We’re better people when we’re there

Gracy Olmstead writes:

In his latest book The Art of Loading Brush, Wendell Berry talks about the intuitive aspects of agrarianism: that there are many things agrarians do and uphold not for specific scientific reasons, but because they know in their bones that it’s “best.”

“I think that agrarianism had, and where it survives it still has, a sort of summary existence as a feeling—an instinct, an excitement, a passion, a tenderness—for the living earth and its creatures,” he writes in his introduction.

Chuck Marohn highlighted this same intuitive genius in ancient urban planning during his most recent podcast for Strong Towns. As a history lover and engineer, Marohn has observed patterns in urban planning that have been passed down through millennia, patterns that built a deep logic and beauty into the places they sculpted. “Human habitat is pretty ordinary,” he notes. “We need certain things, and those’ll be within a certain distance of each other. Buildings will be arranged in certain ways and will have certain attributes, because it makes places safer, and it makes places more social. It has all this ‘spooky wisdom’ built into it.”

“Spooky wisdom” is the term Marohn employs: “the idea in quantum mechanics, at least as it’s developed today, is that we know these things work—but we really don’t know why.” “We write equations out of our understanding of quantum mechanics,” he explains, “we can test those equations, they test out true—so clearly we’re onto something—but we don’t know why it works. … And what I’m suggesting is that the more I have studied and looked at human development patterns pre-modernity, the more I just find spooky wisdom. Things that work, and I can’t really explain or understand why.”

For millennia, humans have followed specific patterns passed down by their forbears without always knowing why. This is the essence of culture: the layers of belief and precedent, ritual and intuition that guide societal life and practice. As Maurice Telleen once put it, “A funny thing about cultures is that they produce people who understand more than they know. Sort of like osmosis.”

A great deal of the 20th century was an attempt to shape a new sort of civilization with our new technologies. Going from steam to electrification to automobiles to flight to atomic energy brought incredible transformations, but our ability to live differently on a human level (that is, on the level of our homes and neighborhoods and communities) hasn’t turned out to be as malleable as many of our economic and technological conventions.

There’s a reason that people in New York intuitively sought to protect the West Village (and pay incredible premiums to live there), and why the attempts at “urban renewal” that replaced West Village-esque neighborhoods with drab apartment blocks have been largely rejected. It’s not just the aesthetics of places like the West Village that make them beautiful, but it’s the whole way of life that those neighborhoods make possible that makes life worth living there.

Greenwich Village may once have been host to New York’s avant garde, but its longevity and conservation are testaments to the best sort of conservative spirit in every heart that says something like, “Yes, this place feels right.”

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