All That Green Stuff Behind Glass All That Green Stuff Behind Glass
Illustration by Basia M. (based on a drawing by John Tenniel)

All That Green Stuff Behind Glass

On Nature, Cities, and Ourselves
Kamila Dzika-Jurek
time 8 minutes

Perhaps what we call nature today isn’t nature after all. Let’s take a look at the intricate relationships between the city, the woods, and ourselves.

“What can all that green stuff be?” asked Lewis Carroll’s Alice, as she dreamed the familiar dream, observing the world from the distance of her suddenly elongating neck. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published during the Second Industrial Revolution, when the sense of departure from nature was yet to come, like a waking dream. In living through an era when glass and plastic separate humans not only from greenery, but also from other people, what can a person of the fourth revolution dream of today?

“‘Come, my head’s free at last!’ said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment, when she found that her shoulders were nowhere to be found: all she could see when she looked down, was an immense length of neck, which seemed to rise like a stalk out of a sea of green leaves that lay far below her.” In her dream, Carroll’s heroine experiences such wonders and fears over and over again. At times, she’s too small to climb a table, and too large to walk through the door and free herself from the inside of a house. “Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope!” thinks Alice when she cannot squeeze into the garden—the loveliest garden one could see.

By drinking various potions, and nibbling on mushrooms and suspiciously-signed cakes, our protagonist tries to find her place in this strange world and survive its dimensions, unfriendly to a human child.  However, the feeling of not fitting in—an unpleasant aspect of Alice’s journey—does not go away, and her dream soon becomes important beyond fiction. At least for us, the descendants of those who, sometime in the mid-19th century, began to rapidly grow out of all that green stuff.


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Down the Glass Rabbit Hole

Carroll’s book was published in 1865. That is, when Alice found herself down the rabbit hole, Parisians had been strolling the arcades for at least three decades. These glazed corridors (“glass-covered walkways”) attached to buildings where goods are displayed the same way art was before, were a subject of the writing by a visionary thinker and essayist Walter Benjamin—he argued they were the most important sign of the coming dream.

For the German philosopher, this “dream” was modernity—with its phantasmagoric desire for objects and goods quickly gripping the citizens of all the world’s capitals. The glass storefront became the symbol of the new era. Modern humans are born into a world in front of and behind the glass—ambiguous, simultaneously open and closed, like a dream devoid of a background and entrance. “It seemed to me singular that I had passed so often that prodigious retreat without having discovered the entrance,” writes Charles Baudelaire about one of the arcades in The Generous Gambler. After all, looking at a store display case, we see objects and ourselves simultaneously. The self amidst a sea of things.

This is why in the Arcades Project—one of the greatest texts ever written on modernity—Benjamin describes the 19th century as an age when societies began to fall into a growing illusion with a turn toward the self. The glass vitrine and the mirror are important artifacts of that period. People began to separate themselves from what, as Benjamin notes, they had hitherto grown up in and what had value for them, even if they had not perceived this value before, such as their relationships with others, with the earth (nature was still then mostly understood as food); relationships that helped them not only endure difficult living conditions, but also to move beyond their own interests. These human and non-human ties, lost to the aforementioned illusion, as well as the overlooked capital (no-one wanted to invest in the expanding cities of the time), are the great secondary protagonists of Benjamin’s unfinished work.

Some Vitrines

The improving living and travel conditions would gradually destroy the human instinct of forming communities and staying close to and caring for nature. The future was exclusively seen as grand, clean, and solid. It was then that we literally broke away from the ground, as the Industrial Revolution was to reveal its power much higher up—in the air. Glass and iron skyscrapers, emerging in big cities at the end of the 19th century were visible proof. The market halls, wrote Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion at the beginning of the 20th century, “obviously clings to the model of the greenhouse.”

Seweryn Baryka, the father of Cezary from Stefan Żeromski’s The Coming Spring, dreamed about glass cottages that would bring “cool and cleanliness” before his death. “These are display cabinets, dammit, not houses for people!” exclaims young Baryka when his father tells him what a peasant’s dwelling in post-war Poland may look like soon. Dirty farmyards ought to be replaced by glass houses and even entire homesteads polished like storefront vitrines. “And what will you say about schools of glass! About churches springing up on hilltops in accordance with the will and imagination of the artists, in shapes so beautiful that everything there’s been up till now pales in comparison and is eclipsed,” mumbles old Baryka antemortem. This isn’t surprising, because such deliriums spread to many people, not just in literature but also in real life, as early as the mid-19th century and long after (the action of The Coming Spring takes place in the 20th century, mainly during and just after World War I).

