Charles Mudede

The length of Cheasty Greenspace is 1.2 miles. As I wrote in my feature on forest bathing, it begins near the Columbia City Station and ends around where the elevated Link train leaves Mount Baker Station and turns to the underworld of the Beacon Hill tunnel. The reason the forest is there is simple to see from the train: it’s on a steep slope. And it's hard to make money on slopes. As a consequence, the whole of it was left alone to grow—and grow it did.

In the summer months, this wilderness in the heart of South Seattle is spectacularly green and dense. (Most of the trees in Greenspace shed their leaves in winter.) Something similar also happened on the western slopes of Beacon Hill. That area has an even larger and longer forest that, as cars enter the city on I-5, presents a futuristic composition of green trees and the sky-reflecting glass of downtown towers. (The west side urban forest has many evergreens and so is green all year around.) In a month from now, Greenspace will be bright with the dying colors of leaves. In three months, it will be nothing but a bunch of sticks.

But while it is green, and while you are on the train between Columbia City Station and Mount Baker Station, it looks as if the forest, which is old, runs from outside of the city and right into its commercial core, downtown. Is this not like the vision of Sarah Bergmann's urban project Pollinator Pathway? There are important differences in the details, of course. Bergmann's is not really a vision of wildness in the ordinary sense, which is why her ideas often clash with those who want simple answers to the major environmental and planning problems of our times. Some of those people are in the bee community. The key thinking of many in this group is that something as natural as bees has to be right. There are two problems with this that are not obvious. One: Such feelings (doing the right thing for nature) creates, in a market economy, a demand that's met with products and services that promise buyers that they can purchase their way to a better world. This is why contentless honey bee activism can so easily become just "another stock on the shelf" (if I may use the words of Bob Marley) of green consumerism.

Support The Stranger

Secondly, all of this talk about the importance of honey bees leads many to believe that they are a "natural" part of the environment around us. But they are not—at least in the usual sense of that word. Honey bees were brought here by design. Indeed, Native Americans used to call them the white man's fly. But this does not make them less natural. And this is the subtlety of Bergmann. What she has in mind is that the separation between human design and nature is unproductive and often harmful. Design for her is nature. And so the solution to the problems of the anthropocene (the current geologic age of the humans) is not a return to some earlier and more authentic state of nature (the Pleistocene, for example). She sees a solution in the understanding that nature in the past and nature in the present will be the same as nature in the future: designed.

When we see design as not an intrusion but as what an environment always is (this explains her interest in the evolutionary field of niche construction), then we can really begin to have a richer and more meaningful relationship with our changing climate.

As I explained in my forest bathing essay, Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, writes in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, that a farm is eerie because it’s so quiet. This is a problem because mentally healthy plants are very noisy. But we must think of this disturbing noiselessness as something that can be solved by better design. The same goes with the city. How we build wildness into its processes, and connect wild (complex systems) services with domesticated (simplified systems) ones, is a matter of design. We must not only make better buildings but also build better relationships with our planet-mates.