A great din

My friend Ann sent me this link to an NPR story on cities (Adam Frank on “The City as Engine”).

Frank closes on a note similar to Mumford’s closing chapter: “We live at a moment when cities are poised to become the dominant mode of human habitation on the planet. But we don’t yet know if such a mode can be made sustainable for more than a century or two.”

An earlier observation of his got my attention, however. He says–

There is a word that applies to the sound of cities which almost never gets applied to nature: “Din.” The din of cities heard on the rooftop as a rising wall of noise is a testament to the true nature of cities as engines of organization and dynamos of disorder.

The first time I became aware of this din of acoustic entropy, I was sitting across from Manhattan on the cliffs of Weehawken, N.J. It was night and the great city was blazing from horizon to horizon. Its low rumble of noise flowed like a breeze blown at me from a mile away across the dark river.

The reason this stopped me is that just a fortnight ago, I heard the word “din” applied to nature.

One of my nephews had just arrived for a visit. He’s been living at Oxford, attending school for several years at that ancient and venerable British institution; and he grew up in England outside of London in the suburbs (Buckinghamshire). My husband retrieved Max at the airport in the evening, and they arrived at our place past dark. We live in a semi-rural area of eastern Pennsylvania where we are surrounded by fields, meadows, woodlots, state roads, and the inevitable housing development. And it is August, a lively time for insect life.

As we unloaded my nephew’s luggage from the car and walked him toward the door, he stopped and looked about curiously. “What is that great din?” he asked, “Is it birds, this time of night?”


He was referring to the cicadas and tree crickets (and probably a few tree frogs and the occasional flying squirrel). I suppose they do make quite a racket, though we are accustomed to the noise–the ‘dynamos of disorder,’ as Frank would say. When we explained, he remarked, “Oxford is quiet. But I do realize it is its own peculiar world.”

Nice to know there are pockets of organization somewhere: no acoustic entropy at Oxford.

Nonetheless, I treasure our noisy regional denizens and prefer their din to the roar of motorcycles, trucks, and  cars that speed past on the state road, although those noises have their own associations and dynamics and perhaps charm…the way I still find the sound of trains appealing because it reminds me of my childhood summers at my grandparents, I can imagine there are people who associate the rumble of vehicles and the great acoustic roar of cities with pleasant things.

Here is a photo of a cicada. A colleague says they are “the ugliest bugs in the world.” This one doesn’t look so awful to me.

Din, discord, or music. Ugly or appealing. To each his or her own.


Here’s a link to the tree cricket–one of several American varieties:

black horned tree cricket

Philosophy of cities

I’m going to let the late Lewis Mumford speak for himself in a couple of excerpts from The City in History. Even though I love history and have perused many a book on the subject(s), I learned a great deal about Western history from this book. What intrigues me most as I’ve read, though, is Mumford’s roles as historian-as-sociocultural-critic and historian-as-philosopher. When writing a book of this scope, no matter how founded on data, archeological and textual records, it’s hard for this writer to avoid thoughtful forays into philosophy. Mumford looks forward, too, speculating on city life in the future–and he takes rather a dim view of where megalopolises were heading in 1961. He was prescient indeed. While today’s citizens may argue that his judgments are overly negative, it is difficult to refute the accuracy of his speculations, particularly when he foretells the modern city’s environmental impact on society and on earth’s resources.

So much of the book is a warning: cities have a tendency to collapse, and there are reasons for that. Such reasons have to do with greed, power, poorly-applied technology, lack of foresight, overcrowding, ignorance of the need for balance in any system–governmental, agricultural, environmental, social, economic, etc. He sounds like a Cassandra at times, and we all know that aphorism about being doomed to repeat history, as does Mumford. But ultimately, he makes a passionate call to creativity and human life, warning us not to let our burgeoning technology reduce human activity to the level of the hive. He revels in the arts, in the conscious purpose of human living, in the genuine communication among persons, and in the joys available to those who understand an organic system must be balanced.

[He refers to men and mankind using the typical non-gender-neutral language of the era, which I am not going to alter in these excerpts.]


A bit of green…

Here he is discussing the “Green Matrix.” Remember, he’s writing in 1961!


