The other day I ran into a colleague, and while we were doing our post-summer-chitchat-thing, she told me she had spent the better part of her summer volunteering as a wilderness ranger in the Sierra National Forest, an experience that involved hiking and working in some of the most remote and picturesque parts of California:
But while she was telling me about how beautiful and peaceful and relaxing it all was, and I was nodding along, saying things like, “that sounds aMAZing,” here’s what I realized: I am such a phony. Because I was really thinking: Wow, that sounds sort of horrible.
OK, I won’t deny it: I hate nature.
All right, wait, you got me. Maybe I don’t completely hate it. I’m not a Republican, I recycle, I want there to be a rainforest, and I think koala bears and penguins are, like, totally cute. However, the truth is, I’ve always thought nature was pretty damned overrated.
As with every negative attitude I have, I suppose I could blame this one on my childhood as well. When I was still in elementary school and my dad was shacked up with his second wife, we used to go on these “camping” trips. But camping with my dad consisted of piling in our white Dodge van with the stepfamily—including big Edna, little Edna, and Jimmy—and then driving eight or ten hours to a KOA campground, setting up camp (i.e., doing a bunch of chores), sleeping in a crowded and stuffy tent, waking up at sunrise, breaking down camp (more chores!), and driving all day to the next site. And, unfortunately, there’s no shortage of KOAs in this country:
These trips were mostly unpleasant and taxing, but they were also just kind of dull. In fact, the only time I remember something exciting happening was when Big Edna got pissed at my dad, hopped out of the van, and said she wanted a divorce and would find her own way back to Seattle (we were in Montana or something). Secretly, I was thinking: Hey, shouldn’t you take your two kids with you? I was also thinking, Heck yeah—a divorce! It’s about time… But they didn’t get a divorce (not just then, anyway), since my dad managed to coax her back into the van so we could resume our tour of America’s great dirt parking lots.
Every once in awhile, we did happen upon someplace that was more traditionally and even spectacularly “natural.” For instance, somehow, in between KOA camping, we ended up at Yellowstone Park as well as the Grand Tetons. Still, these brief stops also involved unloading the van and schlepping water and pitching tents and cleaning dishes and, on top of that, driving endlessly just to get there. In short, I learned very early on that nature isn’t just slightly boring and somewhat inconvenient—it also involved too much manual labor.
But there are other reasons why I have this aversion. I’ve always been drawn to Modernism, so I have an anti-Romantic streak that makes me skeptical of our rich history of shameless nature propagandists: Thoreau, Emerson, Wordsworth—all those dirty hippies. Thoreau went into the woods because he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” but here are the facts of my life: I like running water and a roof over my head and gummi bears, none of which you can find in the wild.
But mostly I am just irritated by the assumption that nature is somehow innately pure or benevolent or good. Art critic Dave Hickey remarked that when dirty hippies respond to nature (actually, he refers to them as “people,” but we all know what he really means), they’re really reacting to “nature’s ability to mimic the sincerity of a painting.” He explains how, when friends and family would come to visit him at his home in Las Vegas, he’d take them to a spot where they could see a spectacular view of the city at sunset. Inevitably, his guests would either respond to the beauty of the neon lights or to the sunset itself. The distinction between these preferences, he argues, is just a matter of one’s taste in “duplicity.” We either prefer the “honest fakery” of The Strip or the “fake honesty” of the sunset. In other words, the sunset is not inherently sincere or authentic. It just fools us into thinking it is. We impose our own values, our own desperate need for authenticity, on nature—it is untainted and pure and good because that’s what we’d like to believe. We’re conditioned to think that we can escape the toxicity of modern life if we fill our bodies with “all natural” and “organic” foods, that we can escape the nastiness of culture if we just drive 10 hours to a KOA campground (or the Sierra National Forest or wherever). We believe in the replenishing goodness of all-mighty Nature.
And maybe it does replenish us.
But, to me, rather than being a result of something inherent in trees and mountains and rivers, our worship of nature seems almost entirely a reaction against culture. This sense of reverence, this nouveau pantheism, would not exist were we not so irritated by, well—by ourselves—by all the crap that we do and make (including making more people) and with which we clutter up the planet. When I finally admitted to my nature-loving-wilderness-adventurer colleague how I felt, she admitted that her love of nature stemmed from her need to get to a place that wasn’t somehow catering to her needs and desires. Look around, she said: everything is geared toward our satisfaction. Our convenience and our entertainment and our narcissism—everything points to us.
True, true, true—all of it. For those reasons, I love the city. Because it loves me back. (Sort of.) And because I’m a narcissist. And because, for my money, it’s all about the beauty of the grid: the freeways and intersections, stoplights and billboards, strip malls and skyscrapers.
Plus, it just seems so much more intelligently designed than nature:
Don’t you think?