Monday, June 18, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver's Paradox

“What we lose in our great human exodus from the land is a rooted sense, as deep and intangible as religious faith, of why we need to hold on to the wild and beautiful places that once surrounded us. We seem to succumb so easily to the prevailing human tendency to pave such places over, build subdivisions upon them, and name them The Willows, or Peregrine’s Roost, or Elk Meadows, after whatever it was that got killed there. Apparently it’s hard for us humans to doubt, even for a minute, that this program of plunking down our edifices at regular intervals over the entire landmass of the planet is a good idea.”

--Barbara Kingsolver, “Knowing Our Place,” from Small Wonder (New York: HarperCollins, 2002)

It’s hard to disagree with Kingsolver’s sentiment. My problem with her essay is that she characterizes such subdivisions as urban, and that she laments the fact that since 1996, “more than half of all humans live in cities.”

Kingsolver takes the very American position of blaming the city for our loss of wild places. In fact, the people buying those beige McMansions which destroy our wilderness and deplete our farmland are not fleeing the countryside but escaping the city or the older suburbs. They are often looking for something like what Kingsolver already has--a place close to nature. It’s a more sanitized nature than Kingsolver’s but it certainly isn’t urban.

We Americans have distrusted cities for most of our history. We have taken to heart Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman farmer and Jackson’s battle with that most urban gentleman, Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia. H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger, in A Prayer for the City (New York: Random House, 1997), states it eloquently:

“[C]ities were not simply condemned because they were big or ill tuned for the industrial expansion that had seized them. What was wonderful and exciting about them--the spontaneity, the togetherness of the community, the creativity that comes from getting along and not getting along, the endless characters populating the streets, the chaos--never found a natural place in the American soul. The frontier spirit was so intrinsic to the psyche of the country, the creed of individualism and privacy, of staking out your own piece of land and building your own house, hardly lent itself to the culture and spirit of the city… In Europe, it was cities that were valued and the suburbs that were devalued… It was the city that was the source of life, and the idea of being close to one another was not rejected but assumed. In the United States, the opposite prevailed.” (pp 210-211)

During the 1970s and ‘80s, some well-to-do young people moved back to the cities, rehabilitated older houses, and made a name for themselves. We ridiculed them, calling them yuppies, for Young Urban Professionals. And while we said we scorned them for their extravagances, we did not heap the same scorn on the extravagances of the exurbanites. Our problem with the yuppies was that they were urban. To my knowledge there is no disparaging term for the exurbanite.

Which brings us back to Barbara Kingsolver. While she and her family are not typical exurbanites, they are exurbanites nonetheless. They love and cherish the land and its wildness. They make every effort not to harm it. But even though they are careful stewards of the land, I suspect they contribute more to global warming than the average Philadelphian.

When I lived in Philadelphia, I had no need for a car. I could get to work by bus, and a trip to Center City was easily made by combining the bus and the Market-Frankford El. I walked to the local Shop ‘n Bag with a two-wheeled grocery cart. Many people see the automobile as a symbol of freedom, but I found that there was great freedom in not having to depend upon a car.

Granted, many Philadelphians do have cars. But most live in row houses or apartments, and still rely on public transport. Kingsover, at the time of Small Wonder, was living outside Tucson except in the summer, when she lived in a cabin in the Appalachians. In her most recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, (which I have not read) she and her family spent an entire year in the the Appalachians, eating locally-grown foods in season. I suspect they've now gone back to the Arizona/Virginia pattern.

Here in Bloomington I do need a car (I have a 1990 Toyota Corolla), but because I live close to downtown, I use it mainly to and from work (the local bus service here starts too late and ends too early for me to use it on my swing shift) and to make my weekly trip to and from Elkhart. And while I no longer live in a large city, both my residences are in older neighborhoods of small cities.

Barbara Kingsolver’s paradox is this: for her to live her exurban lifestyle, many more of us will have to embrace the city, and to experience nature in parks. The luxury of living in the country--and it is a luxury--can only be possible if more of us assume a more European attitude toward cities. Like Kingsolver, I am deeply troubled by the encroachment of development on our wild places. But for most of us, the way to preserve our wild places is not to live in wilderness but to return to the city.


gerry rosser said...

Whenever people reach some level of fame, notoriety, whatever, they seem to think they are standing at Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit." I see no more reason to regard the opinions of the famous with any more seriousness than those of my neighbors (or theirs).
But the famous are entitled to their opinions.
Ex-urbanization is not an unmixed blessing.

gerry rosser said...

Apparently, Blogger has decided that since I posted as a Blogger blogger for some time, that my posts are going to show up with a link to my old Blogger blog, which I am no longer updating.
Do you know how I can fix that?
I'm at

steve said...

Gerry-I take Kingsolver's views seriously because, in the main, I think she and Steven Hopp, her biologist husband are right about the environment, but wrong to blame the city. And because I've been listening to her recording of Small Wonder, I feel as if I know her personally, and that she's a very decent person. (Her latest book seems to be much more in the genre of T.R.'s "bully pulpit," though I haven't read it.)

I suspect that because you have to sign in with your Blogger I.D., that it's going to refer back to your Blogger page. You probably will need to set up a new Google/Blogger account with a link to your Wordpress site. I've updated your link in my blogroll.

Peter said...

Gerry, I had the same problem. I fixed it by discovering my profile page in Blogger and changing my "homepage URL" to something other than my old Blogger URL. I don't think it was always possible to do that, but I found out last month that I could.

I live in the suburbs and have for many years. It's convenient, but it's like living in Disneyland: I'm living in someone else's dream. Well, more like someone's idea of someone else's dream, since most suburbs are made to look like suburbs now and not like some kind of thought-through community.

My understanding is that architects design very few of the suburban homes. Most of the homes are designed by builders acting like architects -- someone's idea of someone else's dream.

gerry rosser said...

Well, as I said, Ms. Kingsolver, and everybody else famous, is entitle to their opinions. I fervently wish that these luminaries would remember that their views are no more valid than anyone else's.
To the extent urban sprawl destroys habitat (and arable land), reduces wildlife, and does other such stuff, it is bad, I'd agree with that.
I grew up in a rural environment, and never liked living in the central part of a metropolis (as I did for many years in Miami).

steve said...

Peter--I suspect you're right. Most of the "luxury" houses offered on are basically large tract houses. There were some intelligenly planned suburbs after WWII--Park Forest, IL comes to mind, along with Reston, VA. The federal government (under my favorite president, FDR, alas!) created a the system of "redlining" central city neighborhoods in the 1930s, essentially subsidizing the 'burbs by assuring that low-cost FHA-type loans would be not be approved in the cities. Especially in the DC area, it's hard to live in the city unless you're (1)incredibly rich or (2)desperately poor. The middle class need not apply.

Gerry--You may be just a rural type of person. Then again, if American cities were more like European cities (and the government and the corporations didn't stack the deck against them), living in Miami might have been enjoyable

Peter said...

I read about Reston in the "Weekly Reader" in seventh grade, and it seemed a world away. As an adult, I lived in Reston for about ten years. They're still building out the last phase of it: a city-like town center with mixed use. It's well planned.