For the past eight and a half years of my life, I have been living abroad in an Asian city of about nine million people. Upon returning home, I did not experience the usual reverse culture shock, except in regards to the breadth of the Canadian sky. There is something about the Ottawa summer sky that is so clear, so blue, and so wonderfully vast, that even with the presence of the usually puffy clouds, I felt overwhelmed. It was as if the heavens themselves were pressing down on me. After all, for almost nine years, my view of the sky had been mainly limited to the narrow gaps of periwinkle seen between and reflected by towering skyscrapers of a Chinese city.
Asia, overcrowded with massive populations totaling at least one-fifth of the entire globe’s population (if not more), hoards people within an increasingly vertical cityscape – an urban sprawl completely devoid of personally owned lots or homes… And I didn’t mind it so much, feeling that I was, after all, very much a city girl. However, not everyone benefits from a city lifestyle, and the movement from rural to urban which continues to this day around the world may challenge us and our notions of the good life and what role nature plays in human experience. Our commonly held narrative of the progress of mankind (from simple culture to complex civilization) with and through the attendant development(s) of/within technology, urbanization, and industrialization are often mediated through and identified with the binary spaces of rural and urban. However, I would argue that these spaces, when critiqued and theologized must be approached carefully in order to offer alternative interpretations of the human experience with the Divine as well as the characterization of the Divine itself. By looking at the movements of humanity from rural to urban and back, we can trace a path of understanding regarding what it means to be human and what the goal of humankind may entail.
The first stage, which I will call the Medieval Stage, encapsulates the history of humanity up to and including the medieval times (and the Renaissance, to a certain extent, as well) – up to the 1600s, at the latest. Moving from foraging and pastoral lifestyles to agricultural forms of living complete with villages, towns, and cities, mankind built fortifications as protection against the as yet unconquered environment. During this time, political and social upheaval around the globe as well as natural disasters encouraged mankind to fortify himself against very physical, yet personal danger. City schemas at this time incorporated protection for the rich and powerful in particular with some space set aside for protecting the lower masses. However, these protections were limited; much of the poor were marginalized to the outer limits of the city or outer limits of the lord’s fiefdom – placed in the fields to work. Gates within cities were porous at times, which allowed for some limited rich-poor interaction, yet for the most part, the poor were left to handle Nature’s whimsical dictates while the rich huddled in their houses and castles. Nature at this point in time was seen as untamed and wild and so barriers were raised to protect mankind against the wilderness of nature.
We can see examples of this very segregated view in early literature such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the mead hall or Camelot respectively are seen as bastions of human community and social/cultural development while the outside world is filled with monsters (Grendel) or the Unknown (the Green Knight).
The poet of Beowulf describes the hall:
“It burned in his spirit
To urge his folk to found a great building,
A mead-hall grander than men of the era
He is eager to build a great hall in which he may feast his retainers
Ever had heard of, and in it to share
With young and old all of the blessings
The Lord had allowed him, save life and retainers.
Then the work I find afar was assigned
To many races in middle-earth’s regions,
To adorn the great folk-hall. In due time it happened
Early ’mong men, that ’twas finished entirely,
The greatest of hall-buildings; Heorot he named it
The hall is completed, and is called Heort, or Heorot.
Who wide-reaching word-sway wielded ’mong earlmen.
His promise he brake not, rings he lavished,
Treasure at banquet. Towered the hall up
High and horn-crested, huge between antlers:
It battle-waves bided, the blasting fire-demon;
Ere long then from hottest hatred must sword-wrath
Arise for a woman’s husband and father” (l. 15-32)
However, despite being a monument to human ingenuity and culture, this hall is invaded by an evil spirit – Grendel.
“this horrible stranger2
Was Grendel entitled, the march-stepper famous
Who3 dwelt in the moor-fens, the marsh and the fastness;
The wan-mooded being abode for a season
In the land of the giants, when the Lord and Creator
Had banned him and branded. For that bitter murder,
The killing of Abel, all-ruling Father
Cain is referred to as a progenitor of Grendel, and of monsters in general.
