Staying Put and Unsprawling

Spring is finally returning to Athens, Georgia, with dogwood, azalea and, more to the point here, the annual Georgia Review Earth Day Celebration. This year’s guest speaker is Scott Russell Sanders, a writer of skill and probity—and of the hopefulness always associated with this season. So at the end of March, when I flew across most of the country, I did so with Sanders’ selected essays (Earth Works, Indiana University Press, 2013) in my lap, returning to familiar pieces, reading slowly and enjoying those superbly crafted sentences. But my reading hit some unexpected turbulence when I came to the closing sentence of the elegiac “Buckeye”: “We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart.” I wasn’t really anywhere or in any place.

Scott-Russell-Sanders-Earth-Works-200x300My understanding of having knowledge of a place involves an ability to read its biome—the climate and geography, the plants and animals, the balances and correspondences, the natural communities. Through occasional breaks in the clouds I could see the geometric abstraction of agriculture, the glint of light off water, shades of green and brown.

My place was pressurized, sanitized, and synthesized. Beside me was a stranger who hadn’t looked up once during the entire flight. Now and then out of the corner of my eye, I caught glimpses of the impeccable cuff of his hundred-dollar shirt and the images of stock reports on his iPad. Behind me a woman went on and on about visiting her mother in a nursing home in Tucson, where I was headed. A child giggled from somewhere farther back in the plane. I thought about the Jet Blue flight a few winters ago that had been stranded for eight hours on a runway at Hartford’s Bradley Airport during a snowstorm, and I wondered how I and my plane-neighbors would do in a similar predicament:  How would we interact and what memories would we form? Those familiar with Sanders’ themes can easily recognize the metaphor here. In “Staying Put,” he quotes from René Dubos’ The Wooing of Earth: “Ecology becomes a more complex but far more interesting science when human aspirations are regarded as an integral part of the landscape.” Like it or not (and I often don’t) we all live in communities that are increasingly dominated by human culture.

The urgent question, then, is how well we can comprehend the connection between people and, in the most general sense of the word, the land. Genetics, ecology, particle physics, and even some religions assert that it’s all one, and that thought is satisfying and reassuring for metaphysics and meditation. However, a place is where you wake up and carry on with your life (I admit I was being too literal up there in the airplane), and no clearer example of a skewed balance of human influence on the landscape can be seen than while landing in Tucson. The city’s businesses and homes creep in all compass directions from a small interior core of larger buildings, even climbing and clinging to the southern slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of the city. The image is one for which the phrase “urban sprawl” was coined.

The next evening I learned about sprawl from ground-level; the topic was the intersection of humans and nature when Simmons Buntin spoke in the Dorothy Rubel Room at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Buntin, a writer and thinker of admirable passion and commitment, is the founder and editor of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, an online quarterly that artfully blends literary writing with more technical examinations of efforts toward sustainable living. He lives in Civano, a New Urbanist development fifteen miles southeast of Tucson, and has just published Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press), an essay collection that tells the stories of a dozen communities across the country, new and rebuilt, that are based, in the words of Civano’s plan, “. . . on concepts of building community, connection with the land, [and] respect for climate and generation.” A list of the attributes of the village’s 650 homes reads like an exemplar for resource efficiency: insulated block walls, active and passive solar systems, graywater use, plus rainwater collection and reuse make Civano, according to Buntin, “arguably the most energy- and water-efficient production development in the country.” Further, great care has been taken to integrate the living space with the surrounding Sonoran Desert environment by creating landscaping that features native cactus, trees, and flowers. An extensive network of trails and open spaces invite the desert in—so much so that javelina and coyotes frequent the streets. And then there’s the community itself. Residents of Civano share a commitment to the principles they are living out—they have to, with 650 homes gathered into a 270-acre neighborhood. Buntin told us of community activities, both planned and spontaneous, and of a genuine affiliation and camaraderie that would be unlikely in a traditional setting.

But there’s always a “but.” Civano’s current iteration represents a drastic reduction from its original plan to build 2700 homes on 1200 acres and to create one on-site job for every two residences. The usual bad guys—politicians, bankers, and developers—and a weakening economy saw to the downscaling. More to the point, however, are the daily life issues such as inadequate public transportation (a bus ride to downtown Tucson takes an hour and a half with transfers), difficulty in providing basic amenities on site, and the occasional conflicts that arise when people and the natural world interact. As part of his presentation, Buntin read portions of an essay that offered a frightening emblem for such interaction. During a kite-flying session in the village’s green space, a neighbor child was bitten by a rattlesnake. Desert readiness and experience—the snake had to be killed and collected so that EMTs could identify the proper antitoxin—averted a tragedy. But although the child survived the bite and its painful aftermath, the plain truth remained: the snakes were there first; they have the prior and higher claim.

In the end, however, despite scaring us with snakes and scorpions and black widows, Buntin convinced us that living in Civano, living the life it demands, is worth it. I believe that the reason can be found by returning to Scott Sanders—this time to his essay “The Common Life.” Admitting that some days he needs what he calls “a boost merely to get up, uncurl my fists, and go about my work,” Sanders identifies his sources of strength: family, neighbors, “the forked leaves of larkspur breaking ground,” “the lines of a handmade table,” “the brash trill of finches in our backyard trees,” and on the specific day at hand, making bread with his daughter and two neighborhood children. Strength, in other words, comes from moments of “a deep and complex joy, a sense of being exactly where I should be and doing exactly what I should do.”

Civano and the other communities studied in Unsprawl show that the technology is available to enable a “green” living space, and that by applying knowledge, common sense, and respect, people can share the land with the non-human world. All that remains is the will to make human communities work. The pioneers in this new way of living have such a will, and I have a sense that they share with Sanders the elements of the “common life”—“loving company, neighborliness, inherited knowledge and good work, shared purpose, sensual delight, and union with the creation”—and that they relish moments of the joy of being where they should be and doing the right thing.

Doug Carlson joined the Review staff in January 2007 and works primarily in manuscript evaluation and nonfiction editing. He also oversees the intern program. Carlson's essays on natural and cultural history have appeared frequently in magazines and journals as well as in several anthologies, including A Place Apart (W. W. Norton) and The Sacred Place (University of Utah Press). His work has been collected in two books: At the Edge (White Pine Press) and When We Say We’re Home (University of Utah Press). His most recent book, Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography, was published by the University of Texas Press in 2007. Before coming to the Review, Carlson was visiting writer-in-residence at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is currently a member of the UGA Press Faculty Editorial Board and has served in editorial or advisory capacities for Ascent magazine, White Pine Press, and New Rivers Press.