Illustration by Whitney Sherman

The Urbicene

Urban life has undeniable benefits. But what happens when we lose our connection to the natural world?

Kin la Belle, the Congolese call their capital, and I’ve looked for Kinshasa’s beauty. The Congo River, pulse of a planet, fifteen miles wide as it courses past? Abdim’s storks wheeling overhead, hippos lolling in the rapids below the café where I had lunch under the gaze of giant orange-headed lizards? All beautiful, I thought, but was gently corrected. Beasts and crawling creatures don’t really belong here. Kinshasa’s belle is human, and modern, the unquenchable, rowdy hustle in this city of 15 million souls. Never mind that its vast shantytowns are the only option for most new arrivals. They still come. Every year, Kinshasa absorbs 400,000 more people, roughly another Miami.

I’m a country mouse, easily overwhelmed by humanity on the scale of cities, even those much smaller than this one. On my last trip to Kinshasa, in 2019, I sweated out my days in the back seat, cataloging things a person could buy through a car window: shoes, ice, mosquito netting, fuels of every kind, photocopies (the machine is on the sidewalk), herbal aphrodisiacs. Books, arranged in a porcelain tub on the seller’s head, spines out. Eggs, also head-balanced, in a towering pyramid stack you’d have to see to believe.

Street commerce is practical in Kinshasa, where all travel involves traffic jams of boggling immensity. Twenty vehicles wide, inscrutably directed, the metal river eddies and stalls while ant trails of pedestrians file through it, disappearing down side lanes into tin and tarpaper infinities. Smashups are scenery. Five blocks’ progress in an hour is normal. Our driver, Jeremie, navigated this with utter composure, occasionally hailing a vendor to purchase something on my list of supplies (shovels, extra gasoline, food) for a journey into the interior. My husband and I hoped to visit the village where I spent part of my childhood more than fifty years ago. Jeremie was bemused by my prepping. I told him if we made it to Kikongo, we’d be the first passenger vehicle to do so in more than a year. Jeremie had a beautiful laugh.

I’d hired him through an agency that helps NGOs with logistics, and Jeremie was game. As our road left the city and dwindled to a dirt path, he helped dig out our mired tires uncountable times. He directed the rafts of children who materialized whenever we needed to cut a new track around fallen trees. But a half day in, he confessed he’d never been outside Kinshasa before. When we finally reached Kikongo, his composure fell apart. No cell service? No electricity, no running water? No beer?

None. The people of Kikongo don’t interact much with the cash economy. What they have, they make: mud and thatch houses, manioc from the fields. Drums, fire, fish traps, music. A soccer ball, made of I don’t know what, by the most resourceful little boys alive. It’s a strenuous existence. Any wildlife we saw—monkeys, gazelles, sizable birds—ran the risk of being eaten. A year after our visit, COVID-19 would sweep through this village; no one died, friends reported, “because nobody here is obese or old.” A mixed blessing.

Year by year, fewer of us are left to see what’s lost as our species abandons the land.

Our hosts shared music and palm nuts and nsafou fruits that gobsmacked me with childhood memories. I bathed in the river with girls who sang to their laundry. We walked forest paths with men who knew every bird by its whistle, and where it nested. We watched for those storks that meant nothing in the city, but everything here, as their arrival reliably predicts rain. People back home were worried about me. I’ve never felt safer anywhere. Every day, Jeremie asked, “Can we leave tomorrow?”

Our deal was five days. No man was ever happier to go home. He never planned to leave Kinshasa again, and would not tell his wife or children what he’d seen. It struck me that the culture gap between city and country mouse might be wider than any other I’ve known.

