“Yeah, you know? I don’t care for The City. I really prefer to be in Nature.”
My colleague said this as we stood in the courtyard of the university campus four years ago, discussing our research. We were preparing to set off to conduct another stint of ethnographic fieldwork, both of us with destinations in Senegal. But I worked in Dakar, a bustling, overcrowded urban center full of human activity, and he, some hours away, in a sparsely populated region known as the Futa, on the Senegal-Mauritania border. The main livelihoods in the Futa are agricultural production and pastoral livestock rearing; the herders move from pasture to pasture throughout the year, setting up temporary settlements as they go. I don’t know the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more cattle than humans in the Futa. Dakar, on the other hand, may very well have more taxis than humans.
“I can understand that, your preference for the Futa,” I responded.
He went on to explain his initial statement: he needed the calm, the peace, that the Futa brought to him, and there was a scarcity of that in Dakar. Dakar is always going, always active. The City is chaotic and unruly.
I myself have been to the Futa and neighboring regions quite a few times, as I used to work there, but at the time of our conversation, I had since decided I was much more at peace in the chaos of Dakar. It felt more at home, as it reminded me in many ways of my own city, Philadelphia. They are about the same size population-wise, and they both boast a thriving arts scene. And unlike so many large cities where residents are really floaters who move from city to city, residents of Dakar, like Philadelphians, attach their identity, their work, and their sense of community to their city.
My colleague and I parted ways, but our conversation about our research sites stuck with me. As I headed toward the library, I pictured Dakar and the Futa side by side—the latter with just the gentlest touch of human activity and the former with so few trees yet so many buildings. Dakar lacked so many of the things my colleague collectively referred to as nature, but maybe he was looking at it the wrong way.
The highest concentration of manatees in the world is found in the Gulf of Mexico, and the quaking aspen, though dispersed about North America, is most concentrated on southwest mountain faces in Alaska and Western Canada. The highest concentrations of the human species are found in densely populated, bustling, teaming cities—or better yet, megacities. In common discourse, city boundaries are where nature ends. In writing, cities are often reserved for our discontent with everything that is “unnatural” about humans.
Yet, nature metaphors are not lost on us; we embed them into our descriptive terms for urban phenomena. We reference things like concrete jungles; we have problems like food deserts, predatory real estate moguls, and the need to manage the waste stream. We understand our social organizations and the built environment in symbolic relationship to the natural world, revealing that even we are collectively aware of the superficial dichotomy that distinguishes us from all other things “nature.” Yet the dichotomy persists.
My job as an ethnographer is to capture human nature, that aspect of the natural world we so often, strangely, distinguish from everything else that fits under the umbrella of “nature.” While other scientists chase the mysteries in cell biology, desert ecosystems, and marine life, I examine the mysteries of human society. Our evolved capacity for developing social systems, for organizing our daily lives in relation to one another, is quite natural to us as humans. It doesn’t separate us from nature; it is our nature.
Studying human nature requires spending a significant amount of time in public spaces, inconspicuously observing humans and taking notes. I am a professional people-watcher, and I imagine my observation days are somewhat similar to those of an Animal Planet cinematographer devoted to the awe-inspiring details of the everyday lives of members of the animal kingdom. Lions leisurely sitting and grooming themselves and one another, monkeys daftly picking apart fruits and consuming their flesh. These basic activities captivate us. But the mundanities of human interactions are also deserving of our awe and inspiration.
I think the term for people who people-watch is voyeur, but let’s try to move away from that for a minute. I study how urban infrastructures and public life intertwine, how different sectors of society perceive and conceptualize infrastructural systems, how they work and how they don’t work, and how these public conversations become embedded in standard discourse when it comes to problem-solving. At the time of my conversation with my colleague, I was studying how citizens of Dakar perceived the problem of plastic waste within the waste management system. I explored things like how they interpreted the problem based on their experience seeing plastic waste accumulate in public spaces, where in the city those public spaces tended to be, and what public spaces they themselves tended to occupy day in and day out.
Given my particular area of expertise, I spend a lot of time in public spaces like city parks, trying to understand how people engage with the public space. While one might argue that city parks are the last respite of “nature” in urban spaces, I focus on human activity in these public spaces. Trees and grassy swaths are nice, but I’m not paying attention to them, not directly. Pen and notebook always to the ready, I scratch down notes, small details I want to remember. At the end of the day, I write out an extended journal entry of the day’s sightings.
I have to admit that despite my diligent note-taking and journal-keeping, when it comes to writing up an actual article or conducting analysis, my notes are usually useless. What I tend to write about are the incidental things I notice when I stop taking notes, when I put my pen down to sit and leisurely drink a cup of coffee or eat my lunch.
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting eating a pretzel at Dilworth Park in Philadelphia. Earlier in the day, I had been writing in a coffee shop about another city; then, I spent the afternoon observing and taking notes in the nearby Rittenhouse Square Park. At the end of my day, I headed for my subway stop but stopped in Dilworth Park to have a soft pretzel before heading home. I was not taking notes; I was not analyzing the space. I was just enjoying a late snack after a studious day.
Many decorative city fountains are designed as regalia, but Dilworth Park features a modern fountain that is meant for play. A mother and her daughter were laughing as the little girl played in the fountain. They both smiled and giggled as the little girl whimsically splashed in the water. It was a lovely sight to take in while I finished my pretzel.
On the ride home, I kept thinking about the mother and her daughter, playing in this modern fountain. It reminded me of watching my cousins play, some twenty years earlier, in one of those regal fountains, certainly not designed for play, in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The next morning, I started a piece about human behavior and public fountain design, and completed it in a few days. The article was published a short two weeks later. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to develop a research topic, an article, anything, focusing on the Rittenhouse Square Park, at which I’d been taking notes earlier in the day. I’ve been trying to do so for months. In vain, I continue to take notes in Rittenhouse Square Park in hopes I will find a line of inquiry in them, and to this day, I still have nothing. Yet, leisurely enjoying a pretzel brought forth a whole essay.
What separates me from the cinematographers of Animal Planet is not that I’m any less fascinated by the nature I observe. It is that human nature is deeply personal. Lions are fascinating because they are different; their lives are mysterious, and observing them allows us to pursue the unknown. Human nature seems less mysterious, but if so, it is only because observing human behavior is revealing of one’s own experience. Observing human nature is an intimate and vulnerable activity. The little girl and her mother playing in the fountain drew on happy experiences of my own youth, which I had stored away on a dusty shelf in my memory.
Perhaps, when I return to Rittenhouse Square Park to take notes, I should put my pen down and pick up a pretzel.