The call of the wild in the urban jungle
It was a few weeks ago that I had a panic attack while making my way back to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific campus — my home in Berkeley. Most of the day I’d felt like something wasn’t quite right: I couldn't focus on my tasks, my attention span was nonexistent in the myriad of meetings I attended, and there was a restlessness in my bones that I couldn't shake. None of this is new to me. This is, after all, coming from the woman who had a certain kind of pride for her ability to procrastinate in university. But there was something more than just feeling off-kilter, something that I couldn’t name, but something I could feel nestled uncomfortably in my chest. Maybe it was the weather. It is hard to feel like sunshine after two weeks of rain.
As I walked to the 16th Street BART station, I still couldn’t shake the unease in my chest that was inching up into my throat. This was a day blessed with a short wait for the right train, and I fell into the uncomfortable warmth of a previously sat upon BART seat, eager to get some reading done on the commute. That day I was reading Braiding Sweetgrass, a phenomenal mix of botany, indigenous wisdom, and beautiful story-telling by Robin Wall Kimmerer — I highly recommend this book and listen to this woman’s stories, they are incredible. She tells stories from her life, from the life of her people, and from the life of the natural world with which she is intellectually and spiritually connected; she laments for the ways in which we have collectively silenced ourselves to the lives of our fellow human and more-than-human relations; she argues for the welcoming of indigenous perspectives and histories into the empirical world of the sciences; she reminds us, most importantly, that we can still mend our broken relationship to the natural world.
Something still was not right. For all the wonder her stories evoked, I could not shake this growing sense of dread.
It wasn’t until I reached the UC Berkeley campus that I realised why I was feeling this panic: since moving to the Bay Area I’d lost my immediate and tangible connection to nature. All my life I’ve lived places where it is impossible not to feel some connection to the natural world, where the wilderness is not so far removed from suburbia as to stifle its call. Even when I wasn’t living in the middle of the prairie in a town of 700, I have always been able to feel the massive force of the sky upon my shoulders, the cool dirt and mud underneath my feet, the grace and poise of forests around me, the ever-watchful eyes of the more-than-human beings upon me, the mystery of forces more powerful than my reckoning in the midst of everyone and everything. Here, there is so much concrete and so much stuff it is overwhelming. I catch traces of nature in Berkeley and my work site in the Mission, but it’s so contained and restricted. My home is now among the redwoods, so close to the ocean you can taste it, yet it feels as isolated as being back in the middle of nowhere. This shock does not come to me as a surprise; part of the appeal in moving to Berkeley was the challenge of a more urban environment. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how visceral a reaction that challenge was going to create in me.
Of all the profound insight Kimmerer offers in Braiding Sweetgrass, one of my favorites is this: we all come from people who were more connected to the earth at one point. Just as desperately as the earth needs people to take care of it, we need the earth to sustain us. Humans are deeply social beings, and I have begun to realize that our need for connectivity extends beyond humanity and to the earth.
Since the night of this panic attack, I have been doing all right. I have taken action to ensure that I can find the connection to this beautiful and sacred part of creation.