Barry Boyce looks at urbanization from the point of view of the city mouse/country mouse fable.
In Aesop’s fable of the city mouse and the country mouse, the terribly sophisticated city mouse spurns the meager fare available in the house the country mouse is currently infesting, and invites the country mouse to join him in his urban lair. The rich fare they taste at city tables is far more abundant and tasty, but of course it comes at a price: a very big house cat. The country mouse is not up for the fear and tension attendant upon city life and returns to a less frightening, albeit more spartan, life. So far as we know, the city mouse stays put, thank you very much.
Aesop’s fable tilts in the direction of the country mouse and so is a small paean to the bucolic life, but if the story were concocted today, the country mouse would probably move into the city, or the city would move to him, obliterating the whole city mouse/country mouse distinction. Or he would be conflicted, his thoughts strobing like a flashing sign, “City mouse? Country mouse? City mouse? Country mouse?” He might be a commuter mouse, scurrying back and forth between city and country encased in an SUV, or the city mouse and country mouse might be pitted against each other in a reality TV struggle.
We might like a fable that ends with someone choosing the life of the land, but that is not the choice most people make today-or perhaps we could say the choice that is being made for them. If truth be told, many of us are pulled between being the city mouse and the country mouse. The desire to merge the rustic and the urban gave us the suburbs, but that best-of-both-worlds project seems to have gone awry, ending instead in something that is the best of neither. So much for that.
There are a few people left who are clearly one or the other. They are firmly planted, with no ambiguity about where they belong. I know city dwellers who seldom leave their island, and when they do they are terribly disappointed. They become uncomfortable when they are more than two blocks from a bodega. The wide, open spaces are just that, too wide-open and too spacious-boring, in a word. There are country dwellers who feel uncomfortable when they are too far from dirt or real darkness or the sound of birdsong. These devout country-lifers often peg the city as the root of all evil: there are eight million stories in the naked city and all of them are bad.
Most of us, though, are probably pulled in alternating directions. City life has a magnetic pull. It’s something about all that humanity interacting. We love the thrill and the throng, the food (even the country mouse had to admit that), the arts and the entertainment, but if we live there or overstay our welcome, the noise, the light pollution, the fumes and all the people start to smother us. We want to go out to the country to see stars again, to hear what real quiet is. Each weekend, the arteries leading out of the cities are clogged to the choke point with people getting away, heading for cabins, cottages, mountains and beaches. For them, the country is really the “non-city,” almost a theme park. Passing them in the other lanes are the country (or quasi-country) dwellers coming in for excitement.
Although the country seems so pure and uncomplicated, the countryside is more than a mere landscape. People who live there also need community, and often suffer from the isolation. People who have grown up in smaller places tell stories of the petty-mindedness and narrowness that can grow from spending time only with the same kind of people all the time. The cities are filled with people who have fled an oppressive incestuousness they felt in rural life. And now with the urban model held up as the pinnacle of modern life, young people are leaving the countryside in droves. It is too small for them; there are no opportunities.
Cities have been around for more than five-thousand years, but for most of that time very few of us lived there. In 1800, according to the United Nations, only two percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Now half of us are urban dwellers. In the developed world, three-quarters live in urban areas and in the next twenty-five years that will increase to 85 percent. Even though Africa is still predominantly rural, with only about a third of the population living in urban areas, it is urbanizing faster than any other part of the world. China, which is even less urbanized than Africa, is urbanizing at a rapid rate and will be more than half urban in a decade or so. And international development agencies consider urbanization an index of progress, of modernization.
Although the cities may be the repository of our higher learning, our culture, our politics and the showcase for professional actors, musicians and artists of all kinds, they are also the place where we are boxed in by our ever-mounting accumulation of stuff. As a city dweller, I have fought traffic and stood in line to crowd into a movie theater to get a glimpse of breathtaking landscapes and stories of simple people. When I watched the Inuit film, The Fast Runner-which at one point depicts a man running naked for miles across the ice-I was mesmerized by the vastness and near-frightening simplicity of the characters’ lives. They had no stuff. Only clothes, a few implements and the cosmos. I felt a similar fascination with the Australian aborigines in Rabbit-Proof Fence, who lived in a different kind of lunar landscape, except with almost no clothes whatsoever. Himalaya, set in Nepal’s Dolpo region, conveys the same kind of feeling, with Tibetans making a life in a rugged landscape. In each case, the actors barely needed to act; they seemed to emerge from the scenery, the ultimate country mice.
In an earlier time, we would have said that such people were primitives, uncivilized. Indeed, the whole idea of civilization is tied up with cities. City and civilization come from the same root, and the very fact that we associate development and modernization with city life reveals a bias against country life. Yet it’s beginning to feel like, for all its purported higher purposes, that civilization-the life of the city-is merely about accumulating way more than we need. We must have started congregating in larger numbers for a better reason than that.