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Getting Ready

This will be a great Day, since Spring Break means I will be ready to record a series of projects that may or may not link directly to teaching and regular research. I did spend all day today editing the working ms. draft of *Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting*, due to Palgrave Macmillan on June 30. At this rate, I’ll make it.

Urbanature: Here is Where I Think Digital Humanities Should Take Us


By Ashton Nichols

We need a new concept, and we need a new word to describe that concept. The new word we need is “urbanature.” The concept this word describes is the idea that nature and urban life are not as distinct as we have long supposed. Here is why.

Hawks are roosting on skyscrapers on Central Park East and Central Park West. Peregrine falcons are feeding on the Flatiron Building, and owls are nesting throughout Manhattan (see urbanhawks.blogs.com). Meanwhile, environmentalists board airplanes and fly thousands of miles carrying tons of Gore-Tex to get “back to nature” in Montana. At the same time, the World Wide Web tells us that Thoreau said “in wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Over 600 websites say so. But Thoreau did not say “in wilderness is the preservation of the world.” He said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world” (my italics). That difference makes all the difference.

Urbanature (rhymes with “furniture”) is the idea that all human and nonhuman life, all animate and inanimate objects on our planet are linked in a complex web of interrelatedness and interconnectedness. We are not out of nature when we stand in the streets of Manhattan any more than we are in nature when we stand above tree-line in the Montana Rockies. When nature-lovers say they long to return to nature, they are making what the philosophers call a category mistake.

As Tyler Stalling has recently noted, “There is no ‘real nature’ to which to return. Rather, in the face of burgeoning technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete” So far, it is only a handful of artists and designers who have invoked the term “urbanature” to describe this link between city-style and wild-style. The time has come, however, to apply this concept all around, from the semi-wild edges of the Sahara and the Himalayas to the ecologically-contiguous villages of the European Alps and the Indian subcontinent.

We are never cut off from wild nature by human culture. This is the central aspect of all true ecology. Nothing we can do can take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. We are natural beings from the moment we are biologically born until the moment we organically die. Instead of describing the nonhuman world anthropocentrically—in human terms—we now have good reasons to describe the whole world ecocentrically [eco-: oikos, house]. Our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home.

The globe is completely mapped and filmed and photographed, down to the last W.M.D. (we hope), down to the smallest street and streambed. With my own computer mouse—and MapQuest or Google Earth on my computer—I can move from Mauritius to Manhattan in a minute, I can spin from the Seychelles to Seattle in a second. I can zoom onto every housetop. I can see almost every car in every parking lot. But this is no problem. This is not a loss. In fact, my ability to scan the surface of the globe in seconds reminds me that I am linked to every natural object and every quantum of energy that surrounds me.

Urbanature includes the biggest of big pictures: birds on buildings, fish in fishponds, chemists making medicines, mountaineers climbing mountains, every dolphin and domestic dog, every gust of solar wind and every galaxy. To be “natural” originally meant “to have been born”: natura—“birth” and also “essence,” as in “the nature of the problem.” The human-made is no less natural because it has been shaped, no less born or essential because it has been fashioned by human hands. The bird makes a nest, and her nest is no less natural than the bird herself. Human hands make a house, no less natural than the human hands that shaped it.

We now know that we share genetic material with chimpanzees and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert human genes into other species. We are genetically related to, and depend upon, countless species in countless ways: gorillas, whales, dogs, fishes, foxgloves, fungi. Where would we be without penicillium, that invisible fungus spore that flew through Alexander Fleming’s window in his London laboratory in 1928 and led to penicillin, a drug that has saved millions of lives? Was Fleming operating in wild nature or in urban culture when he came upon that fungus? He was functioning in both. A purely natural object (the airborne penicillium) landed on a purely cultural production (a Petri dish smeared with agar) and the result was penicillin, a natural product of human culture that has changed life on our planet forever. Urban culture and wild nature come to the same thing. Urbanature.