My pastoral idealism and viridity have convinced me that humans are happier, less aggrieved creatures among bucolic splendor, awash in Wordsworth’s “vital feelings of delight” inspired by the interconnectedness of nature. Or, as Thoreau has it in Walden, “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.” For anyone who has anguished beneath the black dog of melancholy, that seems an irresistible promise. Concrete, steel, car alarms, and computers are not soothing, not even a smidgen religious. The human spectacle lacks tranquility. We are so ensconced in artificiality, is it any wonder many of us are miserable and almost mad? In Thoreau’s celebrated Journal (for a personal record of the nineteenth-century American mind at work it is second only to Emerson’s magisterial Journals), he argues that you can’t have it both ways, that you must decide between nature and society: “You cannot have a deep sympathy with both man & nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.”
That’s the rub: You can’t have it both ways. Certainly not if you earn an average income and don’t own a weekend and summer house in Vermont or New Hampshire. Even so, do you honestly want to spend half of the weekend in your earth-killing car, stymied on a highway with a million other Bostonians trying to give their children a weekend’s worth of rustic bliss? There’s no constancy in that, and aggravation enough to age you. And so once you accept Thoreau’s formulation, the line is drawn: on this side is city life, on that side nature. You must choose. But our lives, our circumstances, choose for us, do they not? Who is really master of his own fate? It was easy for Thoreau; he was a bachelor without a job or children to feed. He could sit in the Concord woods and whistle with the wind (he also accidently burned down more than three hundred acres of those woods in 1844). I have to go to work every morning, and I’m not about to switch professions and become a lumberjack so my boy can daily chase after chipmunks and maybe become a bard. In a certain mood you could very quickly come to the conclusion that Thoreau is full of shit…
HEMINGWAY’S BOY-HERO Nick Adams spends his childhood and adolescence praying to the forests of Michigan—the wilderness his sanctuary, his temple—and yet, for all of his communion with nature, Nick doesn’t turn out that well (nor did Hemingway himself). I have a family member who was reared in the woods of Maine, in the sanctified wild where I found the sublime. The last I saw her, she was two hundred pounds overweight, tattooed from neck to feet, and had a slightly off child from a nowhere-to-be-found father and not even the dimmest possibility of employment. Many of the Mainers I’ve met have become immune to the grandeur just outside their doors. They don’t even look. As I continue to contemplate a monumental uprooting from Boston into a backwoods, that cousin of mine towers like a reprimand or warning. You can’t just drop a child into the woods, clap your hands, and expect him or her to turn into Wordsworth or Carson.
And if Ethan is never allowed Thoreau’s all-important constancy in nature? I’ll chastise myself for choosing one place over another. But that’s the paradox of place: We want to be somewhere, and then we want to be somewhere else. There’s always somewhere better, even if the place we are is best. This dilemma of the city versus the woods has become for me a question of proper parenting, of how to inspire awe in Ethan, and how to invoke Wordsworth and Thoreau anywhere we are—at the apex of the Prudential Tower in downtown Boston or on a mountain in Colorado. The question has become not Will we move to the country? but rather What kind of father do I want to be?
It seems to me that underlying this argument is the steady urbanization America has undergone since Thoreau lived. According to this chart, the United States first became 50% urban in the early 1900s and reached 70% not too long after the conclusion of World War II.
Adding to this, early American suburbs were often envisioned as a compromise between urban and rural life. These original suburbs, like Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, were built around big lots, parks, and winding streets that helped emphasize topography and natural settings. Wealthier residents could get away from the dirtiness of the city, with the urbanization rate also tied to industrialization, in the suburbs. Of course, suburbs don’t have this same natural or green reputation today. For example, suburban critic James Howard Kuntsler’s TED talk dismisses the sometimes comical attempts to make suburban settings more green such as planting single trees in the middle of planters in massive parking lots. Yet, the suburbs still tend to offer more space and are theoretically closer to nature.
There is also a hint of a class argument here. True immersion in nature requires some money to make the trip. For families that need to work, have little money for vacations, and can’t get away for a variety of reasons, nature can become a luxury.