Sunday, June 20, 2010
On Trash and the Urban Outdoors
Spot is asleep in the car now. It's a cool day, he's in the shade, so we're letting him go instead of trying to displace him to his bedroom. In his hands is a one liter plastic bottle of RC Cola that he picked up after school this morning. His stated intention, before losing consciousness on the ride home, was to bring it home and put it in the recycling bin.
It's not unusual these days to find Spot with one of two things in his hands: a twig or enormous leaf from some low-hanging branch, or some unidentifiable but fascinating plastic widget retrieved from the grass in the park. Spot has become a great collector, amasser, and connoisseur of the world's small wonders, about half of which consist of trash.
There are no arbitrary divisions in Spot's world between "natural" and "artificial" wonders. He brings them all to us without prejudice, and it is we who sort them into arrangements suitable for a 17th century Dutch still life, on the one hand, and the recycling bins in the garage, on the other. Spot is a Renaissance natural philosopher, a Midwestern Erasmus with his growing cabinet of curiosities, encompassing acorns, glass beads, a dessicated monarch butterfly, plastic bottles, pine cones, and foil chip bags of all colors and sizes. The one thing they all have in common, besides each being a small part of the cosmos, is that Spot brings them all in from "outside."
So, when in need of a late afternoon rallying cry, "Let's go pick up trash!" is now one of the most effective. We get the tricycle with it's yellow plastic basket, and sometimes a trash bag, and we make our way down the block, picking up odd bits of paper, wrappers, pop cans and coffee cups as we go. Despite all our efforts, by the same time tomorrow, all of these things will have magically reappeared. No matter, for we will be off again, Don Quixote (Spot) leading Sancho Panza (me) on their fool's errand to clean up the neighborhood while sampling the plenitude of the universe.
Well, not quite; cleaning up the neighborhood is just one by-product of Spot's natural curiosity about the world, which ignores the fine distinctions of philosophers between "nature" and "culture", or between "society" and "the environment." Where does one stop, and the other begin? These are the questions that my three-and-a-half year old radical philosopher poses, in the language of objects, as we pass the neighborhood hipsters on the sidewalk and the shiny, spinning hub caps in the street.
Nature, of course, is everywhere. It doesn't begin at one edge of the park and stop at the curb on the other side, taking a detour to get around the basketball court along the way. It is inside my iPhone and in the revetment holding back the winter waves of Lake Michigan. It is in the nest of peregrine falcons on the twentieth floor of the high-rise down the street, and the coyote that runs up and down the train tracks behind our building. It's in the restored patch of prairie in the park, and the small stream of migratory waterfowl that makes use of it as they navigate across the metropolis.
And where you find nature, you find the great outdoors along with it. There are buildings that create their own weather, accelerating the wind on the streets below and crowning themselves with clouds in otherwise cloudless skies. There are spectacular sunsets beyond the viaducts and rail yards, there are days when the optics of the air bring the steel mills in Gary into focus as if they were battleships a few hundred yards away. There are days when the snow absorbs the city's surplus of decibels, turning the urban universe into a white and silent movie. There are man-made mountains, there is silence, and there is even, here and there, wide open space.
I fully support Spot's clean-up activity, and his precocious impulse to recycle, however much it may baffle the local teenagers who diligently undue all our work. It gets him outside, where the world is changing by the minute, the wind is blowing in his face, and the sun casts a thousand different shadows. A piece of trash removed clears the way for better view of the beetle on a leaf; our pursuit of the blowing bag lands us at the foot of a spectacular cottonwood tree.
I look forward to the day when Spot will be old enough to strike out with me into America's great wild places. I know them and miss them myself. But it is a fantasy to think that there is a place where nature exists apart from society and the impact of the age we live in -- the Great Anthropocene -- or a place where the artificiality of society has drowned out the authenticity of the natural world. If you just look closely, they are always both there. Like the pop can next to the mushrooms in the grass, sprung up overnight.