Not long ago I had the opportunity to visit my former home of New York City, and I found myself wandering around my old neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. There is a park in Bay Ridge that runs along the west side of the neighborhood with a fantastic view of New York Harbor, Staten Island, and New Jersey beyond the bay. I went for a lunchtime stroll in this park and found myself in a lovely little spot called the Narrows Botanical Garden. The garden is small, volunteer run space within the park, nestled up against the busy Belt Parkway. I had walked though this garden many times when I lived in Bay Ridge, but had forgotten all about its existence until this moment.
The garden consists mostly of pretty ornamental plants and trees in lovingly cared-for arrangements, but it also contains a small native plant garden. When I lived in New York, I was far too immersed in the urban grit and grime to care much about native plants, but now that I have fully embraced my inner West Coast tree-hugger, I was very excited to see a native garden here. Of course, being very early spring in New York, there wasn’t much for obvious plant life beyond the empty branches of dormant, deciduous trees and shrubs. Still, the canopy of branches created an atmosphere of solitude that shielded me from the noises of the city all around.
Kingdom Animalia, on the other hand, was out in full force. Sparrows perched on the branches and sang while robins fluttered about and dug in the dry foliage looking for worms. Squirrels skittered about through the undergrowth, and small turtles floated about in a little pond. The scene was a beautiful, peaceful contrast to the busy freeway right next door. Sure, not all of these were native birds or critters, but the exuberance of life was clearly evident in this place.
I reflected on the fact that I never felt very connected with nature when I lived in New York, and I can imagine that the sentiment is probably widely shared among city-dwellers. Yet here, all sorts of life abounded, right in the midst of all of the chaos, seemingly indifferent to being surrounded by the largest mass of industrialized humanity in the United States. It made me wonder what exactly we are seeking when we go looking for “nature.”
For most people, the word “nature” carries with it a connotation of wilderness untouched by human hands. Never mind the fact that only a small percentage of us actually get to experience such places at all, much less on a regular basis. We think of nature as something that exists somewhere else, somewhere other than the “human world” where we live and move and have our being.
I see this all the time in my native Southern California. We are blessed here to be surrounded by large, beautiful open spaces that often surround our communities, especially here in San Diego County. But I have found that few people pay much attention to our vibrant native shrublands. Even our language reinforces this sense of value. These lands are just “brush”, waiting to be devoured in firestorms, without much other use. Real “nature” is considered more appropriate to places like the Sierras, where the beauty is more obvious to the casual observer, at least based on a preconditioned sense of beauty.
Is our concept of nature is based on some sort of platonic ideal, a vision of some sort of Edenic paradise that is very difficult, if not impossible, to find? I’m not sure, but I’m not sure if the cultural approach to natural beauty is much of a help. Art that is inspired by nature, whether visual or literary, usually attempts to present pristine, unspoiled wilderness in reverent tones. We see or read about majestic places: deep forests, cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountain precipices. We hear the words of wise wilderness mystics like John Muir, using almost-Biblical language to describe the sacred cathedrals of nature. There is nothing wrong about how these things stir our souls, but do they create a dichotomy between nature that is “out there” and the world that is all around us?
My fear is that, in seeking some sort of ideal of nature that is separate from the world of our actual daily experience, we place ourselves in a context for life that is outside of the natural world. And as any ecologist will tell you, this is a dangerous place to live because it doesn’t actually exist. We are no more separate or unconnected from our bioregions than the creatures of the garden, except that we erect cities around us to try to live in denial of this fact. But we can only live in such denial for so long before the consequences will catch up with us.
As naturalist and writer Robert Michael Pyle said so well, “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?” If we lack the ability to see the natural world around us, it is doubtful that our worldview will be affected enough to really care about the rest of the wild places of the world. This is not to say that pure wild places are not valuable, or that we should not be working as hard as we can to preserve them. We just need to recognize the sacredness of these everyday places of life and beauty, as much if not more than the lofty cathedrals of unspoiled wilderness. The wild should not be confined to only the places we decide, and our imaginations must certainly follow the same path.
So I want to thank people such as the volunteers who keep special places like the Narrows Botanical Garden preserved in the midst of our crowded urban environments. Let’s all do what we can to notice the life that is all around us, and to begin to realize that we don’t always have to travel far into the wilderness to experience a connection to nature.