Cities, nature & the sacred.

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An opinion piece by Len Puglisi.

Nature is being lambasted these ‘disaster-ridden’ days as ‘cruel’. But the geologian, the late Thomas Berry, in the decades before his death in 2009, had tried to move our perception of nature quite a few notches on when he spoke about the ‘sacred universe’.

Of course, nature just is, and, in seeing it as sacred, Berry(with others) has tried to open our eyes to a profound way of looking at it. His way would invite us to understand the ever-unfolding action of the universe as providing people with religious-like intimations of wonder, beauty, and healing power.

For those of us who are city-dwellers, in many ways detached from seeing the manifestations of the universe on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that what we’re seeing on TV and in the newspapers leaves us with fear, and perhaps anger, at the mighty forces being unleashed. ‘Tame it’, build up sea walls and other defences, are our immediate reactions. But, understandable as these approaches are, they tell us that we are not seeing the world around us in anything like the grand perspective it presents.

Speaking with a long-term historical insight into civilizations, Berry (together with his co-author, Brian Swimme) spoke of how “earlier, we were concerned with our own limited area. We withdrew from the major forces of life into the realm of our own limited controls … with (a neglect of) our relation tp the planet Earth, and with the entire natural order that constitutes the larger self of our own being”. (The Universe Story 1992)

Now, as our population numbers increase, our consumption levels appear unbounded, and our technologies can extend our control over the material world in ever-more amazing ways, the question we must ask ourselves is can humans flourish, survive even, separated from that “larger self of our own being”? For, with most city-dwellers, that’s what’s being asked of us.

Recently, I read a sale note for a new apartment development, a prize-winning project. The spiel celebrated the development’s nature features. The place was fitted out using ‘natural products’ (timber), a barbecue area, and recreational spaces (grass, small plantings), and, of course, there’s the sky above and views across to similar developments (intruded upon, no doubt, by the rooftop signage displayed more and more by multi-national companies on high-rise buildings). Good on them for providing some useable outdoor areas – many developments don’t even have this much green space available for occupants. But the place will be tended by contracted gardeners, and the owners will not be expected to participate, merely to enjoy the (expensive) benefits to which their affluence has ‘entitled’ them.

No wonder Berry would write, “Because we live in a human-made world, the challenge is how to keep … immediacy with the natural world, and to establish a traditional wisdom that deepens our understanding of the experience.” (The Sacred Universe 2001, p147.)

It is continually repeated that our only city development choice nowadays is whether to build up or build out – high density or sprawl. That’s because, it is said, we have to face the ‘inevitability’ of large population growth, a questionable proposition in itself. But, whatever we choose to do from our urban options, to lose sight of the nature dimension could be to miss the wealth of spiritual and physical benefits that intimacy with the unfolding universe story offers us.

Sure, the debate can continue about the best ways to build sustainably (energy efficiencies, climate, light, water-saving techniques, waste management, local food production opportunities, reducing vehicle miles travelled, and so on).

But there’s room for a spiritual dialogue about cities, not just an economic and technological one.

If we lose the ‘immediacy of experience’ with the rest of creation (seen as God’s work by religionists, or ‘living nature’, according to unbeliever Edward O Wilson), because we have no place for its ‘cruel forces’ in our lives, expect that humanity will be the poorer.

This article first appeared in Borderlands Cooperative’s New Community Quarterly (v9 No1 Issue 33 Autumn 2011), and is reproduced here with kind permission of A (Len) Puglisi, urban environmental writer, formerly urban planner and solicitor, 1 Balmoral Court, Burwood East 3151, 03 9803 8216 (other referenced articles on request).

Photo Welcome new light by AlicePopkorn, flickr cc.
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