Human Nature

Commentary: In Exile

by Will Doig
Published on December 22, 2005, 12:00am | Comments

The issue of what to do for New Year's Eve is just about here again. As usual, I've got zilch for ideas and, like many people, I'm looking for an exit strategy. I spent last New Year's several blocks from Times Square in a Hell's Kitchen railroad apartment not enjoying various substances with two other people as we watched the celebration on CNN. This year, the tenuous plan is to head for the hills -- the ones in New Hampshire with ski lifts on them. New York's sub-freezing temperatures are a little too mild. We're going for sub-zero temps and about 10 minutes more darkness per night.

I go to New Hampshire a lot. I was partially raised there, in the northern part, in the White Mountains that rise around a town called North Conway. In the summer, I still take trips there to hike up Mount Washington and the rises of Crawford Notch. In the winter, I do as much skiing up there as I can. My dad grew up in the White Mountains before departing for a tiny, never-heard-of state college in the Rockies.

Before I moved to New York, my cousin Trent said that he wouldn't mind living here, except that there's not enough nature to suit his needs. This always struck me as a little odd. Saying you'd like to live in New York except for the lack of nature is like saying you'd prefer to live on a desert island if not for all the sun and the sand. New York is fundamentally not about nature. You could even argue that it's aggressively anti-nature. People spend their time here kicking at pigeons and avoiding any sort of weather at all costs.

My friend Yael, who works at the magazine where I used to work and who grew up on the west side of Manhattan, recently went on a guided hike. She told her guide that she worked for a media outlet.

''The media gives snow a bad reputation,'' the guide said. Yael asked what he meant by that. ''Well, when you turn on the news when it's about to snow, they're always 'warning' you and telling you how awful it's going to be. And then when it does snow, they've got their reporters out there talking about how difficult it's making it for everyone to get to work.''

''But it does make it difficult to get to work,'' said Yael. ''You have to make sure your pants don't drag on the ground because it's all grey with pollution and slush, and no one clears the sidewalks so you need to be careful not to slip, and the drainage doesn't work properly so there's deep puddles everywhere.''

I can see both sides of this debate. Getting to work is a pain in the ass when it snows. The city plows the streets, but no one does anything about the sidewalks in this allegedly pedestrian-based city. You spend the morning at work sopping wet. Often, it floods into the tunnels and slows down the subway. And yet, I can't help but get a little excited every time I hear we're going to get a big Nor'easter. Waking up to big chunks of snow falling from the sky, with several inches already on the ground, to this day my first thought remains, ''Huzzah! No school!'' And even after I realize I have to go to work, I'm still a little giddy.

In that sense, I do feel a little disconnected from this city when it comes to the nature question. When Trent warned me about the lack of nature, I didn't really worry about it. I'd lived in D.C. for years, another urban metropolis. In fact, at first blush, New York seemed to have more nature than D.C.: more parks, more tree-lined streets, and surrounded by water on nearly all sides. I figured it was a lateral move at worst.

But Trent's always smart about this stuff. We had a similar argument when Bush was elected in 2000, with me taking the position that it doesn't really matter who's president and Trent taking the position that we were all royally fucked. As with that prediction, he was correct about New York being the polar opposite of nature. The extra acreage of parkland and the vast rivers flowing along both sides don't help it seem more a part of the earth. It's the towering skyscrapers, the several layers of underground train tunnels and the sweeping broadways of asphalt that play host to a never-ending parade of people that actively bludgeon away the natural world. New York is the only place I've been where the universe beyond exists only if you consciously try to picture it, and when you're standing in midtown, it's tough to see the forest. Or the trees.

The Times ran a piece last weekend about how New York is one of the most energy-efficient places in the country, the reason being necessity -- with such demand, there's simply not enough space to construct more power plants. So apparently, our cabs and buses are going hybrid, our condos solar and our office buildings ''green,'' which is what they call those buildings where the heat is drawn up from the center of the earth and all the toilets flush rainwater.

I think that's cool, and those efforts make me feel a bit more connected to the natural world here. Because we're all stacked on top of each other, we leave a smaller footprint than people in more sprawling towns. Though I'll admit, I'd like to take more opportunities to leave a footprint in something other than the slush on the sidewalk. Leaving one in the dirt more often would be nice. Maybe that'll be my New Year's resolution.


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