A decade or so from now, half of all Africans will live in urban areas. The rest of the world already passed that mark, sometime in the late 1990s, with more humans now in cities than in rural areas. The shift accelerated in the last century as modern nations urged their populations toward a cash economy, away from land-based production. The civic advantages involve taxation and monetized trade. (You can’t tax products grown and consumed on the spot.) Sometimes relocation is forced, but mostly it’s pressed by financial incentives and stigmatization of country folk as an ignorant, ruggling caste, still in transition toward bona fide human existence. It’s a pressure rural people feel the world over. Southern Appalachia, where I live, is known to many in the U.S. as nothing more than “flyover country.”

Urban life has inarguable rewards. An efficient collective can conserve resources and produce innovations that might yet save a planet—if we ever agree to put that goal ahead of other appetites. But year by year, fewer of us are left to see what’s lost as our species abandons the land. In human-built environments shared only with other humans, where else can one seek beauty but in the human spirit and things of our own making? Rain storks are immaterial. The fruits of the land come wrapped in cellophane. The news of a collapsed apartment building breaks more hearts than a million-acre forest fire, because “nature” is an abstraction. In a monetized economy, other measures of wealth and poverty are forgotten: the multitudes or dearth of other species one meets in a regular day. The rich or spare capacities a person may have for feeding and sheltering a family. When “need” and “want” are utterly commingled, and detached from any process of growing or creating, consumption becomes an unbridled race, with endless costs to nonhuman lives and habitats unseen.

A living fabric of a trillion interconnected species is a hard miracle to believe in, or fight for, if we’ve only known the one of them who’s us. Not impossible, but it’s a project, getting harder all the time. We can only love what we know.


Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.

Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, and grew up in rural Kentucky. She counts among her most important early influences: the Bookmobile, a large family vegetable garden, the surrounding fields and woods, and parents who were tolerant of nature study (anything but snakes and mice could be kept in the house), but intolerant of TV. Her most recent books include The Lacuna (2009), and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007). Her books have been translated into more than two dozen languages, and have been adopted into the core literature curriculum in high schools and colleges throughout the United States. She has contributed to more than fifty literary anthologies. Kingsolver was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest. In 2000 she received the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor for service through the arts in the United States.

Comments

  1. I lived in Kinshasha when it was Leopoldville, and treasured the Poisonwood Bible when Kingsolver wrote it so long after my time in country, and hers. I knew nothing of the bush, meeting only people who had come to the city. Now, this account of her return. Loving now this account of what that country’s interior has to teach city people everywhere about what truly is of value.

  2. Thoughtful observation and reflectionYour words speak of the wisdom you experience and share.

  3. Beautiful, deep sadness
    Held in head
    But mostly heart
    Begs me
    Walk in harmony
    Blessed to be blessing
    Among all my relatives

  4. I am reading this on the New York City subway, en route to open eyes to the death prison of Rikers Island. Barbara connects and reconnects we two leggeds to what we and all life need.

  5. Would love to see Kingsolver’s childhood experience in Africa included in the bio – how long was she there and why? I could look this up of course but I’m reading on my phone which is a wee bit more cumbersome.

    Fabulous and unexpected essay. When we think of cities, we think of the world’s wealthiest places, but the cities that matter are those burgeoning in “developing” areas. The press for modernity is felt most keenly by those like Jeremie – he is a central figure in the essay and in the Anthropocene future we are contemplating.

  6. Beautiful imagery of Kinshasa and Kikongo. I have lived in cities my entire life, and now at the age of a 61, am seriously thinking of drifting into “the country.” I like the idea of seriously downsizing – an urban apartment and a small place, not too far away, with woods, mountains, a stream, where we can grow some food and read books. It has been awhile since I’ve consumed a Barbara Kingsolver piece. I look forward to getting reacquainted with her work.

  7. No words can describe the pain my heart feels everyday when I see my fragile world changing.
    Thank you for putting words in my heart and mind.

  8. I’ve missed Barbara King Saulver’s books and I’m glad to get a chance to read her again. The SI is rather painful but as usual her writing is beautiful. Thank you.