The kindred of Cain crushed with His vengeance;
In the feud He rejoiced not, but far away drove him
From kindred and kind, that crime to atone for,
Meter of Justice.”
So, not only does Grendel get linked to Cain, he is also an abandoned, socially marginalized person/monster whose domain is that of the outside world – within the dark version of Nature.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Arthur and the Round Table are celebrating in their hall.
“These were worthily served on the daïs, and at the lower tables sat many valiant knights. Then they bare the first course with the blast of trumpets and waving of banners, with the sound of drums and pipes, of song and lute, that many a heart was uplifted at the melody. Many were the dainties, and rare the meats, so great was the plenty they might scarce find room on the board to set on the dishes. Each helped himself as he liked best, and to each two were twelve dishes, with great plenty of beer and wine.” [Translation, original below in Original Works, Section 1]
And then the Green Knight enters and challenges them.
“As the sound of the music ceased, and the first course had been fitly served, there came in at the hall door one terrible to behold, of stature greater than any on earth; from neck to loin so strong and thickly made, and with limbs so long and so great that he seemed even as a giant. And yet he was but a man, only the mightiest that might mount a steed; broad of chest and shoulders and slender of waist, and all his features of like fashion; but men marvelled much at his colour, for he rode even as a knight, yet was green all over.” [Translation, original below in Original Works, Section 2]
Both of these classic examples show the tempestuous relationship between man and Nature, how civilization and culture were part of the process of man’s dominion over land, and how, from without, a threat lies to challenge man’s development. These medieval perceptions of nature, we must understand, stem from the fact that Europe was heavily wooded for great periods of time leading up to the 1400s. These great forests posed a threat to villagers and travelers alike. According to my medieval professor, the Vikings metaphorized the unknown quality of life before birth and after death as being similar to that of a swallow flying into and out of a longhouse or barn. Darkness and uncertainty lie at either end; all that we can know is the bright lit areas that are our lives.
This correlation of darkness and the Unknown Outside to the forces of nature continued in other forms of literature classics which revisited Medieval Models of Man-Nature Relationships. Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia in the Hall of Meduseld, the city of Gondor, Helms Deep, Cair Paravel, Miraz’s Castle, and Tashbaan, show medieval archetypes of man’s civilization and authority versus the uncertainty of the wildernesses that surround them. Even in children’s literature, such as The Secret Garden and The Enchanted Castle, explore wonderfully complex medieval schemas of man-made and natural spaces. I would argue that Tolkien, Lewis, Burnett, and Nesbitt all complicate notions of Nature as unknown and dangerous within medieval settings because they, as products of the Industrial Revolution, were coming to grips with the dangers of absolute human control over the environment.
The second stage, which I will call the Modern Stage, encapsulates the Industrial (and Scientific) Revolution up to and including the 40s, maybe as late as the 50s. Moving from simple agricultural forms of living complete with villages, towns, and cities to industrial and service based economies with increasingly great metropolises, mankind removed most physical fortifications due to increasing control over the environment. During this time, political and social upheaval continued (arguably increased) as danger became a purview of semi-controllable, long-distance, impersonal attacks – planes, bombs, etc. Natural disasters continued, but science and technology appeared to be able to allow for better and more efficacious response times. City schemas at this time revolved around highly developed “downtowns”, where commerce and the market flourished. The outer rim of the city was (seemingly naturally) segregated into sections dividing the classes (upper, middle, and lower) with a humanist, progressivist aim to end poverty, increase life expectancy, and aid humanity in general. However, although factories and business did bring people of a variety of class and races together, porous interactions within the urban led to opportunism (from both sides), crime, and an investment in materialist principles. Nature, in the process of being fully conquered through scientific understanding and technological advancement, was seen as a resource which should be harnessed. Europe, now mostly denuded of its forest, was particularly seen as advanced versus other colonies around the world (the Americas, parts of Asia, Africa, and Australia), which were seen as the last vestiges of Nature’s hold. As a result, nature, now domesticated, became a sacralized space similar to Eden; while the city became the new source of danger.
