Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I spent the weekend on the south Wairarapa coast with a bunch of friends. On Sunday we came across a dead sperm whale washed up at Whatarangi.

"JB" had been there before us. JB, whoever she or he may be, had seen fit to carve those initials in the thick sunbaked skin of the dead mammal. You may be able to make it out at the bottom of the photo (courtesy Dion Howard, photographer extraordinaire).

JB did not have the same experience standing beside that whale that I did. But how different is JB's world view to mine? Why did JB do this?

Until now only my girlfreind, my parents, the (then) local constable, and a childhood friend knew this: when I was a kid - 8 0r 10 years old maybe - me and a buddy ringbarked some young silver birch trees in a local park. We got nicked and I will be forever ashamed of that act. Ashamed then primarily because we got nicked, ashamed now as I can't believe I didn't appreciate the value of a tree. Why did we do this?

If JB was simply getting down with the whole tagging thing I can see that s/he may have thought "a whale's as good as a wall". By carving on the whale JB was making no lasting physical impact. I took the life of a tree.

My buddy and me were young, and no doubt so is JB. I an early post I wrote of some Cornell University research that found:

If you want your children to grow up to actively care about the environment, give them plenty of time to play in the "wild" before they're 11 years old

I now care, maybe the fact that JB was out "playing" on a remote beach means that s/he will one day care. Or is there something fundamentally different between JB and me? I found myself looking at the whale and feeling an appreciation of the scale of loss. It may have something to do with whales sharing human traits. The dead animal demanded respect.

I've implied that my killing a tree is of less consequence than JB's tagging of a (presumably) dead whale. My implication probably comes from the fact that you can simply rock up to a garden centre and pick up another silver birch plant - it is a commodity. Try picking up sperm whale at your fishmonger - you're not in Iceland now Dr. Ropata.

What prompted JB to "own" a piece of a whale? Is it nature deficit disorder? A simple dis-connect from nature? It's late and I don't know the answer - but it's sure worthy of some thought...


Tom said...

Hmm, interesting thoughts. I consider myself an environmentalist or greenie in many ways (I promote public transport and ESD, argue against urban sprawl etc), but have no desire to actually spend much time in nature. I did lots of tramping and camping when I was a kid, so I don't suffer from "nature deficit disorder", but I'm very much over it now. I'd much rather explore an urban environment of concrete and graffiti than a natural one.

So, I'm quite happy to have what Louv would call "a hyperintellectualized perception of plants and animals based in science rather than myth or religion". I'm able to understand the importance of ecosystems for their own sake, rather than for the visual and sentimental gratification of humans. In my view, it's often the latter sort of people (and I'm not including you among them) who do the damage by believing that suburbia somehow keeps them "in touch with nature" (in the form of a lawn monoculture) compared to the big bad city with all its steel and glass. When they see an apartment block going up, they see an affront to nature: I see several hectares saved from urban sprawl.

Not that the two are incompatible, of course, and I've always believed that there's much more room for nature in the city than most people realise. Waitangi Park wetlands are one example, though it tends to be the suburban "nature lovers" who sneer at them as "swamps", since presumably their idea of nature is more like an English country garden.

As for "nature play stimulat[ing] creativity, wisdom, and wonder", there's something to be said for that, but on the other hand unstructured play doesn't have to mean "being in nature". Jane Jacobs, for instance, has written about the value of urban play, and the streets being a playground. Of course, that all depends upon streets not being dominated by cars!

Guv said...

I agree Tom.

Although I thought the film End of Suburbia was pretty limited, it shows the myopic limitation of planning that reveres an individual "good life" over that of the community.

Your "nature in the city" link (above) recognises that firstly, nature is important in the city, and second, that cities are just that - cities. Your examples are simply instances of where nature works within the city envelope. Suburbia is too often founded on a "promise of nature".

Much like the criticism of estate names in End of Suburbia, in suburbia nature is often faked/usurped and sold to its citizens as real. We are a social animal and (would like to?) develop cities based on that. Green urban space is an important reminder of our human roots in nature. In the city no pretense of "this is not a city" exists. In suburbia it is often a case of "this is suburbia, this is natural."

An interesting illustration of how urban form and "nature play" interact can be found in the French-born sport of parkour.

I'm not sure that parkour instills respect for nature directly, but it is afterall urban play and promotes knowledge of respect for the city. The city which (ideally) acknowledges our natural heritage.

Parkour is an example of how we adapt our activities to our environment. It's also an illustration of the strength of our environment in dictating how we go about our lives.

Build a road and people will drive on it. Build a park and people will play in it.

Tom said...

Parkour is an interesting development, beyond its visual attractions for Madonna videos and Top Gear stunts. I've seen people practising parkour among the concrete and other hard elements at Waitangi Park, at a time when the green field (which critics of the park say should have been larger) was empty. I think that city-raised kids (rather than suburban kids) can more easily see the urban environment as a place for play. By seeing the urban environment as a field of playful possibilities, parkour and skateboarding could be seen as forms of "athletic flanerie".

Catherin Bull has written about The Future City as "New Nature", but I was a bit disappointed in her vision, since while it seeks to break down the urban/nature distinction, it only does so at fairly coarse scales. Wellington's topography and town belts have already done well to preserve relatively wild fingers of nature through the city fabric, but I'd love to see more work on dissolving those boundaries at the level of the building or neighbourhood.

Guv said...

I wonder if parallels can be drawn between "experiencing" a dead whale on a Wairarapa beach and a marine education centre on Wellingtons south coast.

I had an interesting conversation about the marine centre on the weekend. My position was anti - based on the unspoilt viewline of the coast. A friend is pro - on the basis that it will provide education and better use of the coast road. My view has changed (just dont tell him).

Like the town belts are "wild fingers of nature through the city fabric", the marine centre can be seen as "a finger of city fabric through nature".

Appropriate land use? I now think so. The ability for youngsters to get "in touch with nature" will be closer to hand for Wellingtonians.

From an urban form perspective, the already modified area will hopefully gain a structure that humanely introduces the marine environment. Physically and educationally.

Nature and urban form are co-dependant. The marine centre (belatedly) strikes me as a prime example of the conflicts this can give rise to.

Tom said...

It took me a while to make up my mind about it, too. If it were just an aquarium I'd say "build it in the city where people can walk to it and it won't encroach on the countryside", but after reading more about the concept I realised it's not a standard aquarium but relies very much upon being embedded within the environment it refers to. Building it on the CBD waterfront would make as much sense as building the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary's visitor centre in Lambton Quay.

I get the feeling that some of the objectors have a puritan approach to experiencing nature: you have to rough it (or live nearby) to properly appreciate the natural environment, and anything that makes it too easy for casual visitors is to be frowned upon. I'm told that a new bus route will be introduced to service the centre, which should open up the south coast experience for many more people. Personally, I've only been to that coast a couple of times, because I don't have a car and it's a gruelling walk from the nearest bus stop in all but the most clement weather.