Saturday, January 31, 2009

How This Article Hurts My Brain or The Savannah Hypothesis

Garden Rant picked up on a story from the Boston Globe Ideas Section titled, "How the City Hurts Your Brain." I do not disagree with the idea that we need to immerse ourselves in natural habitat. I would like to make the point that most of what this "Ideas" article is attempting to drive home, through simplified science, we already understand intuitively.

Some things I need to go on about:

"The brain is a wary machine...The mind is a powerful supercomputer...easy to short-circuit..."
I really don't like the consistent "mind as machine" analogy in this article. Its not even about philosophy or a mechanistic view of nature, but more like writing as if the reader really couldn't understand it any other way these days -oh God, aren't we so like machines nowadays. Lets leave the mechanistic ideas in the 20th century- haven't we given enough to our dear machines already.

"Imagine a walk around Walden Pond..."

This is artful. The evocation of Walden Pond without any mention of our nation's most famous nature hermit, Thoreau, who brought to the fore the idea of the poetic, transcendant escape from urbanity? Just mentioning Walden Pond, sans Concord no doubt, evokes our landscape escape fantasy. And Emerson? C'mon. Of course, Emerson owned property outside of the city to escape to.

"It's not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan...They needed to put a park there."
At least the article mentions Olmsted (though forgot Vaux) -someone who actually envisioned our cities with a more complex environment. Marc Berman, the psychologist the article quoted (above statement), is right, but not for the reason the article implies. By no means did Manhattan look like it does now; it grew up around Central Park and with it. Which, incidentally, had many farmers and gardeners and an African American community living within its future bounds before construction. Ultimately the siting of the future park was an administrative, government decision.

"...research has demonstrated ... the mental demands of being in a city -- makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad..."
How do we account for all the overweight people in the countryside and the overall fitness of those in cities. Nature makes us slimmer? No, but exercise does, and I sure do walk a lot in the city. So I guess we eat chocolate cake -so what, we walk it off.

"...found less domestic violence in the apartments with views of greenery."
How many times do we need to say that correlation is not causation? Couldn't there be some other factor involved in higher domestic violence rates that also correlates with less trees, grass, and parks outside our windows and doorsteps?

"...most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the "savannah hypothesis, which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved."
And finally, my favorite -the "savannah hypothesis." Not to put too fine a point on it: BUNK. Its obvious why people like low-clipped lawns today: clear sight lines, clean for laying, sitting, soft underfoot, and you can kick a ball around, etc. The deeper connection we have to the lawn has more to do with miming the tastes of European aristocrats of the last few hundred years. The aestheticized, pastoral landscape was born out of the estate home with its view of the shepard, his flock and the grass -grazed short by sheep. Central Park's Sheep Meadow puts it in name. Economics don't trickle down, but aesthetics sure do. Let us thank ingenuity for the IRON SHEEP, our lawn mower, or we'd be listening to bleats all day. The lawn is the image of order in the landscape, with its clear sight lines and simple aesthetics. I don't think many people are conscious of the roots of their landscape aesthetics, but mime them anyway.

The savannah landscape has unclean sight lines to any pleistocene man, who's greatest enemy may have been a low-stalking lion or hyena, it caught fire often, and who knows what else - so its no front lawn. Another point I'd like to make is that wealthy aristocrats had great landholdings and would have farmland, grazing land, and wooded lots for hunting, logging, etc. While we can mime the lawn aesthetic, we cannot maintain the forest that stood beside it on our little plots -its one or the other and we've largely chosen the other to our detriment.

Below is a quote from Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn (beware *# language). After about one hundred pages of manic ranting:

"...The city grows like a cancer; I must grow like a sun. The city eats deeper and deeper into the red; it is an insatiable white louse which must die eventually of it is inanition. I am going to die as a city in order to become again a man, therefore I close my ears, my eyes, my mouth.

"Before I shall have become quite a man again I shall probably exist as a park, a sort of natural park in which people come to rest, to while away the time. What they say or do will be of little matter, for they will bring only their fatigue, their boredom, their hopelessness. I shall be a buffer between the white louse and the red corpuscle. I shall be a ventilator for removing the poisons accumulated through the effort to perfect that which is imperfectible. I shall be law and order as it exists in nature, as it is projected in dream. I shall be the wild park in the midst of the nightmare of perfection, the still, unshakable dream in the midst of frenzied activity, the random shot on the white billiard table of logic, I shall know neither how to weep nor protest, but I shall be there always in absolute silence to receive and to restore. I shall say nothing until the time comes again to be a man. I shall make no effort to preserve, no effort to destroy. I shall make no judgements, no criticisms. Those who have had enough will come to me for reflection and meditation; those who have not had enough will die as they lived, in disorder, in desperation, in ignorance of the truth of redemption. If one says to me, you must be religious, I shall make no answer. If one says to me, I have no time now, there's a c*#t waiting for me, I shall make no answer. Or even if there be a revolution brewing, I shall make no answer. There will always be a c*#t or a revolution around the corner, but the mother who bore me turned many a corner and made no answer, and finally she turned herself inside out and I am the answer.

"Out of such a wild mania for perfection naturally no one would have expected an evolution to a wild park, not even I myself, but it is infinitely better, while attending to death, to live in a state of grace and natural bewilderment. Infinitely better, as life moves toward a deathly perfection, to be just a bit of breathing space, a stretch of green, a little fresh air, a pool of water. Better also to receive men silently and to enfold them, for there is no answer to make while they are still frantically rushing to turn the corner.

"I am thinking now about a rock fight one summer's afternoon..."

After this passage, Miller turns to reflect on his childhood, calmly. Its an intense shift, all turning on a park, a wild park.

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