For the majority of my adult life, I have lived in one city or another. Arguably, my hometown in Western New York–really, a small city–contains a walkable urban center with access to pharmacies, parks, the post office, the public library, and a handful of restaurants, bars, and modest shops. Like many towns throughout the Rust Belt, the joint terrors of Walmart, peripheral sprawl, automobile dependency, and the contemporary drug scourge have hollowed out the core, stripped it of its past vitality and vibrancy, and degraded its public spaces. When I walk through the downtown, I seldom pass another pedestrian. Many of the surrounding neighborhoods appear shabby and neglected.
This past weekend, my wife and I traveled to this corner of rural Western New York to visit my family and celebrate my younger sister’s recent engagement. Along the way and during our brief stay, I remembered what makes this corner of the Empire State great. Although it might lack the dazzle, variety, and culture of a big city, Western New York bursts with nature.
Rolling hills, green in the spring and the summer; brown and red in the autumn; and brilliantly white in the winter, hug the town. At almost every street corner, one can spot these hills with a mere turn of the head. The Allegheny River and its tributary the Olean Creek wind through town. When I was in college, a cleared and paved trail opened up along the River. On my way to and from my campus jobs, I would ride my bike along the trail. During weekends, I would often retreat to my favorite spot just off the path, a bench facing the river, and watch the slow water and gaze at the green hills. As English major (and a passionate and dedicated lover of literature to this day), I felt the tug of the Romantic poets and their sentimentalization of nature.
Still, days after my college graduation, I left for a distant city. I wanted to look at paintings in museums, attend lectures at libraries, browse for hours in bookstores, watch foreign films in old movie theaters, and eat at restaurants with strange food from around the world. I did not wish to be wedded to a car to experience such things and to socialize. Thus, I chose city life. I still choose city life, albeit with less enthusiasm and more skepticism.
City life or country life? This question has bedeviled writers and thinkers since the birth of the written word. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod portrayed a lost golden age in his Works and Days. In this distant, primordial past, man lived harmoniously with nature. However, Hellenistic Greece was the quintessential urban society with Athens as a center of philosophy, drama, poetry, science, and overall culture and thought. One model cannot exist exclusively without the other.
City life promises art, culture, and learning, the cornerstones of civilization. Country life grants us beauty, silence, and peace. Mankind might need both to lead a full, enriching life. The resurgence of many American cities and the record popularity of state and national parks attest to both these desires. Cities present people with an efficient, rewarding, and environmentally-sound model for daily life; nature allows us to reconnect, refresh, and recharge.
Last week, I visited Western New York in the summer for the first time in years. Its beauty enchanted me as if I was encountering it for the first time. My first morning there, I awoke early and walked along the river for nearly two hours. I found my favorite spot of old, rested on the bench, and felt my mind, always churning with thoughts, anxieties, and concerns, slowly shut down. Birds skimmed along the grayish-green water. A feeding fish’s tail broke the surface of the river. Birds sang among the trees. An unseen animal crashed through the woods. On the final day of our trip, when the sun still hung low, I sat on a bench on a cool Sunday morning and watched the mist spill down from the hills and obscure the landscape.This is what I lost by choosing the city.
At their finest and most refined, think Paris, Barcelona, or sections of Boston or New York, cities testify to the ingenuity and intelligence of the human race. Nature lives in such places as well, but in a crafted, sculpted, and controlled manner. This is nature tamed, even devised by man. The parks of the great Frederick Law Olmsted in many American cities stand as perfect examples of this manifestation of nature.
Nature, still wild, varied, and even dangerous, testifies to the creativity, fecundity, and might of the divine. Pope Francis touched upon this in Laudato Si. When a city shrinks or passes away, nature always and shockingly quickly returns. This can be witnessed in many once thriving and now decaying Rust Belt neighborhoods and cities.
The city or the country? Maybe this question has no final, set answer. Maybe, it’s one of those vexing, deep philosophical queries which one never resolves during the course of life. Maybe, more simply, it’s a matter of personality or temperament. Nothing more than a preference.