My wife and I visited Tucson, Arizona recently. Among other reasons, we were there to be in the presence of the famed and fabulous saguaro forests. These all too human-like flora truly fascinate and evoke wonder.
Saguaros provide habitat for flying and crawling critters. They can soak up to 200 gallons of water in one event using their dendritic close-to-surface roots.
In the summer, saguaros produce a fig-like fruit—bounty the Sonoran Desert-dwelling Tohono O’odham Indians gather through skillful wielding of long poles to knock the fruit off the cacti. Most appealingly, with this fruit, the Tohono O’odham make syrup, jam, and wine. Oh yeah.
Intrigued to learn more about these at once familiar and mysterious flora, we stepped into the visitors center at Saguaro National Park (East). The kindly park rangers therein informed us about saguaros lack of tree rings, which makes it hard to tell how old they are, and then guided us in selecting an awesome 4-mile day hike.
Out on the trail, vistas abound. Quiet and solace blanketed the landscape. We chatted with a lady riding by on horseback and discussed some visible peaks with a passing cyclist.
Yet as expected, getting to this beautiful national park required driving. But what struck us most about this southwesterly visit wasn’t the remoteness of the national parks. It was the utter dominance of the automobile throughout Tucson’s urban landscape.
A grid of six lanes highways steamrolled over the human and more-than-human plane. Endless stretches of strip malls, redolent with fast food and banks and drug stores and mattress stores and cash advance places must have kept residents and visitors busy in a sort of dingy, marginal economy.
Stunning mountain ranges embraced the entire valley, yet the valley dwellers found themselves marooned in the most unnatural, hostile, and inhuman terrain—like prisoners grasping toward wilderness through cold jail cell bars.
You couldn’t help but wonder: what’s it like to be impoverished in Tucson? Without access to a car, without ready access to nature?
To right these wrongs, planners might propose a grand redevelopment of the entire valley. These proposals would probably involve urban planning school’s 4 “Ds”: Destinations, Density, Diversity, and Design.
- access to a variety of establishments (destinations);
- high concentrations of housing, office, and retail in an area (density);
- mixed and varied uses of land (diversity); and
- streets and buildings designed for people walking, cycling, or riding transit; you know, “human scale” (design).
Together, the 4 Ds relate to the so-called “built environment.” The modern human-made environment. They further the “man dominates nature” narrative with pretty “managing nature” packaging. The Ds are fine correctives to urban sprawl and auto-centric development.
But limiting the discussion to changing a built environment that only humans enjoy simply advances a “nature as backdrop to the human drama” narrative. Within this narrative, nature in the physical form of water bodies, brambles, forests, deserts, marshes, etc. are entities to be cordoned off, to be protected from the violent march of human “progress.”
There’s one major problem the 4 Ds and progress often don’t address: we humans need nature. We are part of it, and it is part of us. We need nature not on weekend excursions, but constantly. Not simply in the grand form of the national parks or the more modest forms of local, managed parks. We need nature every day, just as we need food and water.
So the 4 Ds are nice, yet insufficient. Vancouver approaches humanity by privileging pedestrians first in the city’s design of urban places. Getting warmer. But let’s truly privilege nature first and foremost. Provide habitat. Think first about human entanglement with nature; then consider people walking, then people cycling.
A few questions to ask ourselves as we embark on a nature-brimmed future:
- How should our leaders facilitate “encounters with the more-than-human other?”
- How can we offer fauna and flora—both large and small—suitable habitat?
- Who will be our modern shamans—those especially attuned and thus in a position to teach us about the nonhuman world? How should we support them?
- What regulations do we need to revisit about going off trail or building lean-tos in our forests?
- How do we ensure that everyone gets to routinely engage with nature?
What stands in the way of more nature in our human settlements? For one, cars and the development and pavement patterns they dictate. Think highways. Think parking lots. So why not demand places and spaces in our settlements that exist without the tyranny of cars? Not accessible by car, not traveled through by car.
Shall we consider providing swaths of linear greenery along waterbodies? What about large, contiguous patches of nature within towns and cities? How can we begin privileging commons over managed parks? Or habitat for amphibian and bird and groundhog and coyote and fox and butterfly? Real habitat.
Let’s forgo the mistakes of Tucson and so many of our tourism-dependent places. Together, let’s re-imagine the “human drama with nature backdrop” narrative into one in which we humans live with and in nature.—a convivial and spirited “getting back to our roots.”Follow SethLaJ307