Column: Nature’s Social Union

Eric O. Scott —  January 10, 2014 — 12 Comments
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Maiden, Mother, and Crone

My fiancee and I have been waffling about making exact plans for our wedding since May, when we were engaged. This is mostly because of our odd living situation – for a variety of reasons, we have been together for nearly eight years but have only ever lived in the same city once, at the very start of our relationship, and that situation doesn’t seem likely to change soon. But we have finally made up our minds to get things in order. So what if we still live in different states? Are we not moderns?

The idea is to have the wedding in St. Louis at Tower Grove Park – the same park that my parents were married in, and the park where I proposed to her. I like the idea of being married under the branches of those trees; Tower Grove was the park closest to my parents’ house while I was growing up. It was where I took the dog on walks, where I learned to ride a bike. Growing up in the city, Tower Grove was the closest place I could visit to experience nature. Even now, on the occasion that I consider the idea of a Summerland, really I’m just thinking of an eternity laughing on the grass of Tower Grove Park.

Which is odd.

Despite the trees and the flowers and the duck pond, there’s nothing “natural” about Tower Grove Park, nor most other parks in cities across the US. City parks, with a few historical exceptions, are a product of the Industrial Revolution just as surely as factories or high rise apartment buildings, and indeed, rely on those things for their very origins. It was considered important for the physical and spiritual health of industrialized workers that they had an opportunity to spend their leisure time in nature; otherwise, the dehumanizing, “unnatural” urban environment would wear them away. City parks were seen as the solution to this: an area of the city that was reserved away from the weary ugliness of urbanity and instead given over to greenery, where people could interact with the earth in the ways they had since the dawn of the species, according to nature’s design.

Tower Grove Park, in particular, was a bequest from Henry Shaw, who also donated the grounds for the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, which St. Louisians to this day still call “Shaw’s Garden.” It took decades to improve the property to meet the needs of visitors: there were pavilions to be built, bronze statues to be erected, and the earth itself to be molded, irrigated, and forcefully acquired in order to complete the park. Even today, nearly a century after the last tract of eight acres was added to the grounds and the park declared “complete,” Tower Grove requires a small army of groundskeepers, botanists, and rangers to maintain the buildings, plant the flowers, and keep the grass cut low enough that the insects don’t annoy the patrons.

Of course, in “real nature,” the grass grows tall and in the summer the air is thick with bugs. In “real nature,” the greenery isn’t bounded on four sides by major streets, nor are there life-sized statues of Shakespeare, Rossini, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The city park is an architectural space just as surely as any civic center – it just happens to be sculpted, in the main, with trees and grass as opposed to concrete. To put it another way, urban parks may be “nature,” but they are not in any sense “wild.” They exist because of human design. They are hardly what nature intended, except perhaps in the bizarre alternate reality of the Victorian mind.

This fascinates me, because – despite the debates the community has had over the legitimacy of this definition – my Paganism is, at its core, nature worship. Sometimes when I pray, it’s to the disir or the land-wights or to the gods; but sometimes I just pray to the trees, and that seems like it’s enough. But the way I think of nature – the way I think of “trees!” – has been buttressed by all those afternoons in a heavily cultivated city park, a tamed form of nature where every plant sits according to the plans of human beings. Does that taint the legitimacy of my connection to the earth? Can I really be said to worship nature if my idea of “nature” resembles a Victorian greenway?

Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps not. I have Annie Dillard on my mind right now – I’m teaching Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my Introduction to Nonfiction course this semester – and the central theme of that book seems to be the presence of nature in all her beauty and all her savagery all around us, everywhere we would care to look. There’s a famous passage near the beginning where Dillard sees a frog eaten alive by a giant water bug, which bites into the frog and devours its insides while leaving the empty skin-sack intact, like a deflated balloon. To Dillard – and to me – it’s an otherworldly, terrifying scene. But it’s just the way those two creatures interact: the giant water bug eats the frog, just as the frog eats the fly. Dillard’s Tinker Creek isn’t a finely sculpted civic attraction like Tower Grove Park, but it’s still shaped according to human intentions – there’s a cattle barrier doubling as a bridge slung over the creek, for example. But if the presence of humanity has made any impression on the frog and the giant water bug, they make no sign of it. Nature – “real nature” – goes on regardless.

“This place look like public property to you, bucko?”

I proposed to my fiancee at Beltane last year. In the days leading up to the sabbat, I made a habit of going over to the spot in Tower Grove Park where I planned to ask her. Without fail, every day I was visited by a cardinal bird. He was a feisty young buck, bright red and full of the warrior spirit. He seemed to take offense at the presence of my car sitting underneath his tree, and would swoop down onto the hood to peck at the windshield glass – probably, I suppose, thinking that his reflection was an intruder on his territory, though I like to think he just thought he was tough enough to scare away even a creature as big as a Chevy Cobalt.

The tree that cardinal lived in was planted by humans, kept up by humans, and was meant for human use. But the cardinal didn’t know any of that. To him, it was simply his tree, just as all his forebears had before him.

Perhaps, if the world were still in its primal state and the hand of humanity had never touched this acre of Tower Grove Park, the tree wouldn’t have been there, nor the cardinal, either. But they are here, and they’re true enough.

Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."
  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Thank you so much for this lovely post. Most modern Pagans live in urban and suburban areas. Finding ways to be in relationship with urban nature — including parks — is, IMHO, an important part of our job as 21st Century Pagans. This post shows some important ways to do just that. Congratulations on your upcoming wedding!

