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Related Categories: U.S. | Environment & Forest Defense
Cradle of Humanity vs. Evolved Out of Nature
by Ryder W. Miller (dolphin1965 [at] hotmail.com)
Saturday Nov 16th, 2019 7:54 AM
The author seeks to contend with and find a remedy for those who argue about what the word Nature means. Some have argued that it means everything. Others point out that we need a separation between technological culture and the wild, so we can preserve a Nature that is different than us. Life experience, different jobs, and writing experiences have inspired the author to find a solution to this debate.
Cradle of Humanity vs. Evolved out of Nature

by Ryder W. Miller

Strange now to see The Long Meadow of Prospect Park, the field directly available from Bartel Prichard Square in Brooklyn, now filled with new baseball fields and closed by fences in the winter.

I remember the broad open field from when I visited the park in my youth. The park was sort of like C.S Lewis’s fantastical Narnia with lamp posts and fire flies. There were also fascinating birds in the park. These things seemed magical to me at the time. There were also the stately old building and bridges which also seemed from an older, deeper time. The Park was a wonderful day away from the city streets of Ditmas, Flatbush, and Midwood. It was like Narnia, though not at a time of adventure, but a place filled with wonder and beauty. A place to relish. Nearby were the stately buildings of the Grand Army Plaza Library and the Brooklyn Museum. There was also the Prospect Park Zoo where one could meet and commune with the other creatures of the planet, we also being confined in a way by this wonderful but also sometimes belligerent planet.

I actually learned of the game Dungeons and Dragons, and played my first adventure, in Park Slope when I was young. I lived later near Brooklyn College and grew interested in genre literature, especially fantasy books partly because of my youthful experiences in the park. I had epiphanies there and years later in outdoor settings. In these fantasy novels from the Inklings, especially J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, there were heroes protecting fantastic places. There were talking animals and trees, friendly birds, animal guides, and wonderful landscapes. There were also bold heroes, more so back then, an age of heroes, some on epic adventures. There were also monsters that were the minions of evil forces. There are some dark things in Nature, but now many of us Natural Historians would argue that they are the results of the same evolutionary forces that created the wonderful things we also see. Evolution is easier to acknowledge for those who have their doubts that what we see still is what has survived. We see not just the winners, but also those things that have been protected because of their aesthetics. Imagine if we lost all the zebras, giraffes, and song birds. In some sense some of the driving force of evolution in our modern framework is that we are protecting what we find beautiful. We also find joy, inspiration, and an ecstasy of sorts in wild and outdoor places.

I searched to understand and seek out more nature experiences by studying biology at SUNY StonyBrook. I did not seek to be a doctor, being more interested in being outside. I might have been better served with a Bachelors of Arts in Biology than a Bachelors of Science in Biology, but I was compelled by the charisma of some the professors I studied under at SUNY early on, many who have authored books in Natural History. There were fascinating things in the wild kingdom and the biological world provided also sorts of wonders for curious explorers. I also did well in those subjects. Alas, I was not destined or interested in being a En Plein Air painter or international wilderness explorer or hunter or fisherman, but after further studies I succeed, at least in my estimation, as an eco-critic, independent scholar, and nature writer, who has a few lessons to share from my experiences.

It is hard to understand what Nature means in New York City. Many do not have access to places elsewhere and cannot go to places far away that are more wild. Many people can’t afford cars. Some in the past like Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) argued that Nature is everything. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) thought there was a difference between the human world and the natural world, and that the world was alive. These folks are not popular thinkers still, they are not contemporary, but the debate still rages. Natural Scientists argue that nature and wilderness is not trammeled by technological culture. To quote a Burning Man slogan and others we “Evolved out of Nature”. Others like Whitehead would argue humankind and space belong in his conception of Nature.

Urban Ecologist may not make it out into the country that much, but we have parks in the city and wild denizens that we can observe, think about, and be inspired by. The East Coast is a fair bit more congested and has a longer history of American occupation than The West, which is sort of a playground for those who venture there. It is compelling, but there are hazards there as well.

In studying Natural Sciences I sought to have more experiences in Nature, but many think that idea has ended. It sure does seem as if Mother Nature, and old traditional deity, maybe a fantastical god of sorts, has sure been angry as of late. There is also the idea of the wild or wilderness to understand. On the web one can easily find the definition that pertains: an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. It is a place that we visit for wonder, but do not stay. The fact that there are trails through parks might make the definition untenable to an extent, but gone on the trails are the buildings and motor vehicles, instead flora and fauna: trees, birds and animals which are settling into ecological connections.

