I prefer to be outside rather than indoors. Better yet, outside away from all evidence of human infestation. As a teen, I wanted to study environmental science and imagined myself living in a cabin far away from neighborhoods, strip malls and traffic. I wanted to live close the land, growing and preserving my food, minimizing my impact on the planet’s resources and stepping away from urban consumption and destruction. As a young parent, I thought it mandatory to get out of the city and raise my kids surrounded by nature. Instead, they became urbanites who love the resources of their city environment and I live on a quarter acre surrounded by strip malls and auto dealerships. And though I yearn to garden without the ever-present backdrop of road noise, I am beginning to see that my youthful view about what defines living with nature was limiting and unrealistic.
Seattle author, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, shares this feeling. In her newest book “The Urban Beastiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild” she writes:
“As inviting as the notion of a rural existence might be for many of us, the remaining open spaces in our country and beyond simply cannot accommodate a back-to-the-land movement, no matter how well-intentioned …
No matter how much I might yearn for a sweet Jersey cow on the back forty (and at this point I’d settle for a pair of Nigerian goats on a shy half-acre), I have come to realize that the most ecological life I can live begins with a new understanding of my urban home.
We are in the midst of a vital thrust toward urban and earthen sustainability, changes in food practices, and conservation imperatives. We inhabit what I call a new nature, where the romantic vision of nature as separate from human activity must be replaced by the realistic sense that all of nature, no matter how remove, is affected by what we do and how we live.” (p.11-13)
In an earlier blog post, This Is Home, I wrote a loving depiction of the salmon spawning stream where I spent every lunch break for a summer. It ran behind an apartment complex and shopping center, steps away from a major road. And though it was set aside as “preserved watershed,” once inside the lush canopy of green, human interference was not clear. Despite its urban address, nature has adapted and thrived there. Without a doubt, it is a manufactured “wild” space, but it is a necessary one not only to the species of animals and plants that would have otherwise been displaced, but to the people who encounter them there.
These days, spending time in any “wilderness” besides my neglected garden is rare. My current job takes up too many hours in the week and too much energy and it is located on a busy highway in a rough part of town that seems devoid of anything natural. My days are often spent dissuading heroin addicts from selling me stolen goods. Stepping outside for fresh air only gains me lungs full of pollution and ears momentarily deafened by the engines of muscles cars and shriek of sirens. It is as urban as urban can be. But recently I walked through a nearby vacant lot hoping to sit in the grass that had sprung up through the rubble of an old building. As I picked my way around the garbage and hypodermic needles, I heard the unmistakable call of a Killdeer. Sure enough, just steps away, a delicate, long-legged brown and white bird was flopping around in the weeds, looking for all the world like it had a broken wing. It is a Killdeer tactic to behave like this; they drag themselves around as if injured, leading a predator away from their nest. And though I had seen plenty of Killdeer in the Pacific Northwest, I had never actually seen one pull their famous stunt. It was a humbling reminder that even though I wasn’t someplace I considered “natural,” nature was still present.
The August issue of The Sun magazine, one of the few periodicals I subscribe to, has an interview with writer and passionate wilderness advocate, Jack Turner. It took me days to read the interview as I paused to absorbed the truth I had sensed but hadn’t been able to put words to myself. In it he talked about the shifting baseline in environmental issues—how the changes in climate, the shrinking glaciers and the demise of species have become the new normal. He uses a mountaineering saying, “Expectation is the mother of all fuck up” to talk about how we become blinded and immobilized by what we want to see versus what is happening. Yes, we have made a difference —there are better salmon runs and more eagles than there were a decade ago due to our preservation efforts. And yes, there is a Killdeer in the parking lot near my work, which must mean nature is adapting to our infringement in a positive way. However, we neglect the fact there used to be many times the amount of salmon, that eagles were common and the Killdeer would never have lived in this particular place because it would likely have been heavily forested. And that is to say nothing of how many man-made pollutants are found in the salmon the eagles are feeding off of and what the long-term repercussions of this are for both eagles and humans. Even while we acknowledge the beauty that surrounds us, we must also acknowledge how we have manipulated it and strive to protect the future of it. Our presence within it—even our attempts to preserve and promote it, also change it. We mustn’t lose sight of what harm we have done even as we marvel at the resiliency of the environments we have chosen to attend to. We must hold the need to be in the wild hand in hand with the truth that by our interference in it, the wild becomes less so.
