Living Nature, Not Dull Art

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To me, spring means the following: Palm Sunday, Easter, and fat, frisky robbins; irises, crocus, forsythia and daffodils; mud, intermittent sun, and end-of winter snowstorms.

For NPS seasonals, spring is also “hiring season”–that fateful time of year when re-hires are hailed back to parks they’ve known and loved, and new hires must choose among competing offers, often in opposite corners of the country.

This used to be the time of year when I’d send in my paperwork and sign on for another summer in Yellowstone. I’d swap winter gear (Nomex and fire boots) for summer (greens and grays; well-beaten hikers), relax and travel for a month, then hop on a Greyhound headed West, fully content with my portable, migratory lifestyle.

The three-day journey was just the first in a series of return rituals. Through the lens of early-season excitement, bureaucratic details became ceremonies of sorts: collecting my new ID card (same photo, different year), signing out keys, learning my radio call sign. I couldn’t wait to check in with staff I hadn’t seen since the previous September; each had tales to tell, about ski seasons or winter terms at other parks. How glorious it was to reconnect with each friendly face, and how heartbreaking to learn that so-and-so hadn’t come back to the park this season, or worse.

As soon as I could, I’d get out into the park, eager to sink back into familiar terrain.

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Yellowstone in late spring is voluptuous: swollen rivers; baby antelope, bears, and bison; and un-glutted, tourist-free roads.

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For a few weeks, the foothills between Gardiner and Mammoth shimmer in a bright Irish green–so green that come golden June or brown-baked August, you won’t believe such a green ever existed.

But in Yellowstone, spring melts fast and predictably into summer; fireweed drops pink petals; bison calves bronze their red baby-coats; and seasonal terms inevitably meet their ends. Labor Day ALWAYS comes too soon.

After the 2013 summer season I left the Park Service to go to graduate school. I never regretted the decision–school helped me to stitch and merge, to scrutinize and build meaning from the strands of my nascent conservation career. But I never expected that the move would take me so far away from the park life, for so long. My wedding and honeymoon, summer classes, and thesis-writing all got in the way of my regular seasonal-swing.

My husband and I landed in New York City last fall, transplanted here by virtue of his shiny new job, and I found myself in full-on wailing mourning. I disguised it (poorly) as wailing happiness over his hard-earned job success, after a trying search and a drawn-out immigration process. We’re seven months in now, and I still haven’t shed my bitterness over the fact that New York is not Montana, Utah, Washington, Oregon, or Idaho. I am well-versed in the business of loving place and have tried, rather lovingly, to love this city for who and what it is, but I haven’t been able to purge a certain low-level baseline of regret and longing.

Like many New Yorkers, right now I’m juggling two jobs: as a cashier in an outdoors/adventure-sport store, and a grantwriter and general assistant at a budding eco-arts organization. In the first, I deal with (and envy) adventure-minded customers who are gearing up for the sort of trips that once consumed my weekends: climbs, treks, day-hikes, car-camps and long stretches in the backcountry.

In the second job, I deal more abstractly with my guiding ideals, drilling away at the gruntwork which will one day undergird art shows, competitions, and workshops featuring works on a range of environmental themes.

Our organization is rooted in a small office in midtown Manhattan, near Theatre Row in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. One afternoon last week, seeking perspective and clarity-of-wording, I headed up to the building’s roof for some fresh air and a pause. I looked down over a sea of iconic Broadway play-houses: the Hirschfeld, Golden, Jacob, Schoenfeld–the grand-daddies of musical theatre, steeped in sweat and etched by half a century of toe-taps and prances across the stage, clustered into two city blocks.

While “nature” has been painfully absent (or stretched or abstracted) from this chapter of my life, “art” has been resplendently present, and I’ve done some pondering about that relationship as it affects both myself and the world.

Absent meaningful quantities of wild “nature,” I have salved my soul–for the time being–with art. I’ve spent a night with Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera, and visited Chagall and Picasso at the Met, MoMa, and Guggenheim. I attended two major international contemporary art shows and have poked around a pair of whimsical public sculpture gardens. Never before have I experienced this level of artistic density or pervasiveness.

I can understand how art might successfully fill an emotional void for an individual when and where “nature” is lacking. Humans look for many of the same things in both “art” and “nature”– beauty, peace, reflection, purpose, a better understanding of the human or more-than-human condition. We seek expansion, and escape from the city-life that so often compresses us.

Critic A.O. Scott, author of the recent text Better Living Through Criticism, notes that humans don’t yet have the vocabulary or precise psychological understanding to describe what happens to a person when he or she encounters a work of art, a thing of aesthetic beauty. Could it be that a person reacts–emotionally and physiologically–to art the same way he or she reacts to the living sea? Or, are the reactions at least close enough that I might drug myself with art when I can’t access a more biotic font of inspiration?

My own answer to this Aristotlean question is: No. Art cannot supplant living, breathing nature. Art can lift me up, and can deepen my faith in human spirit and creativity (important, in a city that gives me plenty of reasons to feel otherwise.) But I can’t go on like this forever. New York City shouldn’t have to, either. And the ecosystemic, biospherical implications of such a switch–art sufficiently replacing “nature,” where nature has been trampled and suffocated–are terrifying.

Visit New York City this summer and you’ll find me back in green and gray. This week I’m wading through a small but delightful pile of NPS job offers, all at posts in or near the urban jungle my husband and I call home–for now. Rangering in the wilds of New York City will be a far cry from my epic Yellowstonian summers, but I’ll take it. The place, the feeling, the experience will be different, but the mission will be the same: to harness the not-so-dull art of story, in service to living nature.

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Photo: NPS.

 

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3 thoughts on “Living Nature, Not Dull Art

  1. John’s family lives on Long Island and during our visit last winter we managed to find a few gems of wilderness on the island’s sea of development. I hope Jamaica Bay will be your oasis and refuge.

    Like

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