Babbling of Green Fields: Nature and the City

Feb 3, 2014 9:19:18 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he looks at the relationship between city and nature.

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I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with

Flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew

There was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as

A pen, and a’babbled of green fields.

- William Shakespeare, “The Life of King Henry the Fifth”, Act 2, Scene 3.

When the roguish and disreputable Sir John Falstaff, an erstwhile friend of the young Henry, dies in a shabby tavern nursed by a bawdy hostess, he departs babbling of green fields and, in so doing, reconnects with a persistent tradition in English sensibility. In death, as in life, nature offers a sanctuary for the troubled soul: a place undisturbed by the restless human busy-ness and noise that Buddhists call Samsara.

Brompton Cemetery
Photo: Brompton Cemetery by Peter Alexanderson

The construction of nature as alternative to the disruptions of society is not, of course, uniquely English. The impulse derives from many sources: most notably, the myth of Eden wherein nature is innocent, uncorrupted and unsullied. The industrial revolution in England offers, however, an example of how those associations became problematic. Industrialization offered a vision of the future in which man’s invention and intervention might create an alternative form of Utopia. The natural world is also not a single or simple place; it is the refuge sought by the dying Sir John but it is also a place of menace and unease (as it was for Hobbes): untamed and inhospitable. The forest is not only a place of innocent beauty; it also contains lurking and imminent dangers (as expressed by unlikely duo of Frank Baum in the “Wizard of Oz” and Dante in the “Inferno” whose “dark wood” was a place of danger and disorientation.)

Urban landscapes represent, in one perspective, the destruction of the natural world but they also offer potential for the development of some idealized version of human progress. In the nineteenth century, however, population growth in cities was inexorable, unplanned and uncontrolled. This created places of filth and misery, suffering and poverty. Inequalities of wealth were more marked in urban concentrations than they had been in rural environments. A consequence was that progressive politics and philanthropy moved towards a focus on the conditions of the poor in cities. The proliferation of agencies formed to address these concerns is notable. In 1866, Thomas Barnardo founded the Ragged School to try and alleviate the suffering of children in East London. Ten years later, responding to the same conditions, William Booth founded the Salvation Army. In 1870, a Danish immigrant, Jacob Riis, was appalled by the suffering on New York’s Lower East Side. He devoted his professional life to raising awareness of that deprivation in photography and print.

Jacob Riis, c. 1900 by Unidentified Artist, Gelatin silver print
Photo: Jacob Riis, c. 1900 by Unidentified Artist, Gelatin silver print by Cliff

Those urban conditions offer an archetypal filter through which the city is seen (as exemplified by Charles Dickens), and dramatically demonstrated in James Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night” (1874):

The City is of Night: perchance of Death

But certainly of Night; for never there

Can come the lucid morning’s fragrant breath

The “fragrant breath” of dawn is not felt in this vision of urban nightmare. For the Romantic poets, exemplified by John Keats, sunrise represented renewal and rebirth, in contrast to Thomson’s dark vision of the city:

…When the morning blesses

Thee for enlivening all the cheerful eyes

That glance so brightly at the sun-rise.

- John Keats, “On Sleep and Poetry” (1884).

Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”, written between 1804 and 1807, is an almost iconic expression of the idea of nature as a sanctuary from the troubled world:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

… oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye…

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Embedded in these sensibilities is a dichotomy between epiphanies of beauty and joy found in nature, and urban disorder and darkness: an archetypal distinction between the world made by God and the world corrupted by man.

NLL Dalston Eastern Curve
Photo: City and nature in London by Sarflondondunc

As I have argued, however, industrialization offered alternative perceptions. Wordsworth, early in the nineteenth century, reconnected with those green fields of which poor Falstaff babbled. At the beginning of that century, however, another set of perceptions stirred and resonated with a new sense of progress. The beginning of each century usually engenders some kind of visionary optimism. The early 1800s were no exception and they offered a challenge to the ways in which we might see the world.

The same poet who embodied a Romantic connection with nature also wrote the following lines, which demonstrate an alternative aesthetic, focused on the city:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

…Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

- William Wordsworth, “Upon Westminster Bridge” (1802).

Instead of seeing the city as a place of deprivation and suffering, Wordsworth indicates that alternate notions of beauty may be found within the streets and avenues constructed by man. This prefigures Oscar Wilde’s late nineteenth century aesthetics in which he takes the contrast between nature and the built environment to characteristic extreme.

Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and dumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects. …If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air… Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure...

- “The Decay of Lying” 1889.

The idea of beauty in nature persists, of course, but co-existent with it, there emerges a sense that that which is built by humans may be at least as inspirational and beautiful.

Westminster Sunset
Photo: Westminster sunset by Megan Trace

In the field of education abroad the focus on cities is not inevitable. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities but urban space occupies only an estimated 2% of the globe’s surface. An urban focus, nevertheless, best aligns with our institutional agenda which aims to connect with the paradoxes and complexities that permeate our world. The city is just such a paradox. It may be that earth has not anything to show more fair than Westminster Bridge; it may also be that in extremis we too will babble of green fields and our hearts will dance with daffodils. Those contradictions permeate the ways in which we think of cities: an intellectual and physical space, which, “fashioned for our use”, is accessible to analysis and exploration: the object of our collective curiosity.

Thanks Mike!