There seems to be something in the air in the parks, maybe plant chemicals, maybe it is being away from civilization and all its sorts and problems. The pleasure of solitude and beauty are worth defending. After my studies in Biology with an emphasis in Ecology and Evolution I went on to gain a summer seasonal position with Gateway National Recreational Area out for some New Yorkers in the hinterlands of Brooklyn and Queens. I was a seasonal Park Ranger at Ecology Village for a season at Floyd Bennet Field. I really enjoyed this position being able to use my education with school groups who visited the garden, the fields, the woods there, and the seashore. There were also overnight campers. It was great being able to talk to the students, some from some very urban areas of the city, into connections with the natural world. There were wild creatures in the wooded areas and by the shore. There were plants with interesting features and some fascinating birds in the area.

When the job was over I heard “The Call of the West”. I had some friends there on the Barbary Coast then that I made as a protestor in the Peace Movement in the years that led to the end of The Cold War, at least for a time. I had already spent a few years living on The West Coast when I was young. I lived in Marin County in California for a year, and small town outside of Portland, Oregon, for two years. I had to walk down the hill on a path to school every day. There was also a creek which one could swim in during the summers. During the winter the trails was a winter wonderland. This is before we moved back to New York and I went to Hudde Junior High School. I thought I could go west because I had been there before. I was also young, restless, and adventurous.

Moving back to New York City was tough, especially some of the tough urban places there, but I was busy with school and later Dungeons and Dragons, being the Dungeon Master instead of a boyfriend. I did well in sciences, even went to Midwood High School which had a Pre Med program, but I was interested in the outdoors and the literature that left an impression upon me, especially memorable were John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities and Emile Zola’s Germinal. In my free time I was on to genre literature, especially science fiction and fantasy. Earlier C.S. Lewis and then Tolkien who became a favorite. Here were stories of defending wild and beautiful places. Also too many science fiction books to mention here. I do think the medical field, bless them for many reasons, and some others in this regard, did hurt the Environmental Field by thinking less of people who cared about animals. It was a way to downplay activism by saying they were “people who cared about animals”. We do need to take care of ourselves also, but the Environmental Field grew out of Preservationism which also protected the wild creatures one can find there. The Field lost some credibility in this and that is part of the reason it is going to be much harder to combat Global Warming and ocean sea level rise. Our way of life is going to have to change here on the coast. People, industry, sometimes the arts also, sometimes like to blame the environmental messengers, case in point last year (2018) with no An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017) from former Vice President Al Gore as a Best Documentary runner up as an Oscar contender. He reminds again that we are not listening to the earth, again, clearly at our own peril.

I dropped my interested in genre fiction and Dungeons and Dragons during my studies at StonyBrook for who late in that academic career I studied directly with Professors and wrote a Natural History column for the alternative college newspaper: The StonyBrook Press. Natural Sciences taught me that Nature, by which we usually mean wilderness, is a place left untrammeled by people. I was not a survivalist. Nor did I want to test myself by living in the wild, but the study of wild places was fascinating, and interesting things happened there between living things. I was inspired by John McPhee’s Encounter with the ArchDruid. He wrote of David Brower, which I read in a Creative Non Fiction writing course at The Brook. Nature was separate and needed to be protected. It needed staunch defenders.

I was later to be thrown a curve ball to this when I found an interesting book at a library in California that changed my life again. The Animals Among Us, Wildlife in the City (1978) by John McLoughlin told fascinating tales about some of the wildlife that lived in The City. He pointed out that not everybody could get out of the city to see wildlife. I was especially intrigued by the stories about Pigeons, Starlings, and House or English Sparrows, that are abundant in most cities, and were introduced to this country. Their relations with humankind started back in The Old Country. Most people don’t find birds disagreeable, but these sometimes. One can find all three in New York City and many other cities. Years later, after qualifying studies at community college, where I think I met the qualifications to meet a degree in the arts, I would write in a poem (my given name also gave me literary cache and a destiny) called “Limper” that I wondered how I did not know their stories despite a degree in natural sciences. I could not take the Ornithology course I wanted as a undergraduate, but those courses tend to frown on these birds which were not native to this country. Their stories and plight needed to be considered individually, and sometimes locally. They were introduced here and without natural predators did very well here. They were pushy and competitive though and some bird species were out competed by them. Pigeons some even wrote were “rats with wings” or even no longer birds. They were studied though by Darwin, and were bred for a variety of reasons. They also had a fascinating history with us with stories that went back to the old country. The ancient Egyptians had dovecote culture and would release Pigeons to the four directions during some ceremonies. Pigeons were bred and were unstoppable messengers during war time. Called Rock Pigeons cities seemed to suit them fine. Mozart owned a starling. They were introduce here because they were mentioned by William Shakespeare. English or House Sparrows adapted to living in farming communities and became very successful in cities which had green elements.

