As a child who grew up in the Niagara region, the city of Toronto always held an aura of mystery in my imagination. We had the orchards and vineyards, sure, but Toronto was that shimmering mirage of a city you could see across Lake Ontario on clear summer days. It glittered like a jewel in the sun, and at night its thousands of flickering lights danced across the dark waters like beacons from another world.
Of course, once I grew older, visited Toronto and eventually lived there for a year, my fairy tale image of the city all but disappeared. Perhaps such rosy-hued idealism must eventually give way to more realistic views of things, but I still believe that cities can and should be places that arrest us with mystery and expose us to the miraculous as often as possible.
While a skeptic might rightfully say that it's not a matter of what we're looking at so much as it's a matter of how we're looking at it, I'd maintain that there are also real things cities can do — and have done — to foster, rather than stifle, enchantment. But the idea of a city being disenchanted and disenchanting warrants a closer look.
Almost a century ago now, as he wandered through the bustling streets of London, T.S. Eliot wrote: "The nymphs have departed." This line from "The Waste Land," Eliot's "rhythmic grumbling" against modern life speaks to the blasé apathy he believed had infected so many Londoners living under the false assumption that all the mysteries of the natural world could be tidily explained away through reason and science. In addition to this, a rising secularism in Europe was buffering the individual from any belief in a supernatural world; mysteries and miracles were becoming a tough sell.
Eliot's contention, though, is not merely religious or philosophical — at least not entirely. The departure of those spirits of the woods and rivers was also a quite literal comment upon the urban world in which Eliot lived and wrote. The burgeoning metropolises of Paris, London and New York City were expanding into massively complex constructions of steel, iron, concrete and glass that controlled the natural world in ways previously unimaginable. The nymphs, it seems, hadn't merely departed; they'd been sent packing.
In Eliot's time, the metropolis was still a relatively new phenomenon that many were trying to grasp, and one of the recurring observations of the time was that the city was radically reorienting our understanding of the natural world and our interaction with it. The world was not so much a complex system we worked within but a chaotic wilderness we subdued and kept without.
A century later, so many of us have been born into a world where megacities are normative that perhaps we're unaware of how "unnatural" our lives can be. When I moved to Toronto, I lived on the 25th floor of a high-rise apartment complex, commuted via bus and underground rail to the downtown core, where I could climb a staircase that actually brought me right into the building I needed. I could hop on transit for lunch and go to Union Station, where an entire subterranean network of food vendors and shops exists for urban commuters. Most of Toronto's downtown is actually navigable without ever having to step foot outside.
Even outside, though, one walks through a world of gridded street patterns, indifferent to geographical topologies, artificial lamplight dimming the stars, neon signs vying for our attention, and busy roadways not always conducive to pedestrian movement. And as in many areas of the city, there is layer upon layer of concrete, pipework and iron rebar separating us from the topsoil upon which the city was built.
Of course, the city, like most of our technology, buffers us from the world. Just think of socks, for instance. The first thing you do every day is put on your socks and then your feet never actually touch the ground for the rest of the day. Soon they're encased in shoes and remain nicely shielded from the elements until you pull off the shoes, peel off the socks, pick your feet up off the floor and place them back into the bed from which they emerged that morning.
Socks (and the rest of our clothing for that matter) connect us to and disconnect us from the world around us. We might not often think of socks as technology, but if technology is merely the rearrangement of the natural world to create something for human purposes, than socks are as technological as the space shuttle. Each, to varying degrees, mediates our experience of the created world out of which all our technology comes.
But what happens when such buffering is as pervasive as many of our megacities allow it to be? Current statistics indicate that more people now live within megacities such as Toronto than live in small towns or on farms. This is a socio-geographic reality previously unknown in human history, and the repercussions of so many people regularly disconnected from the workings of the natural world are most likely yet unknown. Yet living in the city does not mean one must be so disconnected. If we live in Toronto or Hamilton, we can leave the city and explore the greenbelt and farms that surround it. Or we can increase the incorporation of natural systems into our built environments.
Perhaps these both suggest a naive or romanticized desire to return to some pristine form of rural existence, a pre-technological recovery of that clothes-less (talk about unbuffered) Garden of Eden. In one of the most well-known fictionalized accounts of Eden, Paradise Lost, John Milton truly presents a pre-fallen dwelling that seems to contain the perfect synthesis of natural world and human artifice.
Milton describes Adam and Eve's home in the following lines from Book 4:
Thus talking hand in hand alone they pass'd
On to thir blissful Bower; it was a place
Chos'n by the sovran Planter, when he fram'd
All things to mans delightful use; the roofe
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade
Laurel and Mirtle, and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushie shrub
Fenc'd up the verdant wall; each beauteous flour,
Their constructed home and the living world are perfectly united here. The dwelling is literally rooted to its place, requiring no death of the natural world in its creation. In fact, their home is more of a den or nest than any human structure. Milton's vision certainly merits some critique in its nostalgic longing for an impossible harmony between human construction and the natural order, but his desire to "use" the world in a way that works "with the grain" of natural processes is a principle many urban planners are increasingly aware of.
Yet as the title of the epic indicates, such a paradise is lost to us — perhaps forever — this side of the Fall. We can't build this way nor, as many might rightfully argue, would we want to. For if the Bible tells us anything about the places we build, it's that we're supposed to move from a garden to a city. Right?