Layers of life beneath our feet

We are never entirely cut off from wild nature even though we feel disconnected from it, writes John

There is an aphorism in James P Carse's Finite and Infinite Games that for me has the highest per-word poignancy quotient of recent years: "Nature offers no home," Carse writes, in a discussion of how human beings attempt to control nature "for societal reasons". And it is true, we are not at home in nature; on the contrary, with every year that passes, technology and our way of life distance us more from the physical ground of our being.

Proof of this, if proof were needed, is the notion (now ubiquitous, though mainly for commercial and PR reasons) of "green" living, "green" products and, most dispiriting of all, "green" politics.

If we were not so far from the wild, we would scarcely need this notion; it is only because we feel divorced from the rest of the physical world that we experience a need to construct ideas of "green" at all (and because "green" is an artificial construct, it is easily manipulated by the very commercial and political forces that distanced us from the natural world in the first place).

Yet even though we feel dislocated from the wild nature that exists, not only in the world around us, but also in ourselves, it is also true that we are not entirely cut off from that world. If nature offers no home, then we must make a home one way or another. The only question is how.

At the same time, we stand in a strangely similar position with regard to history. With each passing decade, history becomes less real for us, less immediate and essential to our way of life, and so, like "green" nature, more of a commodity, or an advertising gimmick.

In other words, we have become homeless, or almost so, as much in time as in space - and I cannot help thinking that an essential task of the artist, the writer, the architect and the urban designer, in the current climate at least, is to find ways of reminding us of our essential wildness and, at the same time, of the depth and richness of our past.

One of the best examples of such work is the High Line in New York. It is a modest work, perhaps, yet pure genius: a mile-long linear park, created on part of an old elevated freight railroad that once ran through the Lower West Side's meatpacking district. In 1980, the line closed (the last train carried three carloads of frozen turkeys) and was scheduled for demolition, but residents fought the plan, calling for the line to be preserved as a public open space. Eventually - after their plan received support from the mayor's office - the southern stretch of the High Line was opened in 2004, with further development of the middle section continuing. It was a significant victory for civic values and the community.

Walk the line

While on paper this may sound like any number of other worthy public-space developments, what makes the High Line so distinctive is the way in which the natural and the recent historical are woven together, reminding us that we live, always, on top of our own past ruins and that, no matter how solid our achievements may seem, they are nevertheless perishable in the wild scheme of things.

This space, with its tough, drought-resistant grasses and birches, spotted here and there with herbaceous plants, all growing somewhere between "culture" and "nature" through what remains of the old freight line, in no way resembles the usual amenity garden. It is a great work of public art, at
once a memento mori and a reminder that we are of the earth and that we persist, in space and time, by virtue of our intrinsic wildness.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war