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Certain corners of our world are alien zones to me. Looking out this tinted window suspended a couple hundred feet above the actual terra firma, I scan the horizon for a glimpse of the recognizable world. But I see it not; only concrete, steel, and glass. I look down and see human beings (and the vehicles they depend on) scurrying back and forth across hardened surfaces in a flurry of activity that seems fairly senseless from this perspective. The horizon is not even within view.  Where are the hills? Where are the meadows? Where are the trees with the birds? Where is the vegetation that slowly pushes itself up through the soil while sending its roots downward? For that matter, where even is the soil? Where is the creek that gently flows between the bending trees and the deer that browse among the bushes? I cannot see them. Where is the quiet? I cannot hear it. All my familiar landmarks must be somewhere beyond the buildings and somewhere below that tiny sliver of sky shining in the distance.

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And yet, here I am, in a room full of lawyers, accountants, and an enthusiastic salesman negotiating a multi-year legal contract. Of course, I am not at liberty to write about any of the details, but suffice it to say that I am the technical “subject matter expert” whose role is to ensure that whatever is agreed upon makes sense in the real world and does not jeopardize the interests of my company. But most of the “lawyer-speak” sentences sound like convoluted weasel words to my practical mind. In one of my remarks, I use the phrase “trust between fellow human beings.” The reaction around the conference table is one of surprised chuckles mixed with looks of disbelief. Indeed, the whole reason for a legal contract is precisely the absence of trust between human beings, or at least between their corporations. This is especially true when there are large quantities of money on the table.

The morning temperatures have been one or two degrees above 0°F. A block from my hotel, I find an entrance to a heated indoor maze called the Minneapolis Skyway. Glass-enclosed walkways above the streets connect with hallways within the ubiquitous buildings. I ride the escalator up to the second floor where I merge into a mass of ambulating human beings. Many Skyway pedestrians are plugged into a device held in their hand or stuffed within their parka, connected to a virtual world via earbuds or headphones. Very few acknowledge or attempt to return my efforts at eye contact.

Even with a map in hand, I find this network of heated passageways to be very circuitous and confusing. The layout of streets is even skewed at approximately forty-five degrees off of the standard north-south-east-west orientation (similar to downtown Denver which is equally disorienting). They say this is because the first roads in the city ran parallel to the course of the adjacent rivers, but I choose to suspect this is a deliberate attempt to befuddle newcomers. Regardless, at one of my many wrong turns that ended in a dead end, I began to hum the chorus of an old John Denver tune… “Take me home country roads, to the place I belong…”

mn_2
Enclosed Skyway Crosses Street in Foreground

Abandoning the Skyway, I step out into the cold. I now have steel and glass overhead, asphalt and concrete underfoot. The air stings my lungs as I inhale, but out here I can at least see the green aluminum street signs and can follow the paper map I clutch in my numb fingers.

Returning from dinner late one evening (9:30 PM), I approach a suspicious-looking man who loiters on the sidewalk an odd distance from the nearest bus stop. This is one block from my hotel which lies on the dark outskirts of downtown. As I draw near, he moves to a nearby bench and picks up a bag and turns to face me. I give him one of my “you better not mess with me” looks and continue to walk on by with a confident stride intended to project calmness and poise. After ten or twenty paces I glance over my shoulder to confirm he got the message.

If I lived here, I would probably be filled with a persistent, underlying anxiety. A quick internet search will provide numerous scientific studies stating that stress is best prevented and battled with some type of contact with the natural world. Our immersion into “nature” causes a decrease in stress and depression, an increase in cognitive ability, as well as a long list of other health benefits. Dare I suggest that God designed[1] us to live well connected to the natural world of dirt, flora, and fauna? Perhaps I did not look far enough or around the right corner, but the opportunity to connect with nature did not seem to exist in this manmade urban environment.

I am an engineer, not a scientist, and I can only offer my own anecdotal experience that merely affirms the truth of that well-documented cause-and-effect phenomenon. I can withstand an enormous amount of stress in short episodes. After all, I work in power plants. But as I return to my small home in the foothills of Colorado, much of my anxiety dissipates as soon as I turn off the pavement onto our dirt roads. Weather permitting, I often disappear to putz around in the garden (or orchard or vineyard) shortly after arriving home. Running the bucket of vegetable scraps out to the compost pile might even do the job, but if I can lie on my back on the ground engulfed in the scent of vegetation with the open sky above, nearly all my stress will soon disappear. Other stress-management strategies for me include a strenuous exercise effort or scribbling a drawing onto paper with pencil or pen. I wonder if any of these ancillary methods would have much effect on me without frequent tactile encounters with nature (e.g., grass between my toes and dirt beneath my nails).

Mary Shelley wrote of similar beneficial effects in the year 1818 in her book, Frankenstein: “The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind, and causing me to forget the the passing cares of life.” It may be possible that some individuals do not experience any beneficial effects by engaging with nature. I know that different people have different methods of dealing with stress. Some of them I understand; some I do not.

From my perspective, I wonder; how can people endure life in a city? Apparently, many do survive; some actually enjoy it, and a few even thrive and thoroughly appreciate all the city has to offer without detrimental effects. Not me.


[1] And yes, in case anyone is wondering, contrary to the dogma of atheists and theologians alike, there is nothing incongruous about God designing us through the process of evolution. But that is a different story that ought to be told one of these days.

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4 thoughts on “An Alien World

    1. Thanks, Kayann, that is a very interesting question. It’s weird, but I frankly don’t remember seeing any potted plants in the offices (or tattoos for that matter).

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