Back to the Roots

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Humankind has developed incredibly complex intellectual, cultural, physical, and technological artifacts over the years. This has put a wide chasm between our present status and our "roots" where we all were closer to nature, closer to the source and sustenance of our lives.


These are some of the "roots" that all humankind shares: Fire and the hearth. Running water, bubbling or still water. Ice and steam. The sea and the ancient life within it. The sun, moon, stars, comets and planets. Soil, mud, sand, rocks. Mountains, caves, dunes, swamps. Plant — huge trees, alpine flowers, cactus and lichen — and animal life — frogs, monkeys, lemurs, spiders, rats, ants, bats, mosquitoes, cassowaries, camels, penguins and pigs. Hunger, food, nourishment, thirst, cells, the body, the rhythms and phases of life. the family; culture, music, art, and stories. Love, knowledge, wonder, mystery, language. perception. We can't foreswear them because they are part of us.


In A Pattern Language, Alexander and his colleagues described three patterns devoted specifically to water — ACCESS TO WATER (25), POOLS AND STREAMS (64), and STILL WATER (71) — as well as SACRED SITES (24) and TREE PLACES (171). Yet, according in a review of Alexander's work in a Harvard Design Magazine review Saunders faults Alexander’'s "New Age flower-child wistfulness" when Alexander speaks of the health benefits that are associated with a deeper connection with nature.

In cities and in developed areas around the world generally many of humankind’s “roots” are barely visible. In the U.S., for example, only 2% of people who live in rural areas are engaged in farming. Even more astounding is the fact that "rural" is no longer rural: a large percentage of rural dwellers live within 25 miles of a city. But far from being a nostalgic look back, discovering, cultivating and building on our “radical center” can be a wellspring for creative preparations for the future.

We are learning the hard way that "estrangement from the animate earth has negative consequences for human functioning" (Barlett, 2005) and people are making strides towards a closer touch. City dwellers are now demanding “Pea patches” and other urban gardening opportunities. People are learning the value of having plants close by when, for example, convalescing from disease, operation or abuse (Tesh, ____). In South Central Los Angeles, in an economically disadvantaged part of the city close to the scene of the Rodney King riots of 1992, 14 acres of land that were destined to become home for a giant trash-to-energy incinerator was purchased by the city through eminent domain for $4.8 million. Through a series of events, the city granted temporary use of the land for community gardens that turned into 12 years and the 350 families have cultivated the urban farm since that day. In 2006, in spite of large public demonstations, the farm, lungs for the city in a car-centric metropolis, was reclaimed by the city to be sold back to the original owner. The land will be used for light manufacturing or warehouses.

In the introduction to her excellent book (2005) Peggy Barlett recounts many of the ways through which we have lost or nearly lost our connections to our roots — and the possible perils that such losses may engender. She also shows how the benefits from reconnecting spread in unexpected ways: "As volunteers clean up a trash-filled urban stream, for example, they absorb a new concept of watershed. They learn that parking lots, driveways, and lawn chemicals affect water quality and stream insect life. People who might have never thought about mayflies or runoff water temperature develop a new relationship to the stream ecosystem and indicators of its health (Barlett, 2002). Concerns about urban air quality also draw attention to the ecological matrix of life. Trees provide "services" by removing air pollutants, retaining storm water, cooling temperatures, and providing habit and food for other species. Restoration work of prairies and forests builds attachment to the natural world in a more grounded local way than a more diffuse embrace of nature in the abstract (Light and Higgs, 1997). According to Barlett, "Modern cities make distance from nature possible for a larger group than in the past." She also raises the idea that "Urban place is a locale as well for the enactment of human hierarchy. Distance from the natural world may be connected to power over the lower classes and their labor." Certainly the arts, the priesthood, the seats of governmet, and the banks are found in cities.

One intriguing concept is how our very thought patterns — our abstractions, human-centrism, and economic calculations — may exclude nature and our roots. Barlett, for examples, shows how anthropology, sociology and the other social sciences exclude humankind's connections with other life forms, natural phenomenon and own past. Of course from a capitalist perspective, nature has "value" only when it has a "price" and potential for profit. Unfortunately many people find themselves "priced-out" of their own land and their own culture legacy. Access to unexploited and unspoiled nature, our common roots is increasingly the domain of the wealthy. The most dangerous of these tendencies, however, may be that we forget our own history as a part and product of nature and hence our ability to reformulate a more harmonious connection with nature.

How are we supposed to employ this pattern? For most of humankind's progress through the centuries nature was abundant and humankind scarce. Nature was something that could be "conquered." Some of the world's religions informed us that God intended us to have "dominion" over nature. We can't really "go back" to the primeval time of our "roots" — nor would we want to. We will not and can not abandon our cities and "return" to a state of nature. But at the same time we must boldly explore the idea of living in some sort of closer harmony with nature and the forces of life that we implicitly think we can ignore.

Yet for the timelessness and presumed innocence of our roots, immense damage has been wrought over time "in the name of" roots: blood, tradition, purity, the soil. We know that people from the city are not "better" than people from the country. We also know that the reverse is not true; for actually many people in the country have also lost their feel for nature. We don't invoke the idea of "roots" to pit one group against another but to relate the two in common bonds.

Barlett believes that "there are unanticipated benefits to collective and individual well-being with the reconnection to the natural world, an often-neglected dimension of the emerging paradigm shift toward a more sustainable society" and "part of a shifting paradigm that locates humankind within the biosphere." Thinking holistically we can imagine and create new opportunities for reconnecting with our roots that have unxpected benefits: "a community garden in New York City may replace an abandoned lot and come to be a social focus for many who live nearby." Barlett again, "Community gardens not only provide nutritious food and conviviality with neighbors, but can build a different sense of self through a new awareness of growing cycles, weather and human agency."

For example, South Central Farmers and their current struggle to maintain the urban farm land.


Barlett presents "several layers of connections to nature" including knowledge; emerging emotional attachment; purposeful action; new personal choices and ethical action and commitments to political action. The plants that we eat of course have literal roots that climb backwards, down through the soil, searching for nutrients. Humankind’s roots also reach back through time and space and are likewise eternal.

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Humankind has altered the world socially and materially incredibly over the years. This has created a chasm between our present status and our "roots" which are closer to nature and closer to the source and sustenance of our lives. Going Back to the Roots is not intended to be a nostalgic trip: discovering, cultivating and building on our “radical center” can be a wellspring for creative preparations for the future.

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