On a trip through the high Sierras John Muir came upon a particularly lovely glen with a river running through it. He climbed a large boulder in the river, which he likened to an altar. After musing upon the power of spring floods to move boulders he rhapsodized about moss, the clear pool, blossoming lilies and light coming through overarching leaves. “The place seemed Holy,” he concluded, “where one might hope to see God.”1
Muir was hardly the first to equate nature with holiness. His descriptions of wilderness experiences often bordered on spiritual ecstasy and yet they were paired with keen phenomenological observations and precise taxonomic identification of plants and animals he encountered. Muir clearly was comfortable blending empirical science with personal theology. His rigorously analytical mind was open to mysticism.
I recently picked up a volume of Muir’s writing, thinking it was time for me to revisit his perspective on nature. I’d been asked to talk about the spiritual component of my urban wilderness escapades. It was not the first such request I’d received and, like Muir, I recognize and welcome the spiritual dimension of my own examinations of nature, urban and otherwise.
When I first began to explore the Menomonee River for my book, Urban Wilderness, my impulse was analytical and documentary. My episodic travels would take me nowhere that hadn’t been thoroughly mapped as well as completely altered by hundreds of years of human activity. Nevertheless, in a very real sense it was a journey of discovery. Among the many surprises of that endeavor was the spiritual presence I felt in undeniably compromised remnants of nature.
No matter where I went in the watershed I could find pockets of blessed tranquility, whether a grove of stately trees, a marshy oxbow in the river, or a sunny meadow enlivened with a chorus of birdsong.
Unlike Muir’s, my wilderness has been interwoven inextricably with an urban fabric. My spiritual experiences may not have been quite as ecstatic as his, but they are no less real. I discovered that I didn’t have to travel to the high Sierras to encounter the sublime or to consider nature sacred. As I wandered along the rivers I did occasionally have to ignore the sounds of traffic from a freeway somewhere out of sight. However, this was not only possible but became an essential element of my spiritual practice. Muir, undisturbed by the mosquitoes in his wilderness, said, “Imagination gives us the sweet music of tiniest insect wings….”2
Now, however, the request to speak of the spirit inherent in my artistic practice made me pause. Fifteen years ago, when I “discovered” the Menomonee Valley it truly was an urban wilderness. It’s wild state and my imagination enabled me to savor the sublime. Today, I find those same places transformed and “civilized.” In my role as resident artist in the Menomonee Valley, I suddenly realized, I had relinquished the very wildness that had first attracted me there.
The original Valley environment, a broad marsh of wild rice, had been first trampled, then tamed and, finally, abandoned by human industry. Wildlife had gradually re-inhabited the vacated landscape. In the shadows of viaducts a forest grew up around crumbling buildings. Coyotes prowled through meadows of wildflowers. A peregrine falcon perched atop a disused chimney, terrifying songbirds in the bushes below. Ironically, of all the places I visited in the watershed, the unlikeliest, the industrial valley, was among the wildest. That wildness was both muse and spiritual touchstone. This was my Sierra!
Fifteen years after my first explorations of it the Valley is in the midst of yet another transformation. The forest has been trimmed to a riparian fringe. A conventionally landscaped industrial park has replaced the meadows. The newly created parklands and the rehabilitated river are lovely, of course. They also are vital and inspiring. But only with an exceedingly generous imagination can they be called wild. Reluctantly, when describing the Menomonee Valley I now resist the term, “urban wilderness” that so motivated my earlier artistic practice.
But, in the absence of wildness, what has become of the spiritual dimension of my practice? In the current issue of Orion magazine Paul Kingsnorth wrestles with the same question: “On wild hilltops…I have pulled at the edges of some great force that seems way beyond me, a force that seems embedded in the world itself; the wild world of beauty and complexity and dark magic that my kind are busy destroying and replacing with a culture of future-worship and straight lines. If anything is sacred…surely it is this thing we call ‘nature.’”3
Of all places in Milwaukee the Menomonee Valley arguably has suffered the most from this tendency to replace a wild and fertile nature with the straight lines of mechanized “civilization.” Clearly, the chance to experience a sublime version of wild nature, in the tradition of Muir, is now more remote. And yet, I am not discouraged. Far from it!
The Valley no longer is a wild rice marsh, but neither is it the unrelieved industrial zone that replaced that marsh. More importantly, I believe, we citizens of Milwaukee no longer are the people who tore down the limestone bluffs to crush the marsh. We are beginning to envision a city where industry and nature can coexist. Not only here in Milwaukee, but across the globe, we are part of a nascent but burgeoning movement, a shift in thinking away from the binary either/or of wilderness vs. civilization. We see a “third way” of integrating the two.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy New York City has been forced to grapple with the need for an integrated approach to rebuilding. In the same issue of Orion Meera Subramanian asserts, “It seems increasingly clear that there may be a third way: an approach that blends a trace of conciliation with an abundance of creativity, using hints from the ecological past to design the coastlines of the future.”4
You don’t need a hurricane-ravaged coast to appreciate the wisdom of this new approach. Hints from our ecological past and, yes, an abundance of creativity have informed the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley. What has made this new transformation possible is as old as the origins of human culture: a concern for community.
In modern Western culture the human community, beginning with its so-called “Enlightenment,” has been led away from natural communities. The separation of humankind and “nature” was always artificial. No, the ecologies of cities and of forests are not comparable, but at its core ecology teaches the importance of interconnections. Although Western cultural tradition led us unilaterally to disassociate ourselves from nature—with tragic and global consequences for both sides of the equation—we can never really sever the human from the natural. Global climate change is teaching us that human communities are not sustainable without reintegration with the ecological community.
Have I digressed from my theme of finding something spiritual in my work? Not at all. Like a voyage of discovery, a spiritual quest veers in directions dictated by winds of contingency and circumstance, rather than a predetermined plan. Just as my earlier exploration of the Menomonee River watershed led to unforeseen spiritual insights, so too has this new endeavor. I too am “pulled at the edges of some great force that seems way beyond me.” But the windswept hilltops where I feel this power are not wild but bulldozed into shape, engineered by imagination and human agency.
That great force is embedded in the faces of the people; people who care deeply about this place. Some of them are visionaries boldly determined to create a future worth worshiping. Others are newcomers to the Valley, welcomed into it by the latest transformation. In their eyes I see the marvel of discovery: that the straight lines of civilization can intersect with the lyrical curves of nature.
And so my spiritual quest turns full circle; my faith in the human community complements and deepens my enchantment with the earth. The sacredness of nature isn’t diminished when we recognize our own worth. If anything is sacred, surely it is this thing we call ‘human.’
Science and industry have granted us the power to shape the world in ways previous generations couldn’t imagine. But in order to wield that power for the benefit of the community it takes a human heart and human spirit. As with the coastal modifications being done along the Long Island shore, the transformation underway in the Menomonee Valley integrates the human community with a restored natural environment. Urban, economic redevelopment is complemented with sensitivity to ecological systems.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a Beloved Community “in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.”5 People yearn for that inclusive and joyful community, consciously or not. In the Menomonee Valley there is a conscious attempt to create it. That community is not only visionary, it is sacred.
1. Muir: Nature Writings, 1997.
2. The Wilderness World of John Muir, 2001
3. Kingsnorth, Orion Mar/Apr 2014
The two photos at the top are from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, Center for American Places, 2008. The other three are Adam, Laura and Omar: 2014.