by Erik Baard
I often visit the Newtown Creek by kayak. When sentiment overtakes me and I talk to it, it’s without much expectation, much as with a dying elder who seems insensate.
Its breast rises and falls with the mechanically reliable tides, but that life support won’t return vibrancy to the body at its inland stretches. Those extremities are stilled. Sandy slopes where creatures once skittered and slithered have long-since been replaced by stained retaining walls. Nothing below is attuned to the the muffled sound of my voice, nothing darts from the turbulence of my paddle. The brightness of the sun and moon glints but doesn’t register. It’s an ecosystem in deep coma.
This was once a marshy expanse rich in herbs, grasses, blue fish, striped bass, waterfowl, turtles, and oysters. Small, family farms later flourished, harnessing tides to cleanly turn grain mills. Of the local apples, Thomas Jefferson boastfully wrote from Paris in the 1780s, “They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown pippin.”
Starting in the 19th century, landfill truncated the meandering, sustaining tributaries, erasing all 1.5 miles of its tidal wetlands. Industries including leather tanning, paint production, and metal refining left toxic deposits on the creek bottom; six state superfund sites flank the creek whiles dozens more are contaminated. In the 1950s, Standard Oil (precursor to Exxon-Mobile) spilt at least 17 million gallons of its product underground in a plume that now encompasses 55 acres. Raw sewage and untreated stormwater gushes into the creek at a rate of 2.7 billion gallons per year.
This green heron stood in the backwaters of one of the Newtown Creek’s branches, gingerly perched atop the protruding wood edge of a collapsed pier. The first thing I saw in Bernie Ente’s marvelous photo was the brilliant conversation of colors. But that superficial stimulation yields quickly to sad awareness of the water’s oily sheen and the sulfurous black muck smeared across the balloons’ faces. Certainly sympathy is drawn into those alert yellow eyes. But there’s a broader malaise in a scene like this, a sense of a place where life itself seems irrevocably aggrieved.
Now imagine living next to it. After a time, would you turn away? Would you leave your neighborhood to seek “nature” elsewhere, even if as a tourist?
That shrinking away from one’s own ecosystem is what might be called biodecathection. Decathecting begins the grieving process; we withdraw in anticipation of loss. It’s emotionally self-protective. In the case of a long degradation destined to snuff out a beloved ecosystem, I believe it grows outward from a collection of personal experiences into a cultural meme. It spawns neglect. We abandon corners of our city where riotous wilderness has been hushed to a thready pulse. A corner where the heron surveys the damage.
I came to the idea of biodecathection amidst something of a crisis of faith in one of the most important underpinnings of my volunteer work and hobbies: biophilia, Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson’s insight that humanity is born with a hunger for the very presence of life. Possessing that word let me harness the passion by which I was possessed.
One person who seems quite well-qualified to give biodecathection a sniff test is Stephen Kellert, co-editor, with Wilson, of The Biophilia Hypothesis and author of Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. His recent book, Building for Life, guides readers toward design that integrates biophillic wisdom. I asked point blank if there was merit to this idea.
“I suspect there is. There’s no question in my mind anyway that when environmental systems are degraded there’s a great emotional impact. There’s a kind of grief and one way of dealing is to shut it out, to deny it,” said Kellert, who is the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Social Ecology of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Co-Director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology. “If you have a sort of diagnosis, if you know what the problem is, you might find a remedial approach.”
The “cure” for biodecathection is to take the emotional risk of full engagement in the renaissance of an ecosystem. Muddy hands, grit under the fingernails, sunburned calves, aching shoulders, stiff backs, bug bites. Hours spent in dreaming up solutions to the problem with partners, arguing them out, and passionately advocating for them.
As Kellert said, “Getting people involved in restoration is a powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual event. It can be an incredible act of atonement that’s intensely gratifying.”
It’s also a social event, given the enormity of the challenge. Indeed, ours communities heal with our ecologies. They are one.
It’ll be up to the pros to test the applicability of the biodecathection diagnosis. Many researchers have demonstrated the usefulness of the biophilia concept in the decades since its 1984 introduction in a book of that name. Tapping the human desire to affiliate with other species has made school curricula more compelling, cities more sustainable, parenting more interactive, and homes more comforting. Social psychologist Frances Kuo of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign reported that kids with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder performed better in tests of their concentration after just minimal exposure to greenery. Some children’s advocates have even gone so far as to repackage that label as Nature Deficit Disorder.
Anyone can immediately sense the stress that grows with passing hours in a barren setting, especially one where life once thrived. Lush locales induce the opposite effect. No wonder why resorts pull in billions of dollars to their retreats amidst green mountains and tropical islands.
Unbroken background stress, which can emanate from living in a despoiled environment, can overtime interrupt sleep patterns, exacerbate heart conditions, weaken the immune system, and cause otherwise cause illness. But episodic stress exists for a reason. It drives us to take necessary action. One obvious action to take when scraping by in a challenged ecosystem is to plod on to find a new one, lured by this psychological force of biophilia. Certainly humanity has migrated great distances to settle the planet, and quests for lands of plenty have shaped history. But is that all we’re about – acquiring, fouling the nest, and moving on? As disappointed as I am with our species, I’m not that uncharitable.
I propose that if our intelligence evolved from a need to keep track of complex social networks, then our minds are naturally predisposed to building webs, complex manifestations of order, like ecosystems. “Play” reinforces survival behaviors in all species; I would put art and gardening in that category. The roots of agriculture are here, but only to a point. Intensive monocultures covering thousands of acres don’t bring the same sense of wellbeing as diverse, if smaller, gardens.
Coming tomorrow in Part 2: Healthy skepticism from Majora Carter, and a discussion of what other forces are arrayed against biophilia.