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Don’t say goodbye to wild wasteland Berlin

The city remains, for the moment, admirably wild.

In one of his finest poems, (“The Buried Life”, 1852), Matthew Arnold lamented that our experience of this world is divided between an outer, societally delimited and essentially inauthentic existence and a “buried life” that we seem unable to follow on its “true, original course”.

For the great “democrat by conviction, rather than by temperament”, (in the words of his friend Florence Earle Coates) melancholy arises from the “airs, and floating echoes” that come from “the soul’s subterranean depth . . . as from an infinitely distant land” and the poem expresses a longing to “inquire/ Into the mystery of this heart which beats/So wild, so deep in us”. As the poem closes, Arnold characteristically decides that we are able to articulate this buried life, at least to some extent, “Only – and this is rare –/When a beloved hand is laid in ours” – and while this is touching and very much of its time, it is the one element of his argument that I would want, if not to dispute, then at least to expand.

After the massive destruction of the Second World War, Berlin became home to a huge influx of crested larks (Galerida cristata). This bird, adapted for life in desert and steppe country, is also very much at home on building sites, waste ground and, for a time at least, prospered in the ruins of Berlin, where (according to the exhibition notes of the Biopolis display currently on show at the Museum für Naturkunde) many of those who lived through the aftermath of the war “described the appearance of these inconspicuous birds in the midst of brutal destruction as very soothing for long-suffering souls”. This suggests it is not only the rare moment with a loved one that can overcome our sense of being divided in and against ourselves; it may be that a connection that allows us to heed the “unregarded river” of life that we share with all organisms may become a starting point for recovering what Arnold calls “our hidden self” – and with it,  moral and political integrity.

That unregarded river – and the wildness it entails – is always under threat but, as a city dotted with building sites, “waste” ground and schrebergärten (small plots of land somewhere between summer cottage and allotment, often described as sites of “freedom and space”), Berlin remains, for the moment, admirably wild.

For the moment is the operative expression, because those who recognise not just the restorative power but also the essential need for wildness and diversity in every area of our lives are eternally opposed by those who think of anything natural, (including people) as “resources”. That this resource-thinking is the great tragedy of our age should be obvious to everyone; certainly it should be anathema to those who consider themselves “green” – and any “green” party that lends support to resource-thinking is just as divided against itself as Arnold’s unhappy protagonist, no matter how politically appealing the compromise may seem.

In the introduction to Culture and Anarchy, Arnold says “culture, which is the study of perfection, leads us . . . to conceive of true human perfection as a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society. For if one member suffers, the other members must suffer with it; and the fewer there are that follow the true way of salvation the harder that way is to find.” If you want to “save the world”, you have to save all of it – and for that we need dramatic change, complete integrity and true wildness, not business as usual with pretty green ribbons on.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism