Suburbia

by Dan Jordan

Suburbia is a strange place in that it isn’t really a place at all. You may not notice it on a day-to-day basis, particularly if you grew up in the suburbs, but the model is the same wherever you find it: 1) Cover an area in concrete; 2) Put buildings on the concrete [separate residential areas from everything else by several miles]; 3) Put some dirt down in front of houses and in other places and plant non-native species of plants in it.

What this leads to is a home that doesn’t feel particularly unique to where one lives in the world. If you look at a picture of a suburban home in Arizona, versus Colorado, versus Washington, you will be hard pressed to tell them apart.

This is a terrible model environmentally speaking. Everything is spread out so cars, with all their pollution problems, are a necessity. And because the model relies on non-native plants it is water intensive. At the same time it requires uniformity, so the perennial nature of many plants (particularly grasses) becomes a negative thing. If you let your grass die in the summer it will come back just fine in the winter, but it will mean scowls from your neighbors all summer.

And if you want to keep your grass looking a particularly unnatural shade of green all year long, you need to add fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides to it. These things eventually run off your property even when used sparingly (and they’re never used sparingly) when it rains and end up in the stormdrain system.

This system leads directly to creeks, rivers, streams, bays, and the ocean. Because even when it doesn’t feel like you’re living somewhere in the natural world, you always are.

Suburbia is also a terrible model for the seeker. The spiritual life seeks connection with the world, but suburban life provides a way to retreat from it. And since suburbia isn’t going anywhere any time soon, it behooves us as seekers to create a sense of place out of what we have.

Some ideas: plant a garden that uses native plants. This is good for the environment and will help you to identify with where you live. Find the creeks that run through your town; they’re always there though often hidden from view for some strange reason. (The movement in the 1950s by flood control agencies to increase the storage capacity of natural creeks by turning them into concrete-lined channels is one of the more egregious civic projects of that past century.)

See if you can hike to a hill outside of your town. Find a place where you can look down and see how the natural ecology of your bit of the world surrounds your town. Seen in this context you can see that the world is still mostly landscape – our personal view is dominated by the concrete and asphalt of town because that is where we spend most of our time. But the seeker needs to be ever mindful that one’s immediate experience is not the whole story.

And as always, turn off your damn TV.

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