The sun makes shadows but cannot see them. Shadows define the limit of the sun’s gaze.
Observed from the sun’s vantage at noon of the winter solstice, any city of the north could be, with a few months’ tinkering, a solid crystal of glass etched with the tracery of unleafed deciduous trees. Here at City without Cars we recommend this simple practical action. A late December balloon or sail flight can yield an ur-photo for each neighborhood. With the observer precisely in line with the neighborhood and the sun, the picture of the city neighborhood is taken, and used over the course of the following months to glass the entire vista. Or begin glassing without the picture by estimating where the sun will be at its highest point on its lowest day. The important thing is to begin.
In the fully realized southglassed city, glass caught in the wide-eyed solar stare is double-glazed trending week by week to triple as the new technologies come on line. If there is a more beautiful sight than this sheen of sand melted and reorganized at the molecular level to a prayer of receptivity and transparency, it will appear in due course and as a result of this first and oldest instinct to open oneself—and now, one’s collective self—to warmth and love. Behold, we might say in a little burst of poetic fervor, the crystal city. Visible only from the south. Its tenders are spiritual and will spawn rituals of faith but it is after all a geeky retrofit. It is less like work than like a relaxation of strictures, a hush from the dark glossolalia of the guilds, those specters and inspectors of governments with their gospels of hand wringing and finger wagging, their masses of houses huddled away from the sun, electricity bills yearning to be free.
Crystal city is not utopia because the guilds and governors have reserved that dreamy pie-in-the-sky jurisdiction for themselves, the comical hell of endlessly rehearsed obscenities in the voting booth, the belief that though it may not have worked for the last thousand times, acting stupid might, if we all just chant ‘hope’ and ‘change’ long enough to drown out our own instincts, do something for us. The hope of democracy is that maybe, just maybe, this time the act of giving more power to the guilds and governors, the very ones who have been destroying the city and the planet, maybe this time, well, who knows? Democracy and capital are in this sense utopian, a dream venerated to the point of illusion. The less they work, the more we tell ourselves with serious faces that they are inevitable.
Crystal city isn’t capitalized. It’s joyously undercapitalized. It doesn’t have shriek marks or slogans. Crystal city isn’t up to code at first. Later, it is the code. It maintains no more of a website than City without Cars, which is electronically skittish and wraith-like, but substantive right here on the street.
Crystal city is non-democratic, though the democracies are welcome to follow. We don’t need majorities in crystal city, nor do we need any of those other tyrannous instincts we learned in the locker room in high school. A fairly small number of people can inaugurate crystal city, because the project has already begun inside all people, and the tipping point is not the flurry of combined exertions but a widespread recognition of a childhood pleasure, the feel of the sun. The critical mass is not one of rising force but of a descending quietude, like a memorial day not for bluster and lies and of high marks for suffering, but for remembering that we flourish with warmth and love. Crystal city is not a Project nor a War on this or that, nor even a Works Progress event, but a thing that we do from the back of our heads, where vision is processed. Or like the feel of a bicycle between our legs. Perhaps not even a memory of balance so much as the simple act itself.
The devil takes us to a high place and tempts us with crystal city. Good devil, this one. If we float up away from the sun’s sightline—maybe we’re in a feather chariot or just on an advanced version of Google Earth—shadows appear. On the winter solstice, this apparition is the shadow forest skulking northward from the buildings. From this angle here in the crystal city looms the loam of gardens. Behold now garden city, its dull winter brown, its lack of luster a promissory note of a once and future summer. At something like seventy degrees from the horizontal (the horizontal might be Lake Ontario, and we’re hovering over a slightly tinkered Toronto) our sightline anticipates the sun’s summer solstice sightline by six months, when everything that is brown will be green. A city of baseball caps pointed at the equator, with a garden on each roof stretching right along the brim of each hat. In winter, the sun shines into crystal city, and in summer, onto garden city. Magic. No complex engines are needed to perform this thermal wonder, since the sun heats or withholds with the wisdom of a witness to a billion gentle revolutions. The receptive city is in cahoots with the sun. The city’s action, a non-action. Doing nothing to accomplish so much, the city gains a kind of quasi-sentience. It meditates. Senses its old bluster, its old frenetic whine and buzz, and gently releases it.
All the silly jobs, which is to say almost all the jobs, all the ones that are about scurrying and appeasing and cringing and piping and administering and inserting and leading and insuring and bilking, the endless passing of guilders, the taxing burden of representation, the whole jobby jibber-jabber of the vampire guilds with their histories of being astonished and repelled by the affinity of their own shadows for their own bodies, these are a momentary cloud across the sun. In the receptive city, these are softly relinquished.
We must eat, we wish to be warm, and we are curious. What else is there?
What have the guilds done for us lately? The guilds labor frantically to generate illusions for us. Or if they touch the real, it is with the hand of the assassin. Thank-you, but that’s really quite enough of that sort of thing. A nice assortment of gimcracks and gewgaws. But would you mind going away now?
Stick around if you like sunlight. Garden city and crystal city yield endlessly to each other, the courtly dance of sine and cosine, season upon season. Even now most of the people can walk to most of the food nodes, and as the nonsense jobs fall away, and as winter food becomes more like something from a root cellar than a can, more of us will have more time to help the less fleet of foot. Draw a circle around the city to start, and keep out all the cars. We’ll need trains for a while, till we shed our training wheels together with our guild appetites. How big should the circle be? How much of the city should be without cars? The answer to that is the same as the answer to the question, how much happiness do we deserve?
We can keep subsidizing for a while, as we do now with the car dole, all the libertarians and rugged individualists and environmentalists and corporate ags and other welfare recipients out in there in a countryside designed for driving, smashing trees, and poisoning rivers. Whether we cut off their allowance or whether they remember that they can cut themselves off might depend on how much fun we’re having in the cities. They probably already know there’s more delight in canoeing on Tahoe than in driving around in a Tahoe with a canoe on the roof. Let them learn from the few small farmers who are not pissing in the rivers, and we won’t have to preach to them.
In England the punts and skiffs that are used to go between land and the bigger boats are called tenders, and are named for the bigger boats. Tender to Emma, they might say on their transoms, or Tender to Tickly Bottom II. In the language of the island, which is after all our tongue as well, a tender is also an offer, a kind of formal gift. “Tender to a [lover’s name]” is the seventh most beautiful phrase I have ever heard, and I am elsewhere in the process of enumerating the first six on that list. On our planet, every good and perfect gift is from above, and there is no shadow of turning, as the King James Bible phrases it. Sunlight is a tender of affection. Love requites it.
And if Earth were a tender, to what would it be tender? There is no larger craft out there to which we can row and be saved. Perhaps Earth is a tender to its future self, floating on the sea of its own possibilities. Keep it well, then, for it is a time as well as a place.
The sun makes shadows but cannot see them, since wherever it looks it dispels shadow. What better lens for looking unblinkingly back at the pure nature of the homestar than south-facing glass, this medium of molten rock, cooled to a sheer and glittering paradox of being and non-being? Let us make cities which trade, stare for stare, the gaze from the heavens, and see how much happiness we can withstand.
DAVID KER THOMSON lives in the Dufferin Grove watershed near latitude 45. He can be reached at email@example.com