The dichotomy of natural versus artificial is one that I have discussed before, mostly because it comes up so frequently in pagan discourse, and because I think it is a fabricated construct that does us a disservice:
The real issue comes with how we define “nature.” Nature as a concept is a romantic notion, one that brings to mind pristine and peaceful wilderness where noble savages live in peace and robust health. This is contrasted to the concept of the “artificial” or the manmade, which is seen as exploiting or going against the virtues of Nature. This ignores three simple facts: 1) The “natural” world is inherently dangerous, and doesn’t give a flying crap if we survive comfortable or die slow, agonizing deaths; 2) The “artificial” world has bestowed upon us many things that have proven greatly beneficial to our comfort, survival, and well-being; and 3) Humans are animals, and are a part of Nature, and as such any activity we undertake, no matter how complex, is “natural.”
When people talk about things being more “natural,” what they usually mean is less complex. And even that isn’t really true, because “natural” things are oftentimes more complex than “artificial” things. That’s why we refine things: we take the part we want and simplify it and discard the rest. What they’re really getting at is an idea of purity. (But I digress …)
So I read this essay by Elinor Predota on the divide between urban and rural with interest.
To me it almost seems like a fairy-tale environment – too perfect to be real – and the same goes for the surrounding countryside of Somerset: an example of English rurality so perfect as to be almost a Platonic ideal.
While we walked around Bath, Josh and I discussed our differing responses to urban environments. I have a more typically ‘Pagan’ response to them, which is to say that I find them socially easier than rural environments, but energetically and spiritually more challenging. It was an interesting conversation.
I am strongly aware that my current difficulties in coping with life in urban settings is a big drawback to my ability to engage in human social life. Our conversation helped me to recognise that I have skills in relating to the non-human in more-than-human rural and green environments that I can transfer to the human in human-dominated environments – distinguishing between different scales of life, of energy, and of being, and relating appropriately to each, in a way which enables me to function in an environment, without becoming energetically overwhelmed.
Unlike the natural/artificial dichotomy, the divide between urban and rural can be define in a real and meaningful way. Suburbs can muck those divisions up a bit, so I prefer to think of the difference between urban and rural as one of developed versus undeveloped. Oops: rural areas are highly developed and planned.
So, to begin again. Urban areas are highly developed in terms of dense placement of dwellings and means of production. Rural areas are spread out (especially in places like Kansas) and open. It takes longer to cross rural distances. Urban activities are driven by high populations and follow their own temporal patterns.
And that is what occurred to me in reading Elinor’s comments. The main difference between urban and rural is one of pace, of process. There is far more activity in a city than a rural town. More people, doing more things, at a faster pace, ignoring sunrise and sunset. This is why I can’t sleep in Chicago — there are too many people doing too many things too late, and I feel it all throbbing underneath me.
But it’s not the buildings. They’re made out of the same rock and mud as a farm. It’s not the roads. The same roads crisscross the countryside. It is simply the energy generated by people doing people things. It is the difference between a squad of bees searching for nectar and the bustle of the hive.
And that very much is about being able to deal with people. But unlike the rural environment, it is about dealing and interacting with people you probably don’t know, and you can’t anticipate or understand, but who’s energy washes over you anyway.
And I don’t know that the energy of the land and the voices of the spirits are any quieter in the city. In fact, I doubt they are. But if you are attuned to the subtle energies of life around you, it is harder to sense the spirits of the land through the cacophony of millions of people living their hopes and fears.
I’m sure that there are ways to mediate this energy and work around it. I’ve done it myself, although I honestly don’t remember how I did it. But my concern is that one of the reasons so many pagans have trouble sensing the subtle energies of urban areas is because they’re taught that they can’t. And who knows – perhaps learning to open up to and cope with that much human energy will help is live together more easily, just as living in nature helps us adapt to the world that exists happily without us.