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Wilderness is better than parkland, but parkland is better than nothing at all.

    In the UK, we have hast tracts of nature reserves where rangers fight an unending battle to keep “the wrong kind of” nature out.

    It is really quite sad just how humans are unable to accept that an ecosystem can manage itself, if given the opportunity.

  • Urbanization is, in part, fueling the Pagan movement. Cut off from the wild and untamed forests, many people feel displaced. We hear the call to return, to reconnect, and rediscover Nature. No wonder it is called a “homecoming” when someone chooses to become “Pagan”.

    • Nick Ritter

      This is in fact the same reaction that spurred the Romantic Era in German culture, and resulted not only in a rising academic interest in folklore and mythology, but in an active desire among some people to revive ancient religions. The roots of modern Heathenry lie in that era, and the cultural intertwining of Romanticism and various Paganisms is fascinating to me.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      Ironically, urbanisation helps Paganisms and other nature-centric movements by the very fact that putting so many people in close proximity allows those people to more easily disseminate ideas.

  • peterdybing

    After many a walk in the “Bird Walk” on the northwest edge of Tower Grove, I can relate to this post. I do wonder if these parks did not exist, would so many people feel the call of nature connected divinities?

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I can relate to that. I had formative mini-UPGs in the very artificial park systems of two adjacent inner-ring suburbs sharing a stream. One left it open in an undevelopable ravine, and one culverted it and laid on a string of parks that can never become housing due to stress on the culvert, so I had a choice of wilder or tamer every time I visited.

  • David Quinn

    This speaks to the conversations we have been having lately about Nature Restoration projects and the fight against “invasive species” We have 5 acres on the property of the Unitarian church here in Des Moines that we have undertaken to “restore” to native Midwestern ecoculture. A daunting task since this tract hasn’t been “native” since before the coal mines were dug from the hillsides in the 1800s. We have to deal with plants that were brought in as ornamental, or as weeds and have taken over. “Invasive” isn’t just a description opposite of “native”. It also describes how species react to the environment, actively beating out weaker species eventually creating a non-diverse monoculture. Plants like honeysuckle and buckthorn actively poison the soil around themselves preventing competition. We know that moving into the future there will have to be “a small army of caretakers” to prevent the recurrence of noxious species, but our main goal is to encourage diversity in the space. When we are done, it won’t be wild-natural, it will be man-made-natural, but at least it will be a healthy ecosystem. A living landscape, whether planned or wild, is an inspiration to future generations to have a personal relationship with the Earth and all her inhabitants.

  • Eric, the continuity of loving relationships tied to a particular piece of land is wonderful–it’s a great tradition.

    As a child in San Diego, Balboa Park was an enormous spread, encompassing a replica of the Old Globe theatre, several anthropological museums, garden rooms, an arboretum with a huge rectangular koi pond, as well as an Air & Space Museum. As the land around it fell away into canyons, tame lost its grip.

    In the late 60’s “nature preserves” were enclosed. My father’s reaction was to complain about rising property taxes, but I remember catching tadpoles in a creek in an undevelopable ravine.

    In the Bay Area, we have lots of wide open public preserves, some could be developed, but most are for hiking, camping, and great views. I remember hearing a caller on radio saying that areas of Golden Gate Park should be razed and low-cost housing put in. He showed little understanding of the realities: were the City to do that, it would not be low-cost land, as residences surrounding parks seldom are, and taking away open spaces to crowd more people into a small addition is a great way to watch people becoming rats in an experiment on crowding. Without that pressure valve of open space parks in a world of cramped living space, it seems crime goes up and mental health goes down.

  • Lupa

    Thing is, we *are* nature. We never stopped being nature, and the divide we perceive between “us” and “nature” serves only to further the problem of us feeling distanced from the rest of nature. Yes, we as a species have managed to shift and change and even destroy part of the world to an unprecedented degree, surpassed primarily by even greater forces like asteroid collisions, massive volcanic eruptions, and the like. But we are still doing so as the human animal, the mammal, the ape with opposable thumbs and a really big brain.

    When we idealize wilderness as “nature” and think every else is lesser, we are perpetuating the very thing that got us into this mess in the first place: seeing ourselves as apart from other living beings. Granted, the motivation is “we’re too awful to be near REAL nature” rather than “we’re better than that lowly, earthly nature stuff”, but the effect is still the same–with enough of that message, we cease engaging, this time out of guilt for our actions instead of denial of our responsibility.

    Don’t get me wrong–I am a strong advocate for wilderness preservation and restoration. A park or a field of wheat cannot support the diversity of life they did before we razed their native species. But the reality now is that, in the U.S. and elsewhere, we’re becoming more urbanized. I am *also* a strong advocate for green cities, and making urban life healthier for everyone who lives there, regardless of economic status, religion, physical limitations, etc. And part of that includes maintaining safe, green parks that are accessible to everyone, not just those willing and able to go hiking up rocky trails or kayaking down a whitewater river. We can, of course, supplement these with personal backyard habitats that are friendly to what wildlife remains, so the parks aren’t the only refuge. But the city park, when made safe and accessible, is a democratic path to reconnecting with nature. And when people remember that we, too, are nature, we feel not only more kinship with it but more responsibility toward it. Why is it so bad if that reconnection starts on a lush lawn within walking distance instead of a remote mountain lake? It’s better than nothing at all, and it’s a *start*.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      I agree; it is a start.

      People just have to make sure it isn’t a destination.

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