I must confess, I am a nature snob. Perhaps it is because I am spoiled living in the rural west with so much public land all around me, and few people to encounter along the path. Over 70% of the county where I reside in western Colorado is federally managed public land. One can get “spoiled” with so much open space. I ask my students every year how they define “nature” and inevitably most of the definitions do not include humans. I use this as a “teachable moment” to point out that they are creating a dichotomy between humanity and nature that might not be helpful for environmental thinking or the health of the planet, especially when that dichotomy turns oppositional and it becomes humanity vs. nature (or visa versa in our language about “natural” disasters). Content that I have proved the danger of their working definition of “nature,” I never questioned my own assumptions. I like my “nature” served up with few human encounters as well. I think I am encountering “true nature” only when I find it in some nameless cluster of mountains surrounded by the Barents Sea far away in Norway.
I work hard to crop people out of my “nature” shots, I embrace definitions of “wilderness” that define it as having no human longterm visible impact. I am a “nature” snob…. Most of the world does not have the luxury to encounter “nature” in such ways. They have neither the time nor the resources to “go out” and find nature on some distant mountain. I realize I am fortunate, but until a recent walk in a park (still within the city limits of greater London) in Northwood, England, it didn’t sink in how “dangerous” my own definition was for planetary survival.
We simply can’t rely on encounters with a “nature” that is out there somewhere beyond the reach of most of humanity if we are to love that nature as our own. People can’t “love” what they don’t “know.” If they only encounter “nature” as I define it on some pilgrimage to the deep woods or the wild coastline, then only a very small minority of us will be moved to work to protect it. That simply won’t be enough.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. The problem is not that people don’t know nature, the problem is that they don’t see it when it is right in front of them, when it is all around them, when it is within them; for we are not dichotomously separated from “nature” (and we never were) except in our imagination and our hubris. Thus, I confess, I am a “nature” snob. This lesson was taught to me by my most unlikely guide, a trusty hound (Koko) I had the privilege of walking with for a week on the outskirts of London in neighborhood green spaces referred to as “peri-urban” parks in the landscape management literature.
These parks are located throughout the London area (and in most other cities across Europe) and they are heavily used on a daily basis for people who don’t have the time to go deep into the “wilds” for their encounter with nature. They are used by families to give children their first encounters with the wonders of wild things right in their backyard. By urban and suburban dwellers to walk their dogs after work, to get exercise, to fish, to birdwatch, to smell the earth all around them and find a break in their everyday lives from the built environments that shut us off from reconnecting with living things and learning again to love the natural.
This is outdoor recreation every bit as much as the more formal definitions we harbor in our minds that include mountain biking, hiking, trail running and the like on public lands outfitted by the latest REI fashions. People in Europe don’t have to go out to a distant (and still rare) national park, they plan for parks in the spaces in which they live. It might be a non-profit organization who maintains and develops these close-in “nature” preserves such as Stocker Lake outside London,
A government protected area, such as Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve (also outside London) where trails are developed and benches are located so people can encounter the natural world through a leisurely stroll punctuated by moments of rest and reflection along the way.
It can be a decision to give prime riverfront property over to benches and playgrounds and walking paths as in this scene from Trondheim Norway (the most walkable, and pedestrian friendly city I have ever encountered, period!)
A neighborhood lake and woods, free and open to the public in Bronnoysund Norway;
Prime real estate on the end of a peninsula overlooking the fjord in Bergen, Norway developed only by paths, monuments and trees that are open to all who live in the city nearby (and visitors as well).
Or a path well used by walkers engaging nature in the shadow of Tramore, Ireland. Even though there is a coastal promenade less than half a mile from this scene, the city planners offered these paths and a natural looking playground to add to the diversity of opportunities for the towns residents to engage in outdoor recreation and to reconnect to nature. Although the coastal walks might attract the tourists, it seems these peri-urban parks are set up for everyday encounters by the local public. Visitors are welcome, but the parks are not marketed for the tourist industry, they are established to enhance the quality of life for the area residents.
People of all ages can rediscover their “inner child” and the wonder of play in natural surroundings.
Even the material in these parks is “natural” and simple. Logs placed to create obstacles in a neighborhood playground in Devon offers resident children challenge without “breaking the bank” of public finance.