We can see examples of coming to grips with the world of the city and the world of nature in Dickens’s narratives, like Oliver Twist, whose eponymous protagonist becomes entangled in the corrupt urban and is rescued within the natural countryside.
The urban versus rural landscape and the metaphors they provide for sanity, purity, and progress is very clear in Oliver Twist, which you may read in detail in this blog post I wrote recently. I would say that Dickens stands on the cusp of Modern and Postmodern in that he definitely calls into question the progressivism of human culture as represented by the urban. Yet, I would also argue that Oliver’s salvation does not come from untamed Nature, but the domesticated Nature of the English countryside which has once again become inhabited by upper and middle classes. As I wrote in my blog, “The Uncanny Landscape”:
“We are introduced to London initially in Chapter 8, which comprises of Oliver’s escape from the Sowerberrys to the city. The first description of the area to which Oliver is introduced does not present itself well. “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy; and the air was impregnated with filthy odours” (47). It continues on to describe not only the environment but the people who dwell therein, equally foul and unwanted. Although Brownlow walks these same streets (in Chapter 10), there are places the gentleman either is not acquainted with or does not recognize, such as Fagin’s contact on Field Lane (153). This portrayal links to a later representation of the city as a labyrinth (92), a maze of darkness which is only one step, one corner, away from respectability. On a more immediate level, homes and houses within this precarious world are also represented as corrupt or uncertain. The first deathbed Oliver visits with Mr. Sowerberry shows the architectural disintegration of the city (and social welfare), as the houses are described as “insecure from age and decay”, “crazy dens”, “stagnant and filthy”, and “putrefying in its rottenness” (30). Fagin’s house likewise portrays a darkness that is both physical and metaphorical, highlighting how Fagin’s deeds, ambitions, and machinations are cloaked in shadow. Fagin’s house is repeatedly described as being dark or not being well lit (48, 160). Oliver notes that “that a long time ago, before the old Jew was born, it had belonged to better people, and had perhaps been quite gay and handsome: dismal and dreary as it looked now” (108). Dickens appears to be noting how the desperate living of the lower classes were physically exemplified in the city in the form of abysmal street and housing conditions.” I then juxtapose Oliver’s experiences in the city to that of the countryside. “Although the countryside through the atmospheric conditions of weather and the emotional conditions of particular scenes render the familiar unfamiliar (and thereby invoking the uncanny) on occasion (171-172); in general, the suburban life of the middle-class is painted in very good terms. Brownlow’s study is quite homey – “a little back room, quite full of books: with a window, looking into some pleasant little gardens” (80). Dickens rhapsodizes about middle-class life when describing Oliver’s stay at the Maylies’ house: “Who can describe the pleasure and delight: the peace of mind and soft tranquility: the sickly boy felt in the balmy air, and among the green hills and rich woods, of an inland village!” (198). Chapter 32 through 33 describes a kind of paradisiacal home, where Oliver has his own small room and a study nook as well. His study nook is described as “quite a cottage-room, with a lattice-window: around which were clusters of jessamine and honeysuckle, that crept over the casement, and filled the place with their delicious perfume. […] the prospect it commanded was very extensive” (213). This extensiveness of view combined with the natural, sweet perfumes of flowers is a direct contrast to the repeated “narrowness” of streets and houses in London which are odorous as well. It is no surprise then that Oliver flourishes emotionally and mentally as well as physically (199-200, 212-213).”
This classical example shows the way in which the urban plays a part in and reveals the processes of advancement AND corruption within society. Nature may hold a capacity for uncertainty (the uncanny landscape during the post-robbery chase in Oliver Twist), but it also remains a site for healing and purity. The modern perceptions of the natural process of man’s development most likely has roots within humanism, which began with the Greeks and Romans, was rediscovered in the Renaissance, and found its height (and depths) in the Enlightenment (and ensuing French Revolution). From this idea of man’s progress came other rationalist, materialist, and secularist ideas as theorized by Paine, Rousseau, Darwin, and Freud. As humans began to discover cures and create a better life through the increase of conveniences, it is no wonder that people began to find it easier to believe that man was moving from simple to complex – and that the subjugation of Earth (Biblically supported as well) was inevitable and desirable.