Even so, Turner advocates the need for people to have intimate encounters with the wild we have left. By this he means not driving through a national park in your car, believing at the end of the day that you have been in nature. You haven’t. You have been in your car, watching a protected version of it through the safety of the glass. Instead, imagine parking the car and stepping onto a trail, without talking, without a cell phone buzzing in your pocket or an iPod plugged into your ears. Imagine that as you walk, you hear a deep, thumping drum start beating slowly, then fast and then suddenly falling silent. It is a sound that doesn’t seem possible this far away from manmade objects, yet it seems foreign in the normal “silence” of the trail, a silence filled with the chirp of birds and buzz of crickets. It raises the hairs on your arms as you wonder about the size and proximity of an animal that could make such a primal sound. And then, cautiously rounding a bend in the trail, you come across a male Grouse, the dirt color of his barred feathers nearly blending into the trail. He fluffs himself and disappears into the foliage and moments later, you hear the call again. This time, you know the sound came from him and instead of fear, you are overwhelmed by wonder that such a small bird could make such a strange sound.
Even though you may only be a mile or two from your car, your experience has created an intimate connection with the wild you have just visited. You will be more likely to visit again; more likely to want to preserve the land and the bird and the air you breathed there. More importantly, you will have been changed by the experience of leaving behind your human concerns and distractions to participate for a moment in an environment where you are part of a whole, instead of the whole itself. Turner has written, “Without big wild wilderness, I doubt most of us will see ourselves as a part of it”. In The Sun interview, he expands on this to say that our experience with nature —or with the wild, doesn’t need to be “fancy”. It can be car camping with the kids, walking the dog in Central Park or leaving the city to look up at the stars. The important thing is to connect with nature and our place within it, allowing your mind be at peace with the simplicity of what is in front of you.
Seeking out these moments of intimacy with the natural world on a small level, like a walk in an urban watershed park, or large, like an extended backcountry trip, is critical to my wellbeing. I can feel the lack of connection make me ill. I feel disjointed and edgy, restless and yet exhausted. I need to be someplace where human sounds are not the primary thing I hear. The artificial colors and lightening of my day-to-day existence need to be replaced by the hues and shadows of the forest, the glow of starlight and the way soft rays of sunlight filter through fir boughs. I need to smell the warm spiciness of pitch, to feel the thick roughness of bark under my hand, to have birdcalls and moving water be the loudest sound in my ears. I need this because I am a part of it—something I forget when I get dressed in my technical fabric clothes and drive off in my fossil fuel consuming vehicle to work in my artificially lit and heated store selling gear for other people to play outside.
Haupt and Turner’s two ways of looking at nature may seem slightly in conflict – one urging awareness of the wild in your urban environment, the other encouraging you to leave it behind for the hills – they are not. Both acknowledge the importance of the hawk in my city backyard and the mountain goat on the wilderness trail. Both positions are equally critical to consider as I seek a connection to nature. It is important to not idealize the “wild” while striving to protect what little of it we have left. What is important is to seek out meaningful connections with nature. What little I can do in the city can be as important as a multi day backcountry backpacking trip. Intending to engage at a deep level – an intimate level- with nature is the key.
Even so, sometimes I feel as if I cannot take the city and its harshness another day. Then I see a butterfly land on the sunflower in my garden, the same type of butterfly I have witnessed gently fanning itself on a flat rock on the edge of a snow-melt stream 10 miles from a road. And for a moment, I am as full of gratitude for the habitat I have been able to create in my yard as I am for the gift of memories of that day on the trail.
I want more of both.