Cities, naturally, take great pride in their cultural institutions: art galleries, museums, and theatres whose cavernous halls contrast the compression and density of life outside their front doors.
New York is no exception: there is something sylvan, something “natural” in the transition from bustling 5th Ave. into the more breathable expanse of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The courtyard in the gallery’s American Wing calls to mind an old-growth forest, lit by a changing sky, with an understory of sculptures and statues. Here one cannot help but wonder if city builders were compensating for a previous lack of restraint–by enclosing this essence, this abstracted memory of wilderness, indoors.
Naturalistic metaphors are equally ubiquitous in written and spoken descriptions of the city. The subway is often described as a “circulatory system” that distributes its passengers through a network of “veins, arteries and capillaries.” Foot traffic on a rush-hour Midtown sidewalk evokes a river current, and throughout the city sculptures, signs, graffiti, monuments and statues conjure visions of any number of plants, animals and wild landscapes.
I smile, and breathe deeply, every time I see one.
Shadows of wildness, of course, are not enough. Many New Yorkers will never experience the wildness to which these naturalistic metaphors refer, and when we rely on imagery to keep a spirit alive we risk accepting the imitation as a passable substitute for reality.
I sense more hope than delusion, however, in the persistence of biological imagery here. Wild-minded New Yorkers continually find ways to resist this city’s layers of abstraction, construction, insulation and artificiality.
I have long believed wildness to be a basic human need. But I never expected to find such compelling evidence on the streets of New York. It makes sense, though: wildness is human, and New York has humans to spare.
New Yorkers, individually and collectively, are undeniably and archetypically wild, capable of acting with courage, restraint and creativity to preserve and celebrate their more-than-human surroundings.