The Nature of Cities

Tonight I’m dining alone, something I don’t do frequently, and because I hadn’t planned ahead, I just used what I had on hand: eggs straight from the chicken coop; wild oyster mushrooms picked this morning from a fallen log in our ditch; fresh tarragon growing next to the door; and sundried tomatoes from last season’s garden. A simple and filling meal, paired with a glass of homemade wine from our own vineyard.

I don’t mean to sound chic here. This isn’t gourmet. It’s just what we have laying around. That’s one of the benefits of living on a farm—for a good part of the year, you can walk outside and find dinner, and the rest of the time, you can eat what you’ve put by.

Last weekend John and I went to the big city for our 10th anniversary. We like a little city time, especially eating at great restaurants, browsing bookstores, and swimming in the rooftop pool at our hotel while the sun sets over the mountains. But this trip, I found myself feeling more annoyed with the incessant traffic and noise and less charmed by urban offerings of culture and cuisine than usual. I still loved our celebratory meal at our favorite “affordable” French restaurant, but I was most excited at being served the same kind of fava beans we grow at home.

As John and I walked around the city for two days, what I noticed most—what indeed I sought out—were pieces of the country. Patches of grass, pots of flowers, naturalistic architecture, even farm-fresh vegetables at our meals, anything that delivered a reprieve from cement sidewalks and steel buildings that block the sun. I started to understand why so many city people have dogs: they have to go outside to walk them, so at least they get a few minutes in the relatively fresh air and sunlight every day.

I also noticed for the first time how many tattoos portray flora and fauna motifs. One young woman in a sundress had a whole forest of birds and trees landscaped on her back, paradoxically the most ecological portrayal of the natural world I observed all weekend.

Until I heard the birds. Birds aren’t absent in the city. Pigeons and starlings live in the eaves of buildings; robins nest in neighborhood trees and city parks. But I wasn’t expecting a chorus of birds as we walked down the sidewalk in the midst of a busy commercial block near the state capital, a street with more concrete and asphalt than grass or even weeds.

As John and I passed a gift shop, I heard the birds chirping loudly and at once, as if a whole flock of birds was greeting the sun rising over a canopy of trees. Startled, I looked up above the shop’s doorway for a nest. I didn’t find a nest, but instead discovered a speaker piping out the birds’ songs to the sidewalk below. Whether the sound was meant to attract customers or scare off real birds, I’m not sure, but I smiled at the shopkeeper’s ingenuity.

And then a block later I had to smile again at the graffiti on the side of an empty storefront.

“DO YOU FEEL REAL?” it asked. What would “real” feel like, I wondered, in a place where the natural world is so difficult to find that artificial representations must stand in for the real thing? Maybe urban people do know what they’re missing. That’s why they try to create a little bit of country in the city. I was missing it too, but I could go home again to my gardens and trees and homegrown omelettes. For city dwellers, tattoos would have to do.

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1 Comment

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

One response to “The Nature of Cities

  1. Lorna

    even though I live in Boulder, I feel the same way about big cities…loved the blog

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