The exploration of the urban gothic, the sacralized natural space, the quiet threat of marginal nature, and the exploration of human identity in terms of conquering and corruption can be seen in many writers, even to this day. Canadian author, Susannah Moodie, explored the push-pull of civilization and the wilderness in Roughing It in the Bush. In Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the spoiling of the Shire is a lesson about how industrialism destroys the beautiful simplicity of agricultural, communal societies – and how those natural communal spaces may be reclaimed. Other famous novels, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, explore the effect of the material urban life on its inhabitants – how moral corruption is hidden within the upper and middle classes as much as it proliferates in the criminal underworld. Even modern day dystopians, like the Blade Runner series (the original and 2049), link technology to a new form of human experience, which is complicated by marginalization and isolation through/despite the advancements of technology. Therefore, I would argue that despite the popularity of progressivist ideologies, the World Wars (and other ensuing wars and the revelation of Communist genocide, as well as Nietzsche’s horrific revelation regarding God’s death) brought progressivism and human exceptionalism into question as well as the effect of materialism on human experience.
The third stage, which I will call the Postmodern Stage, encapsulates the 40s and 50s up until today. Moving from an industry-focused economy to primarily service and technology based economies with even more increasingly great metropolises, cities have become more porous and sprawling. During this time, political and social upheaval continues with danger (physical or long-distance) being more centered on major city centers in the West (acts of terrorism, bombs, school shootings, etc). City schemas at this time have become increasingly decentralized, where commerce and the market flourish in fragmentations as the middle zone of the city has become the new fragmented downtown. In some cases, the disintegration of the downtown areas become quite extreme, having lost funding for development or succumbing to less “productive” interests (ghetto or criminal elements). For other “successful” cities (like New York), the downtown of the city becomes a place for city image to propagate – a site for commerce and consumerism at higher economic levels. The outer rim of the city now sprawling into the countryside creates the “suburban” lifestyle that promotes a “return to nature”. Factories, now dismantled or abandoned, have moved overseas, allowing for the West to recover or preserve large parts of Nature. Nature, now seen as fully conquered through scientific understanding and technological advancement (apart from the occasional hurricane, tsunami, or earthquake), is seen as something to be preserved, cultivated, and carefully harnessed with long-term stability in mind. Only the backwoods of certain American states and the northern reaches of Canada’s southern provinces provide any real sense of danger or vulnerability for the human as technology and science increases their dominion over the physical world through roads, automobiles, and the internet. In response, the countryside, seen as free from crime, quiet, peaceful, “natural”, and healthy, has become a new site to which the rich/aspiring rich retire.
Roots for this stage began in earnest during the Modern Stage as poets and writers pushed back against the excesses and exploitations of the Industrial Revolution. The Romantic Movement, formed from poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake sought a return to nature a source of social and spiritual renew. Wordsworth’s famous poem “I Wander Lonely as a Cloud” is a great example with the last stanza saying:
“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”
Other Christian poets, like the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, finds within nature (and mankind) a form of God’s divinity. In “As kingfishers catch fire”, he suggests the divine nature of God within his Creation (both man, animal, plant, and man’s secondary creations) ought to reveal itself to us and so prompt us to treat each other and the world with more love and respect. Surprisingly, this movement toward nature was noted on in popular literature as well. I found Agathe Christie’s mystery story Sparkling Cyanide (or Remembered Death) to be an interesting peek into how and why the rich shifted from the ancient seats of safety to the outer world of nature. An observation is made of Ruth, the secretary: “Ruth also in black with no ornament save one jewelled clip. Her raven black hair smooth and lying close to her head, her neck and arms very white – whiter than those of the other women. Ruth was a working girl, she had no long leisured ease in which to acquire sun tan” (135). In other words, health and leisure activity is related to being outdoors and enjoying nature.
