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Modern society is moving further and further away from greenery, with forests and parks obscured behind ...
2021-03-25 09:00:00
healthy living

All That Green Stuff
On Nature, Cities, and Ourselves

Illustration by Basia M. (based on a drawing by John Tenniel)
All That Green Stuff
All That Green Stuff

Perhaps what we call nature today isn’t nature after all? Let’s take a look at the intricate relationships between the city, the forest and ourselves.

Read in 8 minutes

“What can all that green stuff be?” asked Lewis Carroll’s Alice, as she dreamed a familiar dream, in which she looked down on the world, her neck lengthening unexpectedly. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published during the Second Industrial Revolution, when the sense of departure from nature was yet to come and was still a distant dream. What can we – living through the fourth revolution, an era in which glass and plastic separate us not only from greenery, but also from other people – dream of today?

“‘Come, my head’s free at last!’ said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment, when she found that her shoulders were nowhere to be found: all she could see when she looked down, was an immense length of neck, which seemed to rise like a stalk out of a sea of green leaves that lay far below her.” In her dream, again and again, Alice experiences such revelations and fears. At one point, she is too small to climb onto a table, and then too large to walk through a door and free herself from inside a house. “Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope!” thinks Alice when she cannot squeeze into the garden – the loveliest garden you could see.

By drinking various potions and nibbling on mushrooms and suspicious cookies, Alice tries to find her place in that strange world and survive its dimensions, hostile to a human child. The feeling of not fitting in – the unpleasant aspect of Alice’s journey – does not go away, and her dream soon became important beyond fiction. At least for us, the descendants of those who, sometime in the mid-19th century, began to rapidly grow out of all that green stuff.

Down the glass hole

Carroll’s book was published in 1865. At the time when Alice found herself down the rabbit hole, Parisians had been walking down the arcades for at least three decades. The essayist and social visionary Walter Benjamin wrote about those glass corridors – or ‘glass streets’, glued to tenement houses where goods were displayed in a way art had once been displayed – that they were the most important symbol of the impending dream.

Yes, dream. For Benjamin, this ‘dream’ was modernity – with its phantasmal craving for objects and goods quickly gripping the citizens of all world capitals. The glass shop window became the symbol of the new era. Modern man is born into a world in front of and behind the glass – ambiguous, simultaneously open and closed, like a dream lacking a background and an entry point. (“It struck me as odd that I had often gone past this amazing haunt without ever noticing the entrance,” writes Charles Baudelaire about one of the arcades in The Generous Gambler). When we look at a shop window, we simultaneously see objects and ourselves – we see ourselves among a sea of things.

This is why in the Arcades Project – one of the finest works ever written on modernity – Benjamin describes the 19th century as a time when societies began to fall into a growing illusion – a kind of an inward look, a turn towards one’s inner self. The shop window and the mirror are important artefacts of that era. People began to move away from – as Benjamin noticed – what they had grown up with and previously valued, even if they hadn’t noticed that value before, i.e. their relationships with others and with nature (which was still mostly understood as food back then); relationships that helped them not only endure difficult living conditions, but also allowed them to move beyond their own interests.

These human and non-human relationships lost to the illusion, as well as the overlooked capital (in which, unfortunately, no-one wanted to invest in the expanding cities of that era), are the other protagonists of Benjamin’s Arcades Project.

Some shop windows

The improving living and travel conditions would gradually destroy the human instinct of creating communities and staying close and caring for nature. The future was exclusively seen as large, clean and solid. It was then that we literally broke away from nature, from the ground. The industrial revolution was on course to reveal its higher powers up in the air. Glass and iron colossi, emerging in large cities from the end of the 19ht century, were visible proof of this. The market hall – as the Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion wrote at the beginning of the 20th century – “obviously keeps to the model of the greenhouse.”

Before his death, Seweryn Baryka, the father of Cezary from Stefan Żeromski’s The Coming Spring, dreamed about glasshouses that would promote purity. When his father tells him how housing in post-war Poland may soon look, Cezary is appalled – he sees them as shop vitrines, rather than homes for real people. On his deathbed, his father fantasizes about how dirty villages could be replaced by glass houses and entire farmhouses, glistening like shop windows. This isn’t surprising, because such dreams spread to many people, not just in literature but also in real life, as early as the mid-19th century and much later (the action of The Coming Spring takes place in the 20th century, mainly during World War I and shortly after).

