broken only by the ocean.
This is my worst fear, that humanity will conquer the entire world, subverting all of nature to its will. The earth will lose all of its wildness; all its unpredictability will be replaced by neat orderly rows of buildings, all the same construction, the same few stores in every town, so that the whole world will be simple and regular enough to be automated. I fear that we will turn the entire planet into one sprawling concrete and asphalt wasteland of a city.
If all this comes to pass, I’ll take bitter comfort in the knowledge that nature is cleverer than us; it will not be purged from the earth so easily. Even if we destroy all its outward manifestations, it will live on inside us. Our senses of aesthetics were crafted by nature; our senses of beauty come from thousands of years of nature imprinting itself on our perceptions. And so, even if we conquer the world in the way that I fear, I can picture a young child, growing up in a desert of asphalt, bricks, and dust, arranging her plastic playthings in the shapes of flowers and trees and animals that she has never seen… This thought gives me some hope.
But in time, even our genetic memories of nature will fade. We’ll forget our innate knowledge of flowers and trees and grass; they’ll be replaced by memories of glass and concrete and brick. We’ll learn to see those things as beautiful instead. Our aesthetics are shaped by evolution, and evolution will reshape us to fit our barren new home. We’ll forget we ever lived on a planet teeming with life.
Even now, many of us seem to have forgotten it. The human mind is an amazingly adaptable thing. People raised in cities feel at home there, are unable to sleep away from the sound of the cars. Even people raised close to the forest may come to see the cities as home, may seek them out, preferring their abrasive excitement to the quiet splendor of the forest. All the time, people are moving from small towns to cities, drawn like moths to the neon lights.
It seems I am in the minority; it seems I’m one of very few whose senses rebel against the cities’ clamor. The world is changing, humanity is changing, and I am stuck in the past. I’m one of the last representativies of a dying aesthetic.
Who am I to lament the the downfall of nature? Who am I to rail against the cosmic tides? Countless times the face of the earth has changed; countless times the old order has been superseded by the new. Who am I to fight the turnings of the wheels of Fate? I am the yes–sayer; I must gaze upon the universe unflinchingly and affirm its trajectory, even if it contains my destruction and the death of all I love.
And what a small voice I am, in the echoing void of space. Even if I tried to change the future, what impact could I have? I am powerless against the great tides of Fate.
Sometimes I envision a future where humanity dies out, but in the process creates a new kind of robotic life that goes on to colonize the stars. This new life might destroy our very planet in the process; after all, it will need many resources to begin its life. It might hatch and crack the egg of the earth.
Who am I to prevent such momentous happenings? Each time I struggle against this vision of the future, I feel like one of the anaerobic organisms of the distant past, lamenting the coming of oxygen-producing life. It would be selfish of me to hold the universe back from this greater, more beautiful complexity, just to preserve my own tiny sliver of a life for a few extra seconds.
But I know that fighting this trajectory is not a matter of selfishness; it is a matter of Fate. The love of nature is ingrained too deeply within me for me to take any other path. It is my fate to struggle against this abominable future, just as the earth might be fated to succumb to it.
All of us must play our parts in life. All of us must follow the rivers that run through our blood, the deepest urges of our beings. The yes-sayer, in affirming the universe, must also affirm his place within it and he role he must play. He must find his deepest Will and follow it.
And I know that my Will yearns towards nature and the beauty of the forest. I feel myself pulled towards these things. I realize my aesthetics are subjective; I realize my life is ephemeral. But all the philosophy in the world cannot dull the pain I feel when I see a forest chopped down. All the conditioning in the world cannot make me see Baltimore as beautiful.
These are the tides of my being. These are the rivers that run through my blood; I will follow them wherever they lead. If it comes to it, I will fight for nature even if the fight is futile and I throw myself against a sky-high immovable wall. I will fight even if it accomplishes nothing and destroys me in the process. This is what it means to say “yes” to the universe. It means I must follow the path of my Will, even if it leads me into the fiery bowels of hell.
All I can hope is that, when the time comes, I will have the strength and courage to follow my destiny.