  9. This is such a compelling essay. Barbara Kingsolver has held me spellbound with her writing for many years. I too grew up in Rural Appalachian Virginia , lived in a city and now am back to the land in rural North Carolina. As an older woman people ask me why I want to live out in “the sticks”. It is for what is here everyday. The birds, the old giant trees, the animals that come to visit, the butterflies that come to the milkweed on their journey and all the everydayness of this life and its wonder. I hope to continue to lie here as long as possible.
    Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for keeping a light on the natural world so that we may all see.

  10. I am dumbstruck by the simplicity and depth of Kingsolver’s reflections on the Urbicene— an era presumably where we have lost our connection to what is most real and natural—the living world and the dire consequences for all life which we are living dry by day. Nothing could be more compelling in this time of civilizational collapse. We urgently need to remember ourselves as part of “a living fabric of a trillion interconnected species.” And we can do this without leaving the cities we now inhabit but, rather, by greening the cities and returning to the active state of ‘ naturing’. We could start by turning off the screens and spending our evenings outside—witnessing the sights and sounds of fertile nature under vastness of sky. Yes. Even in the city.
    I love this article and want to hear more from Kingsolver and her wisdom.

  11. Heartbreaking, yet some hope lingers as it is with all Barbara Kingsolver’s writings, I relish, love. and imbibe into my heart and soul. Only she can say with such clarity and simplicity that “a living fabric of a trillion interconnected species is a hard miracle to believe in, or fight for…” But believe me dear Barbara, Nature is doing her Great Selection, faster than we can imagine…and my gut feeling is that she is selecting those who can believe in the miracle of Inter-being Networks of life forms and also want to fight for it…You are RIGHT…it is yet not so impossible. Perhaps I say this because in my mountain country in the south-western corner of India, there are still lands, ecosystems and communities who can live in harmony. I want to believe that beyond the haves and have-nots and the eternal struggles, there are people who are want-nots and really happy to be so…All my love and deep appreciation to you Barbara and the Orion

  12. I had not realized half of the world lives in urban areas – an astounding statistic! Growibng up on a farm in rural America is no longer a probability, and it was such a great experience! The life in rural Kentucky lacks the inter-net for the most part. We worry about education of youth and experiences of adults without this resource. I need to re-read The Bean Tree!

  13. In a few words the author has echoed my experience in rural NY State. I do not understand why the crowded city is venerated over the peace and beauty of the country. Why are the skills and ingenuity of the farmer dismissed? The pandemic at least brought work from home to many of us, and I no longer have to join the river of metal to the office.

  14. Yes. Yes. Yes. The whole and the one.

    There is none so blind as one who will not see.

    Barbara Kingsolver’s writing gives breath to… well. It does.

    Kudos for enjoyable experience this morning.

  15. We can only love what we know. That is so true, and speaks to the reason to keep humane zoos in the city , so people can see a wolf and look into it’s eyes, or a couple of hippos playing in a pond. We have to see them to care.
    Thank you, Ms Kingsolver, for your wonderful writings over the years, which help us to know.

  16. Barbara is a most amazing woman. Her books are magnificent and uniquely presents both sides oof ecological positions.
    Barbara and Arundhati Roy both wrote about the 9/11 tower crashes as an opportunity to look at how we Americans (the west) could have something to do with an anti-American sentiment. Both were widely ignored.

  17. Thank you Barbara for these thoughts on urbanization of Congo. I too grew up in a Congo village and Kin la Belle, daughter of a nurse and linguist (with sisters Hope, Charity and Grace–and received several copies of “Poisonwood Bible” by friends who thought of our family). I saw these same sharp contrasts. A rural agrarian culture in southwestern Congo compared to a bustling cash economy in the capital. We were blessed with visionary village leaders who sought to keep young people from leaving for Angola’s diamond trade or Kinshasa by encouraging agriculture, rabbit projects, carpentry and other rural initiatives. Today the leprosarium my mother helped close by bringing sulfone therapy, kidney bean gardens and training nurses has turned into a vast farm with animals and new manioc cultivars that don’t harbor crippling disease (sponsored in part by Dayspring Ministries, Henderson, NB). Like you, I enjoy gardening and feeding many wild species in our back yard.