Some ornithologists hated them, but I disagreed, being a “renegade” birder to an extent thinking that these were the birds that people encountered in cities and that one could start the process that led to the appreciation of birds with many people with them. They also made the city less drab. I was not ready to pursue this until graduate school years later, but first came a stint at Alcatraz. I got another seasonal position on The Rock, Alcatraz, which was part of The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a wonderful part of San Francisco and The Bay Area. This park was very much a part of The City, not being at the outskirts, but rather a bit more accessible. A Park Ranger hat looked more commonplace in The West than in NYC. The West is a vacation place with remaining natural wonders, compared with The East which is more mired in politics, hard history, and hard international affairs. People visited The West to go to parks and walk on the trails and see wildlife. They think of the westerns and The Barbary Coast. There is the seashore with marine mammals that one can see. Here Nature was protected and revered. People also had a greater interest in the ocean there and there was more concern about sea level rise and off shore drilling. The Pacific is a natural treasure and if they are not drilling for oil there already, than why start now and ruin it.

There was also more interest in pets in San Francisco, named after the Patron Saint of animals Saint Francis. One could move to San Francisco just to explore their relationship with the urban wild kingdom. The city also has seen a lot of newcomers already and often they know already what to expect and how to react. Don’t assume you are smarter, especially with people who have seen your kind before. I moved to San Francisco to work for the National Park Service and was dealt a hard lesson on The Rock. Alcatraz is controversial and told of a controversial chapter in American history which was almost like a Revolution in itself. Prohibition divided the country, but not as bad as the congested Civil War in the east. Some of those public enemies were sent to The Rock which supported an interesting assemblage of nesting birds, but the visitors were there to hear about the famous penitentiary, learn about the military barracks that were part of a triangle defense of The Bay, the Native American occupation, Al Capone, and The Bird Man. I had too much of a sense of humor about such things, could get angry and talk back, and really belonged out in wild some place.

Since I did not drive a car my options with The National Park Service were limited. You also have to be a bit rugged to be a Park Ranger because you needed to order people around when necessary. They were Paramilitary and fought fires also. One thing to remember for those studying for such things is that the competition for jobs, at jobs, and who controls what is being said, does not end in school. Sadly it can be a very competitive world and being smart means something different, it has a competitive component, than being intelligent. We need more of the later in the world at large. That said, visiting Natural Parks were some of the highlights of my life. Thanks though to family who took me to some of these awesome parks. In San Francisco I could easily get to the seashore and Marin county. These visits for me became an activity, rather than events.

In San Francisco I later held temporary jobs, worked in public opinion and market research, helped a relative, and tried to get into graduate school. I also wrote for community newspapers covering the Environmental and science beat for publications, but I was more qualified to write about the parks, urban wildlife, and The California Academy of Sciences (which has an aquarium, natural history museum, and planetarium), than pollution. There were still opportunities to get to some of the “wild” islands there, but without a car one was restricted. Eventually I was accepted to study Environmental Education and Curriculum at the California State University at Hayward. It was across the bay, but the program offered a chance for advancement. I was light hearted, but not care free and I would probably fit better there. They also has some wonderful and fascinating classes that I could take. I was an Urban Ecologist again still trying to sort out my opinions of nature. San Francisco likes Animal Right’s with there also being some great bird life to observe in The City.

For many years I covered the Annual Audubon Society Christmas Day Bird Count where many of the local birds were counted. It was also an interesting time of year to find out about the local trends of recent years. I though was surprised to find that Starlings, House or English Sparrows, and Pigeons, were not among the birds that were counted. These are the birds that made their homes in our altered environment. They were “wild” to an extent that it would take a concerted effort to effect them. In cities they are not usually causing problems. I still thought people needed to know their story. In graduated school, where I also got to learn about Multicultural Education, Educational Psychology, and other things, I also got to finally take an Ornithology Class, but these birds were not especially popular here. I also was interested in Documentary Making and wanted to learn how to communicate in a partly visual medium. I also took a science writing course nearby at UC Berkeley with a then famous science and astronomy writer who I could brag about in such circles. I though decided to take on the subject of urban birds for my Master’s Project which was a student documentary based on The Animals Among Us. Here were birds that were not allowed to compete and not usually offered any protection. They also had stories with humankind that would fascinate. I produced a documentary and justified it in a thesis. I would still like to have it produced professionally with me as the researcher and writer. I decided to graduate. I wrote a piece for a local environmental magazine about it. Nature to me was everything now, including people and urban wildlife. Most San Franciscans with cars though would drive beyond public transportation to more remote places to take their walks in more remote parks. I did not get the rides I would have liked.

