April 1, 2011: Another piece from the old days at The Valve. I figure if we're going to transform our urban environments, we've got to take ownership of them. And that means we've got to find the beauty in them as they are now. Only then will we be prepared to deal with them rather than wishing them away. I've got a bunch of photos that I've posted under the urban pastoral rubric. Note: Still relevant, August 30, 2017.
It was in graduate school, I believe, that I heard someone refer to Hart Crane as a poet of the “urban pastoral,” referring, I believe to his collection “The Bridge” – which I’ve not read. That was the first time I heard the phrase, “urban pastoral,” and it has stuck in my mind. But it hasn’t done much until the past year when I began wandering my Jersey City neighborhood, camera in hand, in search of wild graffiti.
I photographed the graffiti, of course – lot’s of it – but that’s not all. I photographed other things as well, close-ups of bees and flowers, panoramas of this or that neighborhood view, of the Manhattan skyline from Jersey City, and even sunrises and sunsets. Thus a month and a half ago I blogged “This Jersey City My Prison,” in which I set Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” amid photographs taken in Jersey City.
Coleridge wrote the poem while he was confined to the yard in his cottage in Britain’s fabled lake country. He was feeling sorry for himself because he had to miss a nature walk with his friends. Through identifying with his friend “gentle-hearted Charles!” who had “pined/ And hunger’d after nature, many a year,/ In the great City pent” Coleridge had managed to work himself out of a funk. Coming to a close, Coleridge asserts:
Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty!
I, however, did not post my blog entry from a cottage in the lake country. I posted it from my apartment in Jersey City, a half dozen blocks from the Holland Tunnel, conduit to one of the largest cities in the world, one of a kind Coleridge could not have imagined.
I post my photographs at Flickr.com. One can join groups where people post images of some similar kind. Thus I belong to several graffiti groups, a Jersey City group, a Hudson County (where Jersey city is located) group, and several others. One of then is called “Urban Nature” and describes its theme thus: “The Urban Nature group is for images of nature in an urban context. It could be a tree on a street corner, a houseplant by a window, Central Park or Ueno Koen.” There’s more to it than that, though not enough to indicate that the group is about the celebration of the urban pastoral, but the suggestion is there in the fact that the group is moderated. Photographs must be approved by an administrator or moderator before the become permanently visible. The group currently has over 100,000 photographs posted by over 12,000 members. The group is a bit less than three years old.
I don’t know what those numbers mean as I do not know what is typical of Flickr groups. I am, however, pretty sure that this is one of the larger groups posting to Flickr, probably in the top 10 percent by number of members and photographs, perhaps higher than that. I thus take as indicating significant interest in the urban pastoral as a sensibility.
Googling “urban pastoral” produces some interesting hits, though one has to weed through hits having to do with the clergy, e.g. “Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education.” One finds an essay by one “Donald M. Hassler” on “The Urban Pastoral and Labored Ease of Samuel R. Delany” in a collection of essays, The City in African-American Literature, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler. Then one finds that Dr. Matthew Gandy, of University College London, is running a series of workshops entitled, “From the technological sublime to the urban pastoral: rethinking urban and industrial landscapes:”
The "sublime" and the "pastoral" are two of the most enduring ideas in the history and interpretation of landscape but how do these concepts relate to contemporary urban and industrial landscapes? The idea of the "sublime" has in recent years become a vibrant focus for interdisciplinary debate bringing together insights from architectural theory, art history, film studies, cultural geography and other fields of inquiry. Of particular interest is the use of this term in relation to urban and industrial landscapes where an emphasis on the "technological sublime" has emerged as part of a wider attempt to expand our understanding of landscapes that appear to fall outside of or some case contradict established genres of landscape interpretation. The emerging idea of the "urban pastoral" presents an equally rich set of conceptual themes for consideration and has recently been the focus of a range of critical writings on art, landscape and cultural change.
That seems about right, though I can’t say as I’ve been following any of the discussions he alludes to. Rather, I’ve just been following my camera and find myself in the thick of it.
The top hit, however, to the Amazon entry for Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral, by Charles Siebert. Verlyn Klinkenborg reviewed the book for The New York Times when it came out in 1999 (which also published the first chapter):
To reconnect humans with nature is one thing, but Siebert's enterprise is to reconnect the city with nature. He does this partly through analogy, of course. A man who lives without permission in a tumbledown cabin is not, perhaps, that different from “the man in the house of refuse” who lives on the sidewalk in front of Siebert's Crown Heights apartment building. But Siebert reconnects Wickerby and Brooklyn by taking the long view, the all-encompassing perspective that belonged to his father, the tool-and-die man, a maker of the tools that make other tools and a student of fabrication. Everything Siebert sees, plastic bags caught in trees, cassette tape lying unraveled in the grass, is, after his father's lesson, “earth taken up and pressed against our variously shaped dies to form the parts that suit our briefly passing purposes.”
Siebert's gospel is a synoptic one. It joins man and nature, machine and flesh, city and country in a single vision, which is rooted in an instinctive human ambition.
That seems to me a noble vision, a necessary one, to join “man and nature, machine and flesh, city and country,” though I’m not sure whether that can adequately be done through “instinctive human ambition,” nor for that matter do I know whether Klinkenborg’s reading is adequate to the book, which I have not yet read.
But that’s a quibble. I write this piece only to raise the issue of the urban pastoral, not to present my view of it. It is something I’m thinking about, working with, exploring, and mostly through photography rather than critical commentary.
As a parting gesture, let me suggest that Brad Bird’s Ratatouille is an urban pastoral.