Urban Sustainability and Loren Eiseley’s Vision of the City

SUST professor Mike Bryson delivered a talk entitled “The City as Ecosystem: the Science and Poetry of Loren Eiseley’s Urban Landscapes” at the annual conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA), held last week in Milwaukee, WI. The presentation (see slideshow here in pdf format) was based on his recent publication of an essay on Eiseley’s literary representations of urban and suburban environments in the 2012 book, Artifacts and Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley (University of Nebraska Press, ed. by T. Lynch and S. Maher).

Eiseley (1907-1977) was an anthropologist, evolutionary biologist, and one of the most influential scientist-writers of the 20th century who made evolution and ecology accessible to a general audience while dazzling literary critics with his distinctive prose style and provocative poetry. As Bryson writes in his Artifacts and Illuminations essay,

Loren Eiseley used the compelling landscapes of his native Great Plains as well as the arid West as both setting and subject for his poetic yet scientifically rigorous explorations of evolution, natural history, and the human condition.  But Eiseley also mined the urban environment for inspiration as a literary naturalist — particularly New York City, Philadelphia, and his longtime suburban home in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Moreover, the scientist-writer recognized the importance of analyzing the nature close at hand in city and suburb in an rapidly urbanizing world.

As Eiseley noted in the foreword to The Firmament of Time (1960), he wished “to direct the thought of an increasingly urban populace toward nature and the mystery of human emergence” (v) — a goal which one might say applies implicitly to all his work, and which is especially relevant to our current time of rapid urbanization in which over fifty percent of the world’s population now live in cities.

The physical environment and natural history of city and suburb serve multiple (and sometimes conflicting) functions in Eiseley’s prose and poetry. At times Eiseley depicts the city as a dark, fearful wasteland, a place in which the contrast between a benign natural world and an oppressive built environment is rendered in stark terms. In other instances Eiseley finds insight into biological evolution and the human condition in everyday encounters with natural entities — birds, mammals, insects, even windborne seeds — during his urban travels by train or on foot.

In this regard, contact with and awareness of nature in the city becomes an important means of establishing a sense of place and validating the ecological worth of the urban landscape and the organisms therein, however common or marginal the latter may be. Alternatively, Eiseley fashions the city into a powerful metaphor of humanity’s global environmental impact — a potent symbol and unsettling literal expression of the human species’ rampant growth and voracious consumption of natural resources. Yet, Eiseley’s city landscape is also a setting haunted by visions of decay and decline, of a crumbling technological civilization succumbing to the inevitable forces of nature reclaiming dominion.

Eiseley’s evocations of the urban environment thus reveal some of the contradictions and ambiguities our culture maintains about the character of cities. On one hand is the notion of the city as the antithesis of nature, a formulation which creates both an illusion of technology-mediated independence from the natural world as well as a profound yet often unfulfilled longing for contact with wildness within the environmentally-impoverished cityscape.

On the other hand is the ecological recognition that cities and suburbs are all part of a complex urban ecosystem, a dynamic mosaic in which imperiled nature interacts with humans and their built environment. Eiseley’s representations of urban nature and the city landscape not only artfully express these tensions; they also help persuade us that urbanized areas are both important sites of human contact with nature as well as places in which habitat and biodiversity must be harbored and conserved.

To read more about Eiseley and other research projects by Prof. Bryson, visit the Research section of his faculty website.

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