  18. P. S. Barbara, you met my classmates, Glen and Rita Chapman, while you were in Congo. I would love to send you a copy of my anthology, “Unrooted Childhoods:Memoirs of Growing Up Global.” Unless you’ve seen it? Please write me at the email bow.

  19. We can only love what we know.
    Truth!
    All the more reason to get into the woods the water the fields —- and to be intimate with damaged places too. To love them, advocate for them, help heal them.

  20. Thank you, as always, for your wonderfully enlightening and uplifting articles!!!

    With thanks,
    Robin Izer

  21. Ahh…to bathe in a river while women sing and launder their clothes brings a warm, nourishing feeling to my belly. To truly know the land is a gift us North Americans have little history with. Though not without struggle or sacrifice, Kingsolver’s writing reminds us that a simple life has the potential to feed our souls more deeply than all the wifi, take out, and cell service in the world.

  22. This very short essay speaks truth to me, and Barbara Kingsolver’s analysis of our modern… sickness is wisdom in my eyes.
    Back there in that book that remains timeless for me in its wisdom, in the story of the first murder, God confronts Cain after Abel’s death, telling him that he has alienated himself from the land which will no longer produce for him, and as a result, he must go elsewhere. Where does he go ? To build a city… where he can become anonymous, invisible, like so many other people who have been uprooted.
    This tragedy has been the tragedy of the Western world for a long time now : the loss of a sense of belonging to the land.
    Can you only love what you know ? Maybe, maybe not. But you can get a sense of nostalgia for what you don’t know, and come to value, and treasure it, even though you don’t know it.
    How many of us are in the position of belonging so completely… to the land ?

  23. While I agree with the sentiment that we are slowly becoming disconnected from our precious natural world, it would be simplistic to disparage cities and praise rural life. I live in Sydney area in Australia where more people are leaving and heading for the country. If much of the city population felt this way, then there would be more catastrophic land clearing for people to “live with nature”, sprawling sideways over land instead of compactly. We can design cities better with more green space, and get others to connect more with nature and away from the bad aspects of city living, but everyone packing up their bags and heading for the country isn’t the answer. The land isn’t made only for our enjoyment.

  24. Thank you Barbara! I’ll add suburbs in this comment since most cities are hubs to huge areas of damaging development and residence.

    Flying into SFO

    I’m flying in to SFO looking down on wave after wave of suburban sprawl.

    Office towers, warehouses, shopping malls, parking garages, apartments, freeways, posh neighborhoods & poor ones, storage parks, the rare industrial site, and the occasional tree.

    Wave after wave filling fertile valleys, the roads and unfreeways an eerie network feeding the structures with human beings and their stuff.

    Seeing these waves of unquenchable development sweep across mile after mile so quickly spins my mind.

    It’s really an old sight from the sky—the approach to almost any big city. But this time I am seeing the kudzu vine that grew from two seeds of collapse:

    The automobile and oil industry’s coordinated campaign to buy and dismantle interurban rail systems; and
    Levitown’s model of auto-dependent suburban development.

    There are folks down their who spend two . . .three . . . even four hours commuting to work.
    I’m looking out at a system inadvertently designed to produce climate changing gases, reduce biodiversity, isolate people, and waste hours of time moving around the kudzu vine. It’s a system with little resilience for coping with disaster, sudden or gradual.

    Yes , it’s mind spinning! We’ve grown habituated to this as reality, it’s just the way things are.

    That’s just one subsystem among many, firmly planted in the Earth. Only one system in process of collapse as hurricanes and inch an hour rainstorms pound on from the shore across whole states.

    I’m a retired industrial ecologist who worked with colleagues in the 90s and oughts to plan Eco-Industrial Parks and Sustainable New Towns

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