My friend Theo recently posted on Facebook:
“It is often said that when humans built cities the wild retreated. That the spirits and gods and peoples who were there were destroyed, or that they left. But what if they didn’t? What if, like us, they just adapted?”
The writer is a city witch, and in a sense, so am I. Initially, I felt the appeal of this sentiment. Humans are part of Nature, right? I want to think there’s a possibility that I can be an integrated part of the natural and spiritual world around me, that I can connect to the Earth, to the elements, to the forces of Nature. But I have to wonder, what is the “wild”? And what I come up with is a kind of negative description. The wild is what is not planned or created by human intervention, and this can come in many different degrees.
I have lived my entire life in cities, but I have been an observer of what is “wild” in my environment, although I wish that when I was young I had paid more attention, particularly to local plants. I would love to be an expert urban forager, but my knowledge is sadly lacking.
My mother loved songbirds, and we always had bird feeders in our yard. We saw robins, finches, sparrows, cardinals, grackles, blue jays, crows, and even the occasional small hawk. Where I live now is a bit denser and more paved over than where I grew up, but we still have pigeons and gulls, as well as the familiar robins and sparrows. Canada geese and ducks show up during certain seasons in nearby parks.
Some creatures do quite well in urban settings. Rats, of course, and pigeons, numerous insects and spiders. We have rabbits and squirrels around all the time where I live, as well as the occasional skunk. A little further into a suburban area, it’s easy to find deer, chipmunks and raccoons.
And of course, there are the weeds. Native and invasive plants show up unbidden in any unattended place. Many of these are beautiful and useful plants, even though there is a cultural imperative to destroy them in favor of even green grass lawns and carefully manicured flowers.
So yes – to some extent, the wild adapts and lives with us, persisting in spite of human efforts to sterilize the ground with tar and asphalt, spray pesticides to get rid of those unwanted residents and visitors.
I think of the spiritual version of the wild as very much like this. Some parts of it may adapt to places dominated by humans. Some parts seem almost tame to us, and we will happily bring them into our lives. Some parts of it can easily live alongside humans and our desire to control the environment. Some can feed off what we throw away. Some are so persistent that they will push up through the cracks in our spiritual pavement to assert themselves in spite of our efforts.
But there is a difference between noticing that the wild is never fully eradicated and embracing and/or cultivating the wild in our world and within ourselves. And neither one of those is the same as leaving a wild place (relatively) undisturbed and left to its own way. If a forested plot that’s full of woodland creatures and spirits is cut down for a new subdivision of “McMansions” with manicured lawns, why would we think that the wildlife or the spirits who lived there would want to adapt to the bland and non-nourishing changes that humans imposed on that environment for their own profit? If a wetland that harbored hundreds of kinds of plants, insects, amphibians, and spirits gets filled in and covered with a parking lot, why would we think that either the wildlife or the spiritual life would stay around to hang out with the parked cars?
Have we, as humans, adapted to our environment, or have we done our best to force our environment to adhere to our desires? We create our interior micro-climates, safe from wind and rain, with temperature and humidity controlled. We keep out the bugs and the mice. We shuttle ourselves between these protected spaces in our air-conditioned cars on road surfaces made unnaturally flat and even. I am guilty of this, too. I may not be able to control the wind and the snow of a Chicago winter, but I can ride it out with minimal outdoor trips, watching Netflix streaming and ordering dinner from GrubHub. This may be a comfortable, unchallenging way for me to live, but does that mean I “adapted”.
To a large extent, I think this is how we avoid, rather than how we adapt. We shut out the weather, we shut out the pests, we open a small window for those poor others who labor away to grow and then deliver our food – but only long enough to grab their products and throw our money at them. And yes – I think that when we shut out the wildness, the natural forces, we also shut out the spiritual forces that exist outside of our human-built controls.
Will most of the spirits of this land, the gods of the Pottawatomi people who were here before us, the ancient presences who lived in the trees and swamps will just sit down on the couch and watch “Stranger Things” and eat Pad Thai with us? I don’t think their goal is to tune out real life, like modern humans do. So much American life has its primary goal to tune out of reality – TV, movies, drinking, drugs, video games, amusement parks, cat videos on social media – these are all escapes, ways to tune out.
If we wish to, we may be able to connect with those spirits if we find some remnants of wild and neglected places in parks, forgotten corners, and vacant lots that nature begins to reclaim. Or we can unplug from our distractions and get away from all of our current built environment to find some of those wild spirits that live outside.