Inhabitants of capital cities, metropolises and larger towns rose higher and higher. It was increasingly easy for them to move away – literally and metaphorically – from home. Societies became obsessed with speed. The prototype of the iron girders used in the construction of bridges, department stores and houses were in fact – according to Benjamin – railroad tracks. The most important consequences of this were the changing proportions of the world (or at least the urban world). Cities grew at an unprecedented speed. Entire squares were transformed, new boulevards were built, and greenery was rearranged into parks and gardens. Monuments and old structures were demolished. Thanks to Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s 1852–1870 ‘great reconstruction’, Paris gained (among others) sanitary safety, but lost much of its historic, mediaeval buildings.

Seeing my parents struggle with self-service parcel lockers, ticket machines and automated phone services, I can imagine that for many people in the 19th and 20th century, adjusting to an expanding and accelerating world must have been rather difficult. Perhaps they felt as helpless as older generations today feel in the face of advancing technology. But there was no turning back. The impatient, capricious children of the French Revolution and subsequent industrial revolts would change the world forever. And their fears, unconscious dreams, emerging neuroses, and hysteria had to be concealed, pushed away. Where? Down rabbit holes and into dreams and forests, of course.

A turn towards the forest

Soon enough, Sigismund Schlomo Freud, born in 1856 in the Moravian town of Freiberg (today, the Czech Příbor) would take an interest in these dreams and neuroses. It was a real sign of the times that this resolute boy, the child of a wool merchant – or a failing wool merchant, as you can read in Freud’s biography – grew up to be the most famous dream doctor. Rapidly accelerating at the turn of the 20th century, with its booming capitalist economy, the world awaited a specialist in hysteria and the then still incomprehensible obsessions.

It seems paradoxical that Freud’s theories would emerge in a world based upon the values of rational design and organization of reality. Wasn’t the birth of psychoanalysis – the idea that the unconscious (dreams) is the foundation of our ego – a blow to the foundations of capitalist philosophy? A blow to the strength of human conviction that we can indeed control everything; that it’s just a matter of managing workload and labour, planning, and employing the appropriate workforce (and, in fact, a huge exploitation of nature and man). It is interesting that the author of Introduction to Psychoanalysis returns to dark folk tales and myths and also refers to poetry and art. In this way, he looks in the opposite direction to modernity; in the direction that people used to look in the past – towards the forest that, for centuries, had been depicted in tales and legends as the site of fears, dreams and unconscious desires. Modern doctors – Sigmund Freud, and later his student Carl Gustav Jung – searched for the secrets of the human self right there, in the woods.

An illusion

After all, almost all fairy tales begin with someone going into the woods, or a wilderness somewhere far, far away. We go deep into the green (dark green) stuff, although we know the clear boundary between the forest and the home. Even children who learn about the world through fairy tales already know about this difference. The forest is where we lose self-control, where our rational compass goes awry. “What if we never go home?” ask Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Moomintroll’s friend, Sniff. At the same time, the forest is the only place where we can confront our darkest fears. The forest is a kind of mirror that allows us to come face to face with our true self.

I always look with envy and irony at photos of trees (and sometimes entire forests) behind the windows of modern, posh houses. Their living rooms, whether in Vietnam or Poland, are as large as my entire apartment and seem to be built in the middle of the woods – just a thin pane of glass separates them from lush greenery. Of course, it’s hard not to see this as a sign of the owners’ wealth or social status, or at least a holidaymaker’s dream come true. Instagram posts from Anna Lewandowska – a fitness influencer and the wife of one of the most recognizable Polish football players, Robert Lewandowski – depict lush trees and a garden behind the huge windows of her home gym. Seeing them, I am reminded of the illusion that we have been stuck in for at least two centuries. On the one hand, looking at the greenery, we see ourselves as we were many years ago; on the other, the view already seems blurred, distorted by the illusion of online sites, web browser windows, and LCD screens.

Jim, the protagonist of David Vanna’s novel Halibut on the Moon, brings to mind this rupture faced by modern man. At one point in the book, Jim also looks at trees – they are swaying in the raging storm in front of the large window of his therapist’s office:

“Dr. Brown may not actually have a PhD. It’s unclear. What he does have is an enormous wall of glass that looks out to overgrown forest, trees all moving now in the wind. Jim is staring at the storm in close, and then that idea seems like the perfect metaphor for therapy, so he smiles.

‘And what is that smile about?’ Dr Brown asks.

‘You have my head in your backyard. That’s why you have this big window. You know that no one can look at a forest and not see themselves.’”

Well, exactly.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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