Both of these examples show the interconnectedness of Man and Nature. Although civilization, culture, and industry promised better life for humankind through the processes of controlling the external world and expanding man’s knowledge, in the end, Nature revealed itself to be integral to a healthy human experience of life. Surrounded by the sludge and smog of mankind’s “progress”, it is no wonder that people began to question the efficacy of technology as a primary mediator for human experience. Tolkien, one such writer, grew up in Birmingham (a manufacturing city), and watched with horror as the city swallowed up the natural world about it. He is said to have grieved over the loss of trees in particular – and his fears for the natural world were aptly brought to life by Jackson’s scene of the ruination of Isengard at the hands of the industrial-minded, corrupt Saruman.
The connection of health with nature is the primary reason for the movement of the affluent back to the countryside and Nature. We can see this in simple pop culture images: Daredevil‘s Fisk and The Defender‘s Alexander are posed in gardens, talking and strategizing, and both are linked to “high” culture – art and music, respectively. In the 2017 Ghost in the Shell remake, the Major discovers that she used to belong to (what essentially amounted to) Luddite group which lived in a wild part of the futuristic city, in a pagoda next to a large tree. The antagonist, a rich CEO, ends up dying in his jungle garden. Aeon Flux‘s setting, a kind of dystopia/utopia, appears to be a perfect blend of nature and urban, but just as the nature is a product of over-control, so too is the human experience within Bregna. In retrospect, then, one can see how evil and danger, for large parts of human history, appeared to exist outside the agency or purview of humanity – as it manifested itself through nature. Nature still shows itself capable of bringing mankind to its knees as seen by the horrific (and long-lasting) effects of the Honshuu-Sendai Earthquake of 2011; however, despite his attempt at control over the dangers of Nature, humanity came to realize that evil and danger could also reside and grow from within – from within human effort for progress.
Yeats’s poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, symptomatic of much of his poetry, finds spirituality and restoration in nature. As aforementioned, Hopkins’s poetry, a little more nuanced, supplements Yeats’s ideas with the concept of finding God in humanity and nature itself, particularly in his work “As kingfishers catch fire”. These poems bring us to the great question: what can a Christian find the urban, the rural, and the movements between the two? Is the rural pure nature – a picture of God where we can feel closer to Him? Or is He to be found in the urban spaces as well? I would argue for both.
God in Nature is a primal force within human life, history, and personal experience. This is not the essence of God in a pantheistic sense, but seeing Nature as another canvas for God’s personality to shine forth. Scientifically and artistically, as I gaze at the natural world, whether it be a flower, an ant colony, or a supermassive black hole, I am amazed at the complexity and design of it all… and looking beyond, I understand that God is loving, orderly, rational, and terrifying. How can the same person who made a butterfly also allow for pulsars? These powerful moments, I believe, are touched upon most openly in what we call the Books of Poetry and Wisdom.
“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs,
its strength and its graceful form.
13 Who can strip off its outer coat?
Who can penetrate its double coat of armor[b]?
14 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
ringed about with fearsome teeth?
15 Its back has[c] rows of shields
tightly sealed together;
16 each is so close to the next
that no air can pass between.
17 They are joined fast to one another;
they cling together and cannot be parted.
18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
22 Strength resides in its neck;
dismay goes before it.
23 The folds of its flesh are tightly joined;
they are firm and immovable.
24 Its chest is hard as rock,
hard as a lower millstone.
Of course, quite a few songwriters have picked up on these forms of praise, my favorite being Ortega’s “Creation Song”.
“He wraps Himself in light
As with a garment,
He spreads out the heavens
And walks on the wings of the wind.
He sends forth the springs
From the valleys
They flow between mountains.
The birds of the air dwell
By the waters,
Lifting their voices in song.”
