It’s nice to imagine ourselves as self-contained units immune to the environment. I’m a human being, after all, a reasonable creature and I rule my own roost! Oh, if only we could put up our defense shields and repel the blaze of the sun; the pressure of the atmosphere bearing down up us; the sirens, horns, and engines of the city — not to mention sundry smells and faces; the moisture of the air; the insistence of the wind.
But, alas, we are fundamentally environmental beasts. Our very existence is based in a persistent taking up of the world around us — air, food, water, touch. We exist in the world as physical and metaphysical creatures and, as such, are affected by the swirling mechanics of the universe. Like any software system, it’s Garbage In Garbage Out.
I, for one, don’t like being in water. I know many people feel free and easy in water; they find it a temporary liberation from the hard demands of ground and gravity. But, for me, the pressure of the water on my skinny ass hebe body makes me queasy. Astronauts must train their bodies to go with a zero gravity environment; the first few times, they vomit. This is how I feel in water all the time.
Such is my body. Such is my system, my mode of becoming with the world. Each of us is more or less different, with different densities, different temperatures, different metabolisms, different speeds, rhythms, senses of texture and scent. My kid, like most kids, gags on mushrooms — the consistency repulses him. With time, his body will change and different things will turn him on and off.
Places, like people, have ways of going. These fluctuate but usually within predictable limits. Certain people in certain places flourish while others diminish, deflate, wither, recoil. The great questions of philosophy, says Nietzsche, are not What is truth? What is morality? But What do you eat? How do you recreate? And Where do you live?
When I was in college in Philadelphia, I had a friend who was a hilarious, relentless kvetch. Our on-running gag was we’d do a radio show called, “Another Thing I Hate.” Well, Ben hated Philadelphia. He claimed he couldn’t breathe there, that he was always suffocating. I thought he was just nuts — in a smart, funny way. And then, one spring break, he and I went camping in the Sonoran desert. Within hours, his entire disposition changed. He was lighter, happier, goofier. He looked different, as if a crushing force had been lifted. After college, he moved to Israel and never came back. The desert suits him, suits his way of going.
I have a friend in San Francisco. When I first met her two years ago, she was recovering from hip surgery and so couldn’t leave the city to go to the Sierra mountains she claimed to love so much. She was depressed and, like a fool, I refused to believe it was because she couldn’t go to where she felt best. I just thought she was constitutionally depressed. Recently, she’s recovered her mobility and has been spending more and more time in the mountains. And, just like that, her depression is conspicuously lifted. She knows her appetite for place, what suits her, where she goes best while I, the so-called Nietzschean, underestimated her need to be in the right place. Silly me.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for 22 years, over half my life. This city has moderate extremes; it rarely gets very hot or very cold. But between that seeming moderation of 50 to 70 degrees, the day swings dramatically. Now, when I first got here, the area was experiencing an extreme, multi-year draught. It was dry and warm and I loved it. The temperature and dryness was just right for my constitution. After around 10 years, this all changed. The rains the fogs and winds started kicking up shit. So rather than a dryness tempered by ocean air, there is a fetid moistness that fosters mold, mildew, and decay — for me.
To boot, the city is overrun with foliage from everywhere in the world. And as it’s always temperate here, something is always in bloom. The body — my body, at least — can’t acclimate to any one kind of greenery. There is no real seasonal explosion of pollen as there is in the deciduous east. No, San Francisco air is a wafting of exotic pollens all year round. Everyone, it seems, at some point in his or her San Francisco tenure, experiences some kind of allergy.
There is nothing inherently good or bad about this distinctive San Francisco weather. The question is: How does it go with your way of going? The wind can be particularly abusive, especially at sunset. It does not do me well. I get agitated. This is not true of everyone here. I have a good friend who loves that feeling of wind pushing against her, blowing through and over her. Me, I loathe it. I feel like I’m getting pushed about by the rudest, most insistently indifferent mob. So I’ve learned my place: come the wind’s witching hour, I stay indoors.
Going well in the world is not easy. It’s a persistent task of negotiating one’s environment — food, air, people, work, sleep, booze, movement. It’s a lot to tend to. I spend so much time and attention trying to figure out the right thing to eat for the system I am, I sometimes forget about other aspects of my environment. Living is like learning a golf swing: you spend so much time learning to hold your arm straight that you neglect to bend your knees; learn to bend your knees and you forget to swing through your hips.
Place matters. There’s a reason we can talk about regional cultures, why there are certain and clear propensities to certain places. There’s reason why Jews and Catholic Italians share a cultural affinity. Sure, we both have an intense sense of guilt and a love-hate relationship with our mothers — not to mention sizable shnozzes — but we also stem from a common place: the Mediterranean. To exclude this is insane. The religion and the physiology and the place walk together, are constituted together. There’s a reason we can talk about German philosophy vs. French philosophy vs. Anglo philosophy: place, weather, atmosphere shape how we go in this world including how we think, love, touch, smell, fuck. This is not to exclude cultural and socio-political histories. It’s to say, rather, that the cultural and the environmental cannot be separated once and for all.
One can make sense of the world, distribute and understand the world, through atmospheric propensities. To imagine otherwise is to misconstrue the very nature of human becoming. We are systems amidst systems — atmospheric, urban, digestive, financial, cosmic. We are once constitutive and constituent of the environment. It behooves us to reckon the world in which we find ourselves. And to find a place that suits our comportment.