I later got a promotion in Market Research and Public Opinion Research. I also went back to community college to learn about some subjects I was still interested in like more journalism, creative writing, sociology, and the arts. These studies qualified me for a degree in the arts if not a Community College degree in General Studies. If only I went to Brooklyn College which had a Core Curriculum which might have satisfied me. I did get a lot of mileage though from some the electives at SUNY, CSU, and City College of San Francisco. The world is so diverse that it is hard not to be a lifelong student.

My thinking about Nature was about to change again. I lucked out after more time as a telephone Interviewer to get a job at an Aquarium, Underwater World, where I worked with the public and talked with them about sea life. It was my third job as an Interpreter. Marine Sciences is different that Biology and Environmental Education, but there is some overlap. I got an education in Marine Biology at the Aquarium and was later to report and write about the local seashore of some of the near shore environs. There is a lot of information that one can learn about sea life, but I had perspectives as an Environmental Educator as well as someone who studied Ecology and Evolution. There were fascinating things to think about and connections to explore and share with visitors. I was there for almost three years and fell in love to extent with fish who are also not considered part of the Nature we seek to protect. I later stopped eating them and tried to get others to stop eating them again. I suggested a term for people who did not eat fish for political reasons, Non Piscavore, to help foster clarification and more dialogues about The Sustainable Seafood Movement. The ocean might be Nature and the wild, more wild than some areas of the land, but the influential thinkers in The Environmental Field were more land based, giants like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson (she though wrote books about the ocean), David Brower.…

Since completing Graduate School I wrote for a very political paper in San Francisco called San Francisco Frontlines which gave me an Urban Ecology column as well as made me their Book Review Editor for a year. I started as a critic being green and politically correct and one should remember, even if it is a personal struggle, even if they are angry and distrustful, that prejudice can ruin people’s lives. Then I was on to write book reviews and later articles for The Electronic Green Journal. I started with one, about the fish of California, but was enthusiastic and successfully wrote more. All sorts of disciplines and fields have weighed in on Environmentalism, but a lot of these scholars have broad knowledge of this field. I also got to do an Editorial Internship with Sierra Magazine which published a review of mine, and also gave me the view from the mountain top. The process though of becoming an editor can be an infuriating one. Sierra was national and have some very entrenched battles that one needed to have been following for years. They helped me elsewhere I think. I did get to write about the mountains because I was into science fiction and astronomy and they build some of the telescope observatories on mountain tops above city lighting. I did later get to do some writing for The Astronomical Society of the Pacific where I wrote a piece while still working at an Aquarium called “Reflections on Year of the Ocean”. Astronomy teaches that we are all from the same place, and that we live on a very special planet. What was Nature now? Arthur C. Clarke wrote an article called “The Natural Universe” and worried about Imperialism in space like C.S. Lewis. Space exploration turned out to be a much harder challenge than we dreamed. Here everything again was Nature. Ecologists though tended to focus on the land and draw a line between technological culture and the wild kingdom, a necessary line. The astronomical was left to others. The idea of Nature had ended Bill McKibben wrote in his famous book The End of Nature (1989). I was to go on to argue that Nature was not “Ended”, it was everything, including the ocean, cities, fish, city birds, and space. Space wasn’t the Final Frontier, still like this enterprise anyway, the most successful in science fiction history, but a wilderness or an ocean with islands. A good place to get another take on the subject, from a more authoritative inside source, could be for some Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man from Jason Mark, an Editor of The Earth Island Journal and Sierra Magazine. He argues that the Earth is a Garden of sorts, one that needs to be tended, but “Gardens” do not fight back like Mother Nature which might be annoyed with change.

