When the sun set over Manhattan on July 11, its position in the western sky was neatly aligned with the east/west grid of city streets. Occurring only twice a year, such a celestial configuration generates no small excitement. As the last dazzling rays fell in precise alliance with the asphalt avenues, crowds gathered, traffic stopped, and people congregated to snap photographs in what felt like a spontaneous, festive street carnival.
Judging from the celebratory joy of the occasion, when a man-made environment is — for a moment, at least — in synch with the natural world, I would assume it confers a sense of belonging that runs deep, an exhilaration that is genuine. Manhattanhenge, as it is sometimes called, is being reaffirmed on a primal level. It gives us a sense of place in a concrete-and-glass arena where it's all too easy to feel adrift.
Having a feeling of physical and spatial belonging is profoundly satisfying to most people. Yet too often it seems to be out of reach — one reason, I suspect, that the urban solstice elicits such a deep response.
The detachment many of us feel about where we live is well documented. One in six Americans moves each year. Local newspapers have all but vanished, rural post offices are shuttered, and regional architecture has given way to the generic, with the mom-and-pop store on the corner replaced by a national franchise that could be anywhere. And for all its wonders of bringing people together, communications technology takes us away from where we are now, further diluting our connection to and understanding of it.
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If some kind of cultural evolution has caused us to lose our bearings, I would argue that one reward of age is the skill to rediscover them. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University, concurs that this ability may be something that accrues in us over the years. He notes that many of us live less structured lives in retirement. Whether it is gardening, working on the lawn or just walking, we have more time to get out and connect with our immediate landscape — and we often choose to do so.
In all of these enterprises, the natural world can offer us an anchor. “There is a certain healing power there,” he says. “If I’m walking in the woods and see a branch and fungi that had fallen from a dying tree, I know why it is there. It makes sense. It’s reassuring.”
For me, there are three main ingredients to that kind of belonging. The first is an understanding of nuance and the growing awareness that change usually comes not in huge waves but in increments. Consider the flow of the year: Temperatures rise a few degrees, light lingers a bit longer each day, snowmelt seeps into the ground, the crocuses emerge. Evidence that the earth’s position has shifted comes to us in subtle and minute gradations.
The second component for me is a sense of connectivity. The natural world is a vast ecological network with profound consequences, but I was less attuned to them in my 20s. The invasive vine that grows at the creek near here spreads when its seeds are washed downstream; as the vine proliferates, it strangles the vegetation on the banks; thus a stream bed is eroded, and the flow of water degraded. It is a sequence of small events that have a larger outcome, a tutorial in inevitability. The certainty of cause and effect is grounding.
Nature also offers a constant primer on the theme of continuity. Every spring, Eastern Phoebes return to build their nest in our porch eaves, their two-syllable song now the familiar soundtrack to the season. How is it possible, I wonder, year after year, for these small bits of feather and bone to carry the weight of such instinct?
Their enduring tradition was less apparent to me a decade ago — as my friend Polly says, “You just don’t see all that many birdwatchers under the age of 40.” There is something restorative about witnessing this familiar ritual year after year; such habitual events convey a sense of permanence.
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Nuance, a web of connectivity and continuity reveal the "geography" of home to me and bind me to it. And in understanding them, I learn not only about place but about time.
Nature’s scale attends to the minute and the epic. The wisteria vine at the kitchen door grows 10 feet a year, but the shift of the rock face of the mountain up behind the house occurs in epochs. This is worth noticing because human endeavor and fulfillment are often a matter of seeing things through, whether they take a day or a decade.
Thomas Doherty is a psychologist in Portland, Ore., who works in the emerging field of eco-psychology, the study of those connections between human well-being and the health of the environment. Viewing it from a developmental perspective, he says that the relationship between people and nature begins with the kind of wonder we experience as small children when we gaze at the sky or see the ocean for the first time. After that, it becomes about efficacy: learning and building, climbing trees, building forts, attaining skill in negotiating outdoor space. Later, as teenagers, we are able to confront more abstract issues of the natural world.
Finally, as adults, we begin to view the natural environment as a creative force in “generativity,” that stage of life defined by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson as the period during which we are engaged with creating, building, doing and passing along; progressing from wonder and mastery to abstraction and imagination, we learn that a full engagement with the natural world is an essential component to a fulfilling adult life.
Doherty confirms the fact that an emergent attentiveness to — and appreciation of — the passing of time is a part of this growth. It is difficult to understand deep time — the chronology of the earth, the shifting of its plates and drift of its continents — when you are in your 20s, he says. “But after you’ve raised children, watched trees grow and considered your own mortality, you understand time differently. And then, when you realize that you still may have many years to live, you have a very different perspective.” Once we have witnessed those experiences and events that take generations, we can live with less urgency, less expectation of immediate outcomes and quick fixes.
The good news, Doherty says, is that if you missed out on any of those stages of development, it’s never too late. You can discover wonder when you are older, just as camping or hiking or building a fire outdoors can all be experiences in physical mastery. “The great thing about the baby boom generation is the feeling that if you want to learn something new, you can,” he says. “From a developmental perspective, the knowledge we’ve gained about health, childhood and nature can be employed at any age.”
His words take me back to the urban solstice. The radiant symmetry of architecture and light elicited a kind of marvel that was surely some iteration of childlike wonder. Maybe, then, we arrive at a sense of place through a fascination with the universe sparked in childhood and a deep comprehension of time that we can only know as adults.