The Urban Environment has Plenty of Wild if You Train Yourself to See It
Most of us are not professional athletes or full-time outdoor adventurers. Though our Instagrams and bookmarked pages might be filled with visually awesome, sweeping views and activity driven content, taking significant trips in the outdoors requires time, money, gear, education, and preparation.
Realistically, most of us cannot always be on a thru-hike or forever exploring far from home, and that is not a problem. However, believing that these exciting times are our only chances to be with nature is.
Though the nature we see in perfectly framed photographs and in our favorite outdoor publications is precious and should remain dear to us, there are parts of the natural world that we often ignore or even neglect: and they are free, accessible, and beautiful. Maybe the tree in your neighbor’s front yard will never make National Geographic. But does that mean that it is not nature? Are you able to wonder at it and appreciate the changing of its leaves through the seasons?
Sometimes, I am not able to go on a hike or outdoor experience because of time, money, or other circumstances. It can be stifling to be away from nature for too long. It is actually unnatural for people to exist removed from other animals and organisms, and I feel that deeply. Fortunately, nature is still all around us, and its influence on us does not change between National Parks and overgrown corners of the city.
I listened to a TED Talk recently by an environmental writer named Emma Marris. Emma’s talk hits on key points in this shift in our ability to see nature. She said,
“I mean, 71 percent of people in the US live within a 10-minute walk of a city park. And I'm sure the figures are similar in other countries. And that doesn't even count your back garden, the urban creek, the empty lot. Everybody lives near nature. Every kid lives near nature. We've just somehow forgotten how to see it. We've spent too much time watching David Attenborough documentaries where the nature is really sexy –and we've forgotten how to see the nature that is literally right outside our door, the nature of the street tree.”
When inside of me I know that I need time with the natural world, I am fortunate enough to have a park with a path to it nearby. Outside of my window, I can see a quirky, lop-sided, rectangular section of a tree. I have grown to love that awkward, ordinary part of a tree. When I need to think or to challenge myself, to clear my mind and find an escape, I can explore and grow intimate with the nature near to me. I know the flakes of bark and changing colors on each side of that tree. I belong with it as much as I belonged in the North Cascades.
I am still learning how to see the nature that is everywhere, as Emma Marris put it. There are actually things that I am able to do with the nature near to me that I might not be able to in a controlled setting, like a State Park, that continue to bring me joy and peace. To build on habits of recognizing and loving the wild that is around you, here are a few suggestions.
1. Spend Time Outside
Even if you are only able to run, walk, or sit on city streets, spend some time outdoors. Take a short walk after dinner or on your lunch break, or take your reading and coffee dates to benches or outdoor tables. Simply being outside offers an experience. You feel the weather and breathe in the open air. Get acquainted with the consistencies and changes we are often numb to by venturing out your door at sunrise or twilight. Give urban hiking a try if you have more time, exploring the streets and tucked away corners while reaping many of the same benefits as hiking on a remote trail. The comforts of home and office might be close by, but allow yourself to be a part of the natural world for a while.
2. Examine One Thing Regularly
I mentioned a tree outside of my window earlier. That tree has been the subject of my attention many times, and every time I look closely, I discover something new or changed. Find something that you can regularly check in on, whether it is a tree on your street or a plant growing in an unlikely spot near your workplace. For me, the tree outside is now a part of my rhythm of life, and it has helped pull me into the flow of the seasons.
3. Try to Capture It (Writing, Sketching, Photography, Watercolor etc.)
Observing nature takes on new dimensions when we look at it holistically. For me, writing about a tree or bug helps me to notice the details and appreciate its beauty and strength. Though this can be a frustrating practice to begin, start small. Take 10 minutes and try to sketch a flower, or write a haiku poem (three lines with the syllable pattern 5-7-5). Whatever you chose to do, this time will allow you to see much more of a natural thing than simply walking by.
4. Pay Attention
I think it is funny how people are always shocked by the weather. In every place I have lived, people say things like, “Yesterday was sunny, and today is all cloudy and cold. The weather here is so crazy.” What if the weather is not crazy, but we have simply not been paying attention to anything but the Weather app? Spending time outside will help you to feel the gentle nudges of fall before the temperature drops, or hear the whispers of winter before the first snowfall. Practice paying attention even if you are only walking to your car in a parking lot. Note the breeze, the clouds, and the leaves. Look at the grass and weeds. Soon, you will begin to feel connected to the world around you.
5. Think About the Natural World
Some people define “wilderness” as an area with certain restrictions, like a wilderness area. Others claim it is a mindset, or something inherent in every single living thing. Quite honestly, I am not sure if it matters which definition you choose for the word, but I do think it is of massive importance to think about the nature around you. Consider ways to value it more. Imagine if all that was left were the beautiful National Parks and wilderness areas we are so fortunate to have. How accessible would it be for most people? Would that impact how much we care about nature? If we do not see it and do not know it, will we protect it? Who will we become if we forget the natural world?
As I am writing this, I can see these white tufts floating in the sunlight outside of my window. I have no idea what they are called. They are so graceful, it is difficult to not just stare and watch them. Aside from painting or deeply thinking about the meaning of “wilderness”, we are natural beings. Watching these white tufts is calming and simple.
The more I wander out onto a porch, into a neighborhood park, or out on a backpacking trip, the more I understand my own place in the world. I am happier, and I am humbled. For all wild things, including ourselves, I hope we can all remember more and more how to see nature all around us.