There was a bit in the latest Cosmos where Neil Degrasse Tyson compared our planet to a cauldron. I think of cities the same way. Some like to speak disparagingly of “city people” and our myriad faults, but I see it differently. Cities are perfectly natural expressions of humanity. They are our beehives, our anthills. They are where we come to become more than the sum of our parts.
I live in what was once a very fashionable part of town. It is a neighborhood time forgot. We live in a beautiful, if a bit run down, Craftsman cottage, built on the grounds of a mansion that has also seen better days. Two back yards away is one of its outbuildings, a separate property now that went from being a church to a dwelling. It has a swath through the block, as does the mansion, which now lies on a narrow strip of land that fronts on one avenue and backs onto another. The main path to the front door is lined with huge Tasmanian blackwoods, a forest in the center of the block. The owners are busily putting in palm trees wherever there isn’t a blackwood or an oak. I oscillate between worry and gratitude, because their tastes seem to be tropical, but at least the old trees are not being cut down yet.
My city is young enough to remember the forest that once was there. There are still oaks here, and redwoods, remnants of a vast old growth forest that once covered this area. Two buses away, an insurmountable obstacle in Pandemic times, I have my choice of the Redwood Bowl and the site of the once massive Navigation Trees, or Leona Heights, where the last old growth redwood of that forest grows. Two blocks down from our house a wide avenue runs in the bed of what was once a stream. The lake down the hill was once marshland, the lake created from it in the mid-nineteenth century as a bird sanctuary. We humans, as we often do, have put trees in everywhere, replacing the forest that once was there with one more to our liking. They look like our neighborhood, many sizes, shapes and colors, most never meant to grow here, but getting along together as best they can. Aspens, birches, magnolias, and the palms. There are olives dotted through the neighborhood, doing well in our Mediterranean climate, twisting in fantastic shapes and dropping olives on the street every fall.
The trees must remain here, placed and chosen by us, but the people come and go. Most of my neighbors are only here for a few years, landing by chance, in the hope of a better life or a good real estate investment. We are the same. We came there because it was the only area we could afford, to stabilize our housing bill. We stay because we can’t afford to move—yet. But the land is beautiful, and it isn’t so bad a place. We are part of the land, transient, true, living on Ohlone land, but we have never known the lands of our ancestors. Really, where would that be? How many different places did your ancestors come from? Mine were scattered all over Northern Europe. Do I return to Germany? Scotland? Other places my family had forgotten before I was born? All we can do is to live in peace with the people we find ourselves among, and try to leave these places better than we found them.
My partner and I are city kids, and frankly proud of it. We can get along with anyone, of any ancestry. We don’t fear hearing other languages spoken around us or different customs. We learn from the people around us. Once the pandemic is over and businesses open once more, it’s nice to be able to eat the foods of other nations, cooked in the restaurants immigrants run. It’s handy to be able to get ingredients and goods from places far from us in our own area. it’s interesting to live where we do—not always pleasant, but no place is all wine and roses. More than anything, it’s really nice to be ourselves. No, we are not always accepted, but we aren’t living in places where we are a minority of two. We once did try to move to a place like that, where we could have afforded a large house and the forest was nearby—but our same gender relationship and California plates caused the locals to spit us out as if were were some kind of infection, there to “Californicate” them. All we wanted was a place to live and a new community to become part of. But we are still here, in the area we were both born and raised in.
Cities, I believe, are where we gather to share new ideas, to find some solutions to the problems that ail us all. We humans have made a mess of things. The yardstick of money and social position that we have used since before Europeans first came to this continent has put an end to an entire geologic epoch. We made this mess, and we can fix it—if we choose to. We have all the tools we need. In the city, it’s possible to try out new solutions. The inputs that support our lives there come from outside, of course, but they don’t need to. We have chickens in our backyard, there are goats in our neighborhood, and community gardens. No, of course we can’t feed ourselves or our animals—yet, but we are trying out the ideas that could teach us to do so. We are growing gardens that aren’t monocultures. Some of us are walking, biking, fixing things instead of throwing them away—and making connections with people who are different from us. I truly mean it when I say refugees can live in my neighborhood. They already do. I have no right to tell anyone where they can live, and I hope to live long enough to see a world where my partner and I are welcome to live anywhere. I hope to see us exchange the yardstick of money and the Great Chain of Being for the compass needle of the health of all beings and all peoples.
The pandemic is a terrible, terrifying gift. We are the frog thrown into the boiling pot instead of slowly parboiled. So many of us are dying needlessly, so many more suffering, overworked, unpaid, sick, starving. Every inadequacy we have in our relationship with each other and the rest of the world is being laid bare. I wish it didn’t happen this way, but it has. It truly doesn’t matter whose fault it is, only what we will do with what we have, right here, right now.
The Cauldrons of the Cities are one of the places we will find our solutions. In many ways they are the ground zeroes of this disaster. Here where we are crowded together is the place where time is sped up. Keeping our distance is impossible for many and difficult for all. Lockdown happened as spring began, when we are all crazy to go outside after a long winter. We need to be out, but we need to keep the streets and buses empty for those who must go out.
Our search for individual solutions, a major thread running through our attempts to come to grips with climate change, are laid bare in this pandemic. We have groups of people—groups! demanding their freedom from lockdown, telling each of us to make our own decisions about whether or not we feel safe enough to go out. They want the freedom to go to work, get a haircut, go to the beach, as if that is an individual choice, something we can do without affecting anyone else. It is interesting that the fact that the stylist that will have to come to work or the retail clerk who will no longer be able to collect unemployment is seen as having a choice.
The truth is, our previous choices have been taken from us, and this is a great loss. It can’t be transferred to anyone else, and there is no one to blame who will make us whole. Only we, together can do this, by doing the work before us. I can hear the Earth saying “Stop. Be quiet and observe.” Not being able to go on with business as usual is quite a teacher. We have forgotten how to do so many things for ourselves. We don’t know where so many things integral to life come from. As the air begins to clear and the neighborhood begins to quiet down, what can we see and hear that we missed before? What can we actually live without, without too much pain? What better options have come to us in this time of great change and terrible loss? How can we become part of the solution instead of the problem? What will the next months bring?