The British tell us that we have the Victorians to thank for the idea of public parks accessible to all. I am not sure if the Victorian Era in England was the model for all public parks, but one has to admire their commitment to making natural public spaces free and available to the public. Previously, the experience of walking through green spaces and gardens had been a privilege for the wealthy few, but as workers poured into the cities at the height of the industrial revolution and encountered a polluted and built environment, the city planners realized the need for “natural” settings to make such an urban life livable. Large planned parks were built into the center of many urban areas, perhaps the most famous are Central Park in New York City or Hyde Park in London; but my favorite urban park is still St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.
It is a busy place in the heart of the bustling city, but it offers a retreat from the craziness of urban life. It is a refuge of green, of water, flowers and reflection used by thousands everyday on their breaks from work. Despite the heavy use, it is planned well to offer contrast to the built environment just beyond the hedge on the city streets.
Many lament that the cell phone culture is drawing people away from nature, but even on a cloudy day in Dublin, the benches are full of people wishing to have their cake and eat it to; to use their cell phones for necessary communication while they connect with the green space and refuge that St. Stephen’s provides. Nature snobs only show their blindness to the images of nature all around them in such places.
Ironically, it was my dear friend cut off from “nature” and sight in a sterile hospital environment for almost as long as I have been on sabbatical that showed me my own blindness to the wild all around me. She writes so beautifully about the light of the sun coming through her window, the dirt under a doctor’s fingernail, the plant in a corner that connect her with nature. I am humbled and my sight is opened. I have seen efforts all over Europe to put nature in our everyday lives for all the public to enjoy. In the airport in Oslo there are living plants all around, a wall of moss greets visitors as they enter the terminal
Even as I am deep in the maze of jetways and airport secured areas, I find a plant in the corner seeking light from the nearest window and I am reminded that I am never cut off from living things, if only I look to see them all around.
Not only St. Stephen’s Green but the spot between a parking lot and the road in Howth, Ireland provides an opportunity for a green space encounter with nature.
The Europeans are committed to getting their students outside of the classroom and into natural settings so they can develop a relationship with the natural world. This leads, in later life, to a desire to protect that nature and live sustainably as part of a culture they learned from earliest experience. Perhaps no country is more committed to this outdoor education principle that Finland where the goal is to educate students outside the classroom at least one day every week. Throughout Europe we saw school groups out and about sketching outside the Cathedral in Salisbury England.
Learning about penguins while visiting the Bergen Aquarium in the midst of a very built environment.
During my conference in Tropea on Landscape and Education, I learned about how more than 40 countries across Europe were carrying out plans to engage “nature” with their students of all ages. Rather than lament the “unnatural” setting of the penguins above, or an “artificial” touch tank in the Bergen Aquarium because it is not “authentic” nature; I began to realize that these direct encounters with living things, with the plants and animals around the world housed in zoos and gardens are sometimes an early opportunity for all children to develop a relationship with the wild that might prompt them to go further out the door and off the screen in their future. My daughter’s favorite part of any aquarium is the interactive touch tanks where she can “feel” things she might not otherwise ever encounter living as she does over a thousand miles from the nearest tidepool.
Perhaps it was just such a touch encounter with the natural world that inspired the sculptor of this public art piece in Trondheim, or inspired the politicians to commision and display it as part of the city landscape and identity.
Once again I will thank the British for teaching me that you don’t have to go far from home to have a connection with nature. The concept of an English Country Garden in the backyard shows how you can transform a small space into a place of natural encounter.
A small highly managed space, becomes a living temple to wild imagination. A retreat and refuge, a place of refreshment and reflection a place to call “home” (which is the root of the Greek word ecology).
I still love the wild look of a sunrise over the open coast in Ireland
But the sounds of the traffic right behind me while taking this picture, and the view to the right of a busy Dublin Bay waking up for work on the new day reminds me that we encounter nature in all areas if we but open our eyes to the world around us.
It is both a humbling and hopeful realization for this life-long nature snob. I am grateful for the insight all these places have given me, and for the opportunities to learn from a hound named Koko….my wild guide in the heart of London.