Residents of capitals, metropolises, and larger cities climbed higher and higher, and it was becoming easier and easier for them to move away from home. Societies were becoming obsessed with velocity. Railroad tracks—according to Benjamin—were the prototype of iron girders used in the construction of bridges, department stores, and housing. The most important consequences of this were the changing proportions of the urban world. Cities grew at an unprecedented speed. Entire squares were transformed, new boulevards were built, and green areas were organized into parks and gardens. Monuments and old structures were demolished. Paris of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s 1853 to 1870 “great renovation” program, among other things, gained sanitary safety, but lost much of its historic architecture of the medieval city.

Seeing my parents struggle with the commands of self-service parcel lockers, jostling with a ticket machine, or arguing with an automated phone line, I imagine that for many people in the 19th and 20th century, adjusting to a bigger and faster world must have been rather difficult. Perhaps they felt as helpless as older generations do today in the face of advancing technology. But there was no turning back. The impatient, capricious children of the French Revolution and the subsequent industrial revolutions would change the world forever. And their fears, unconscious desires, nascent neuroses, and anxiety had to be concealed, pushed down the rabbit hole and into distant dreams.

A Turn Towards the Woods

Dream and neurosis would soon be addressed by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and a renowned Austrian neurologist, born in 1856 in the Moravian town of Freiberg—today Czech Příbor. It was a real sign of the times that this resolute boy, the child of a wool merchant—not a very good one, as it can be read in Freud’s own biography—grew up to become the most famous dream doctor. The rapidly accelerating world at the turn of the 20th century, with its booming capitalist economy, awaited a specialist in hysteria and the explanations of incomprehensible obsessions.

It seems paradoxical that Freud’s theory emerged in a world based upon the values of rational design and organization of reality. It appears that the birth of psychoanalysis—with its thesis that the unconscious is the foundation of the ego—was a blow aimed at the foundations of capitalist philosophy. It was a jab at the strength of the human conviction that it is possible to control everything; that it’s just a matter of managing labor, planning and employing the right workforce, and, in fact, the egregious exploitation of nature and humans. It’s interesting that the author of Introduction to Psychoanalysis, in his groundbreaking work returns to dark folk tales, myths, and refers to poetry and art. Thus, he looks in the opposite direction to modernity; closer to the one people looked in the past—towards the woods, for centuries depicted as a realm of fears, dreams, and unconscious desires. It’s where modern physicians—Sigmund Freud, and later his disciple Carl Jung—searched for the secrets of the human psyche.


Almost all fairy tales begin with entering the woods, legends with the existence of untraversed wilderness somewhere far away. We are absorbed into the dark greenery, despite being clearly aware of the boundary between the forest and home. Children already know about this difference as they learn about the world through fables. The woods are a place where one loses control of the self, where the rational compass goes awry. “What if we never get home?” ask Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, even Sniff from The Moomins. At the same time, the forest is the only place where one can confront their darkest fears, and face one’s true self as its own kind of mirror.

It’s always with a little bit of envy and irony that I look at photos of trees, sometimes entire forests behind the windows of modern houses. Living rooms as large as entire apartments, built as if in the middle of the wilderness—just a thin pane of glass stretching from floor to ceiling separates them from the lush greenery. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Vietnam or Poland. Surely, it’s hard not to see this as a sign of the owners’ wealth, social status, or at least a tourist’s dream come true. Instagram posts from Anna Lewandowska—a fitness influencer and the wife of one of the most recognizable Polish football players, Robert Lewandowski—show lush trees and a garden behind the huge windows of her home gym. Looking at them, one can be reminded of the societal illusion that has persisted for at least two centuries. On the one hand, looking at the greenery, one is transported far back to our pre-industrial past; on the other, this view appears already blurred, distorted by the mirage of the internet and LCD screens.

David Vann’s 2019 novel Halibut on the Moon, brings to mind this rupture in modern humans. In one of its passages, the book’s protagonist Jim is looking at trees, swaying in a raging storm behind the large window of his therapist’s office:

Dr. Brown may not actually have a PhD. It’s unclear. What he does have is an enormous wall of glass that looks out to overgrown forest, trees all moving now in the wind. Jim is staring at the storm in close, and then that idea seems like the perfect metaphor for therapy, so he smiles.

“And what is that smile about?” Dr Brown asks.

“You have my head in your backyard. That’s why you have this big window. You know that no one can look at a forest and not see themselves.”


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on January 12, 2023.


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A Philosophical Moomin Tale
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If anyone still doubts that stories about Moomins can be read as philosophical texts – important for children, but perhaps more important for adults – they should read the final book in the series. Moominvalley in November is a beautiful treatise about the struggle between light and darkness that is taking place in nature and within us right now.

Some devoted Tove Jansson readers might not enjoy this book, because the Moomins are actually absent from the story. The author erased them almost completely – not only from the narrative, but also from the original Swedish title, Sent i november. This is actually the only title in the series that does not contain these warmer words: Mumintrollet, Muminpappan; nor does it refer directly to any living creature. The title sounds alien, more serious than the titles of other parts of the series. And this is exactly what the book is like.

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