“The maintenance of the regional setting, the green matrix, is essential for the culture of cities. Where this setting has been defaced, despoiled, or obliterated, the deterioration of the city must follow, for the relationship is symbiotic. The difficulty of maintaining this balance has been temporarily increased, not merely by the incontinent spread of low-grade urban tissue everywhere, dribbling off into endless roadside stands, motels, garages, motor sales agencies, and building lots, but by the rapid industrialization of farming itself, which has turned it from a way of life into a mechanical processing business no different in content or aim or outlook from any other metropolitan occupation…”


Following Mumford’s observation that overpopulation is often a result of privation, rather than the expected other way around, and leads to the “bursting” of the city as a healthy, organic system, he notes (with clear reference to his much earlier chapters on the decline of Rome):

“No profit-oriented, pleasure-dominated economy can cope with such demands: no power-dominated society can permanently suppress them. Should the same attitude spread toward the organs of education, art, and culture–man’s super-biological means of reproduction–it would alter the entire human prospect, for public service would take precedence over private profit, and public funds would be available for the building and rebuilding of villages, neighborhoods, cities, and regions on more generous lines than the aristocracies of the past were ever able to afford for themselves. Such a change would restore the discipline and the delight of the garden to every aspect of life; and it might do more to balance the birthrate, by its concern with the quality of life, than any other collective measure….significant improvements come only through applying art and thought to the city’s central concerns, with a fresh dedication to the cosmic and ecological processes that enfold all being…the best economy of cities is the care and culture of men.”

The care and culture of “men” meaning, “human beings”: that’s a lovely purpose for a city–or a nation–a noble one, and one too many people tend to forget as we occupy ourselves with the busy-ness of our own isolated lives.


Of note: The USA’s 50 “greenest” cities…which does not mean they are good cities by Mumford’s definition, but which is probably a good start. Click here.


The web journal qarrtsiluni is running an issue on “fragments.” I feel a bit fragmented myself lately. Here are a few recent, fragmentary thoughts.


I am reading Lewis Mumford’s tome The City in History and enjoying it for a number of reasons. One is Mumford’s ability to employ words such as “forfend” in a correct and even natural way. Another reason is the approach he takes to trying to reason through and tease out strains of pre-history that lead up to the establishment of cities world-wide, a kind of philosophical anthropology. Sixty years of subsequent archeological discovery and interpretation may alter his theories, or perhaps lean toward confirming them; I’m not enough of a scholar to know. I do, however, find his speculations appealing. One of his theories suggests that war developed along with hierarchical religion, kingship, and the city. It makes sense that militarization on any significant scale was not “invented” until there was population enough to support it and reasons (defend the king, the god, or the goods) to deploy a military body.

He does not say human beings are not inherently aggressive. He merely suggests that when we live in smaller, more isolated groups it is in our best interest to cooperate rather than to expend resources on warfare (soldiers, arms, defenses). Something to meditate upon in current times.


Mumford was researching and writing this book in the late 1950s (publication date was 1961). Interesting to me, he cites Jung’s archetypes and theories–though not in a way that implies Mumford was in any way a Jungian–about the feminine and the masculine as regards the development of human social structures. Bachelard, writing at about the same time, also cites Jung when he discusses the poetic space. I think of Bachelard’s brief passage about how a bird creates its nest with its own body, its breast molding the shape of the container that is its temporary home, and how this correlates with Mumford’s observation that the tent, hut, or village dwelling–indeed, often the village itself (and later, the city)–tends toward a cup-shape; it is a container. The earliest communities of human beings needed to develop containers in order to improve their chances of survival: jugs, skins, gourds for water and covered bowls or jars for grain and seed storage. Once humans could last through times when game or gathered food was scarce, they could procreate more efficiently. Mumford defines irrigation ditches as containers, too, as “feminine” objects as per Jung.

The garden wall, the city wall contained the human community or the sustenance for the human community, especially once domesticated animals were added to our communities.

As for the masculine/phallic, Mumford’s examples are all the expected objects: tools and weapons and stele.


The ancient Persian word that is the root for our “paradise” comes from the term for garden, specifically a walled garden. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “city” is a circle with “crossroads” inside it. A link to one of Notre Dame’s open course lecture pages has an illustration comparing this hieroglyph with other ancient representations of cities. (Notre Dame course on the geometry of buildings that demonstrates some of the universality of “containers” as Mumford observed: Geometry of Buildings.)


Also, I wonder whether Jung’s archetype theories were still new enough in 1960 that it was kind of a trend to cite him in works like these two books. Jung does not seem to be as popular these days except among his devoted followers–a niche audience. Perhaps his ideas are now just accepted as given? Not all of his ideas, but the general understanding of archetypes, I mean. Or is he out of fashion? Or am I just missing the current books that base a significant understanding of human cultural development upon these aspects of his thinking?


Man and His Symbols was an important book for me when I was a college freshman.


I keep thinking of the places I find in the meadow where the deer bed down. They are round, cup-shaped, molded to the bodies of the deer. Containers, temporarily, for the warm animal that sleeps, that breathes.