The first thing I noticed when I moved to Orlando wasn’t what most people would expect. It wasn’t the tourist traffic, however annoying that can be, or the ever present iconic Florida palm trees (that aren’t native), it was the almost complete absence of stars in the night sky. I grew up along the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario Canada in a somewhat storybook pastoral setting. I was 40 minutes from the nearest town, and houses were more like moth-eaten holes chewed into a thick sheet of wilderness, rather than like the quilted blankets of manicured lawns and asphalt in the city. I’ve got a trunk-load of memories of my family looking dumbstruck at some heavenly body (not Channing Tatum) up over our heads. The Milky Way, the Big Bear and when we were lucky the Northern Lights would prance above our heads like some sort of intergalactic Bonnaroo.
It‟s easy to see how a nightly display like that could press upon someone their own cosmic insignificance in the Grand Scheme. Without waxing poetic about the humility instilled by Mother Nature or the majesty of God’s work, it must be said that the absence of these influences must have some sort of effect as well. So when I came to Orlando, I couldn’t help but wonder how replacing the celestial with the electric shaped people’s minds.
People look on nature as something to recreate in, to enjoy from the padded comfort of their picnic blanket, or something to half-see as it blurs by their car window. Yellowstone National Park has scenic drives through its’ pristine Eden-like peripheries so the modern-day family can be exposed to wonders like the grizzly bear and mountain goat from the safety of their air-conditioned, pine scented, leather interiors. Central Park in New York friggin’ City has a “ramble” where the sublime-seeking hiker can lose themselves along carefully planned wheelchair accessible paths. Both of these locations are Meccas for the weekend transcendental urban pilgrim. Yet I can’t help but feel that the very essence of nature is lost in the controlled confines of these Mickey Mouse wildernesses. For what can truly be gained from shallow forays into the bleached-out skeleton of something as grand and limitless as Emerson’s “wildness”. If a man surrounds himself with the false, then doesn’t he himself become false by some sort of false-mosis?
In the pre-colonial past, the First Nations were not the friends of talking trees and raccoons that Pocahontas would have us believe. Their deep respect for nature was grounded in good old fashioned fear. Fear and respect for the Spirits of the temperamental rivers and tides or fickle Sun and Moon. This was a land not abundant in food and shelter, and the seasons were harsh if not deadly. People banded together for survival, not because they liked each other, which I hope they did, but they did so because to live on your own would almost certainly mean you would die the same way.
Today more people live in cities than in the countryside which is unprecedented for the human race that created civilization on the backs of plowshares and wheat fields. People are abandoning pastoral family histories in favor of freeways and winding suburbia. We tell ourselves that we are advanced, and that our taming of the landscape means that we are conquering our past to ensure a progressive and lucrative future. Entire mountains are chewed away by armies of man-made machines to power our cities and our electric cars. We have built walls of light and sound around us to drown out some deeply rooted primordial memory of nature and wilderness. We comfort ourselves with smoothly paved streets and conservatively crew-cut shrubbery and flush our effluence down porcelain canals of silent springs to some Neverland where we will think on it no more.
Summon up that memory of the shiver down the spine that you get when you find a spider in your shower or a mouse in your Free-Trade chocolate chip cookie jar. We have this sense of these things not-belonging in our civilized, Ikea furnished urban existence. When they appear without warning, they question the world that we have built around us. Our grid patterned streets are symmetrically framed with trees on our way to work. The parking lots are all evenly spaced and marked so as not to cause confusion. The dog parks have signs that let us know when it’s okay to be let off of our leashes, and the sinks tell us how to wash our hands. The cherry tops it off, when you take away something as unending and truly awesome as the night sky, people start looking everywhere else rather than inward and upward and try to fill the void that follows with possessions and whatever else that makes them feel better momentarily and I can‟t think of anything more sad or unsettling than that, even a starless night sky– Brendan
Brendan is an import from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Canada and a graduate of Rollins College where he focused on Environmental and Growth Management Studies. He has a quilt-like resume comprised of event/festival planning, puppet construction/performance and instruction, illustration work, community gardening, public art installations, and is a strong proponent of environmental stewardship. He is the founder of The SIT Project which places artistically up-cycled chairs at bus stops that have no seating in the Orlando area and has received National attention for his exploits.– website