It is no wonder then that writers and poets have always pictured Eden as a garden. God, after all, expressed Himself through the creation of the world. Yet, his final and most special act of creation was forming man out of the dust and breathing into him a different kind of being.
In this sense, God in Man is a particularly special force within our lives. Secondary creation, Tolkien suggested, pointed toward God (Tree and Leaf). In this sense, our art, our communities, our economic structures, our architecture in their basic essences point to something of the Divine. It is, of course, not perfect, but neither is it unnatural. In a sense, cities are a form of development and progress which God had instilled in us at the beginning when He commanded Adam to have dominion over the Earth. Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1 states:
15 Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. 16 The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. 18 As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. 19 When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
Although many people have viewed Ezekiel’s vision as metaphorical, I always wondered if perhaps he was attempting to describe something that does exist. If the cherubim and seraphim are in fact real, then their workings and connections to movement, etc, as well as multiple references in Revelation to a various sites which are constructed of incredibly constructed with a variety of materials including diamond, crystal, and gems. These kinds of visions point to a sense of God Himself as the ultimate (organic) technician with as much capacity for technology (microchips and all) as we are. There is nothing that we have created that is a surprise to Him. In the same way we smile with pride at our children as they learn how to draw wobbly circles or read aloud, I think God is proud of what we have discovered, even if sin has destroyed the motivations, aims, and exploitations of such knowledge and accomplishments.
That being said, I would argue that dichotomizing the urban and the rural as being either good or bad is dangerous because both speak to an understanding not only of ourselves and our places within the cosmos – as both being vulnerable wayfarers and knowledgeable dominioneers, but also of how God’s Personhood is made manifest in multiple ways.
“Þise were di3t on þe des, & derworþly serued,
& siþen mony siker segge at þe sidborde3.
Þen þe first cors come with crakkyng of trumpes,
Wyth mony baner ful bry3t, þat þer-bi henged,
Nwe nakryn noyse with þe noble pipes,
Wylde werbles & wy3t wakned lote,
Þat mony hert ful hi3e hef at her towches;
Dayntes dryuen þer-wyth of ful dere metes,
Foysoun of þe fresche, & on so fele disches,
Þat pine to fynde þe place þe peple bi-forne
For to sette þe syluener,1 þat sere sewes halden,
Iche lede as he loued hym-selue
Þer laght with-outen loþe,
Each two had dishes twelve,
Ay two had disches twelue,
good beer and bright wine both.
Good ber, & bry3t wyn boþe.” (l. 116-129)
“For vneþe wat3 þe noyce not a whyle sesed,
& þe fyrst cource in þe court kyndely serued,
Þer hales in at þe halle dor an aghlich mayster,
On þe most on þe molde on mesure hyghe;
Fro þe swyre to þe swange so sware & so þik,
& his lyndes & his lymes so longe & so grete,
Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were.
Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,
& þat þe myriest in his muckel þat my3t ride;
For of bak & of brest al were his bodi sturne,
Bot his wombe & his wast were worthily smale,
& alle his fetures fol3ande, in forme þat he hade,
For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
& ouer-al enker grene.” (134-150)
Anonymous. Beowulf. Gutenberg, 2018.
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gutenberg, 2018.
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by .
Christie, Agathe. Sparkling Cyanide. Ed: designed by Correy. HarperCollins Publishers, 1945.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Penguin Books, 2002.
“Ezekiel 1.” The Bible. The Bible Gateway, 2018.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “As kingfishers catch fire.” Poetry Foundation, 2018.
“Job 41.” The Bible. The Bible Gateway, 2018.
Naeem, Muhammed. “The Romantic Movement as a ‘Return to Nature’”. NeoEnglishSystem, 2010.
Ortega, Fernando. Creation Song. FlashLyrics, 2018.
“Wordsworth”. Poetry Foundation, 2018.
Wordsworth, William. “I Wander Lonely as a Cloud.” Poetry Foundation, 2018.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Poetry Foundation, 2018.