I was off to think about it more as a critic and eco-critic going on to some very successful but not lucrative writing endeavors and books. I reviewed more than a hundred. I commented upon and helped advertise a hundred more I liked. I wrote for this and that, and them and them (trying not to brag, and don’t mean to be irreverent here). I got to write about San Francisco, Clarke, Tolkien, Lewis, and also revisit some science fiction to discover that Mars was also in a wilderness in jeopardy, at least in our literary imaginations. With the help of some editors I self studied The Realists, who also take you outdoors, and dream about going to more literary conferences to present and absorb. I did have editors and family support me, even at times they did not help. I don’t want to advertise or show off too much, but I have been at this for more than twenty years. I am an eco-critic and I think my big contribution could be ending or finding a consensus or resolution to the battle over what Nature is or should be. Maybe life and studies has suggested such.

But now I am again in New York City, have been for a few years, looking at the ball fields off Bartel Pritchard, remembering when they were not here or I did not notice them. I also remember the times I used to walk in the hills of Marin County, California. Much less crowed and intense than city parks there. There was a bus company that started in the bay area late in my life there that would take people from some cities over The Golden Gate Bridge to places like the hills around Muir Woods, the Muir Woods Monument, Bolinas, and The Point Reyes National Seashore. This service gave me access to the places that only those with cars could get to. There were trails, there were certain parts of the week they were almost empty. One could be alone there and also sometimes at the seashore as well. Here was the wild that I learned to protect and share. Here was Nature, not really raw or dangerous, but what the ecologists and preservationists were defending. It was a very special feeling to be able to be alone in this place and it was no wonder that people fought very hard to defend them. But how could we defend them if our definition of Nature was everything? If we were only defending these natural places what about cities, people, fish, urban birds, and Mars? Wild places needed still be protected because we are different than the other things on the planet. We have evolved out of nature. We are the only thing on the planet that can also write books about the damage we have done. Everything though will be effected by the drastic changes we are making and the pollution we let off into the world.

Here on the ball field was the reminder of the cradle of humanity with many interesting people coming out of the areas around the park. Baseball was about people, sometimes romance, and friendly competition. This part of the park though was no longer like Narnia for me, but youngsters need to be inspired, to read, to make such connections and educated that this land, this park, has been protected for them. Some of them also need to step up to the challenge for their children also. There will also be rising sea levels which will affect the nearby area. Prospect Park lost some of its wildness and it’s sense of history in this, also with the new tall building which one can see across the lake from the west of Prospect Park. The place has lost some of its sense of timelessness. It is still wondrous, especially some of the old buildings and bridges, but we are moving beyond Frederic Law Olmsted’s vision and creation of a place where one can forget the city around it.

We also can reconcile our views of Nature which contrast those who think we belong as a part of it and those who think their needs to be a separation between humans and the wilderness so we can protect wild places. We need to rethink what we accept as our “human nature”.

There is a solution, ie. the word Nature can and has been used in different ways. It has meant different things to different people, even conflicting things to me and others at different times. Some can find an ending to this search like in Treasure Island from Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson where the pirates find the treasure on the island where they started. We can do likewise by looking up the word in the dictionary where this search may have begun for us, but we have forgotten. Defining Nature can be a prize with associated self satisfaction and justification. Nature can mean wild and somewhat wild places and their denizens that need to be preserved and protected from technological and encroaching culture. It can mean everything, including people, cities, the ocean and the great wildernesses and maybe someday the wildernesses of space. That nothing is pristine anymore is a good point, but not an argument that should sway us from valuing and protecting wilderness, even if they have been damaged. There is a raging Mother Earth now who we have disturbed and thrown out of balance, obviously at our own peril, and many are facing the consequences. People, at least in some people’s opinions are animals that need to protected also.

As Environmentalists and concerned folks we can have our cake and eat it also with this new understanding. The word has been used in different ways which will lead to less confusion with readers. It is one less thing to fight about and we can work together to battle Climate Change. We can complain about access to the folks who manage the transportations systems that we would like to get out the trail heads out of the city easier. It can be consoling for us and a lot of other things to be part of Nature again. It can also be great to be alone in the wild we have struggled and still need to struggle to protect. We are part of it, but it is also a place to visit for beauty and solitude. We need to protect it from some of our neighbors. We can take some solace from the fact that we have also thought about the other creatures of the earth which cannot protect their Right’s themselves. We also need look out for our shared water sources and the air that we share collectively with them. We can have some more concern for our urban birds neighbors, which can be friends that some people see everyday starting the process of engendering concern. This struggle continues for future generations, and might not be a fair competition.

They are not going to take away these ball fields. Happily there are other parks, and other areas of Prospect Park to visit. Play ball.


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