I spent this past weekend at PantheaCon in San Jose, CA. It’s been one of the highlights of my year since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2006, and as always it was a wonderfully executed convention wherein my interaction with others was mainly in five and ten minute conversations in passing. I got to speak on plant and fungus totems (and got some preorders for my upcoming book on the topic) and still feel like an utter dumbass for missing the Llewellyn ancestors panel because I thought it was at 1:30pm instead of 11:00am.
But that mix-up was part of a personal theme for this year’s PCon. February’s been a challenging month for me; after the burst of positive energy that resulted in my event Curious Gallery, I found myself drooping and tired afterward, not at all surprising given that it was a LOT of work, and because I’m enough of an introvert to need some recharge time after big social events. The time that I thought I’d have to recover before PCon, though, was taken up instead by one of the freak snowstorms that Portland gets about every five years or so. It was only a few inches, but given that we have a dearth of plows and sand/cinders, only the highways were getting plowed for the first couple of days, and I was NOT about to go sliding around messy streets with a bunch of people not used to snow driving, chains or no chains. I more or less spent the better part of four days apartment-bound, minus a walk to the grocery store for rations. And once the snow melted, I had to start getting prepared to head south.Which means that I haven’t gone hiking all month, and barely did last month due to Curious Gallery prep. Even before we hit the road, I was cranky and travel-anxious and generally out of sorts. Throughout the weekend I kept finding myself running short on energy and social tolerance, and while I very much enjoyed my time at the convention, I felt I wasn’t as present as I’ve been in previous years. I kept finding myself looking forward to getting outside at some point soon.
So because my Saturday schedule at PCon was almost entirely open, I decided to go hiking, and ended up at Alum Rock Park east of San Jose proper. It was an incredibly refreshing break, quiet other than occasional families with loudly excited children, and some amazing views from the South Rim Trail. I was surrounded by Steller’s jays, a lovely reminder of one of my “home” totems back in Oregon, and broad-shouldered sycamore trees, and uplifted ridges covered in scrub, with Penitencia Creek meandering throuugh it all in spite of drought. And then on our way home, my friend who I was traveling with and I stopped off at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. It was just at dusk, so the birds and jackrabbits were out in force; I traded calls with great horned owls, and we enjoyed a lovely sunset on the water.
So I got my wild time and I felt much better for it. But I admit I felt some guilt. I’ve long been an advocate for green cities, partly as a way to free up more space for wildlife without humans interfering, and partly to make cities more habitable, especially for those who are unable to leave them. Granted, San Jose isn’t exactly overflowing with sustainability (though I’m sure it has more resources than meet the eye, mixed in the confluence of interstates and the airport and such). But I spend most of my time in Portland in a neighborhood with lots of green space and yards. Shouldn’t that tide me over?It’s good for maintenance, to be sure. But I always need regular trips to wilderness areas, whether forest or desert or coastline. Nothing refreshes me quite like the quiet and soft fascination, and I don’t think it’s just my introversion. Something deep inside me needs those open areas to roam, perhaps even more than most people around me who may enjoy and benefit from it, but don’t necessarily have a deep, soul-sprung craving for wilderness.
I suppose the conundrum I’m left with is: does this need for wilderness negate the concept of green cities? Is a more sustainable metropolis only a temporary solution to a problem that can only be cured with the sort of setting we evolved in–open, untamed, populated by all the wild beings we grew up with? Maybe the sorts of people who reblog pictures of wilderness settings with sayings like Thoreau’s “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” and the anonymous “nature, not cities” are right.
But wait–that’s falling right into the false dilemma fallacy. Surely there’s some middle ground in between “stuck in a depressing, dirty city” and “a perfectly clean idyllic life deep in the wilderness, insulated from all other humans”. My need for wilderness on a regular basis is not proof that city life is wholly unsuitable for me. I can survive in a rural area much better than my urban-born partner could, and there are days I long for a life in a place with deer in the back yard and quiet, star-filled nights. But cities are where my work is, by and large, and they’re generally more friendly to those of us of alternative subcultures. There are benefits to Portland, to be sure.When I feel that deep longing for wilderness, it’s not a sign that I need to abandon the city for good. In fact, at the end of my hike or camping trip, I feel energized and ready to return to the busy-ness of my everyday urban life. (Plus the traditional hot shower upon my return home is a definite perk.) I love the quiet of small towns, but right now I need the resources and opportunities and diversity of cities. Furthermore, there are plenty of restorative environments within Portland proper, the largest being Forest Park. There’s no need to abandon urban life; I just sometimes need to tilt the scale more toward “get out into the woods more and don’t work so hard!”
Like most potential answers to a complex problem, my solution is likely to be an ongoing balancing act comprised in part of reflection sessions like this one. And a challenge to a strongly-held conviction is not cause for worry; instead, as always, it’s an invitation to recalibrate that conviction. As my younger self would have said, “Stagnation is death!” (Some of the time, anyway.)