How to Find Nature in a City
The outdoors are all around you, no matter where you live
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Look, when most of us think of nature, we imagine hiking on a wooded trail rather than, say, eating grapes on the porch. It doesn’t matter that nature is everywhere, from the stars to our very bodies, if we can’t feel it. But connecting with nature, in the popular imagination, often means (relative) isolation: trekking through some gorgeous landscape where we have the small but interesting chance of being eaten by something with sharp teeth. A man summits a mountain. A woman backpacks alone. Somebody invents a whole new way to be first to the North Pole.
These are, of course, great adventures. But they’re also limited in their own ways. When we conflate nature with a certain kind of photogenic wilderness, we circumscribe the natural world—which is, after all, the whole damn universe—into something most people can rarely access. Which is all to say that if you happen to live in a city instead of, say, on a private island, nature is still yours—to connect with, to explore—and there are plenty of adventures to be had. They just might look a little different from what you’ve learned to expect.
Find “Your” Place
Annie Dillard wrote her Pulitzer-prize winning nature book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—which, forgive me, I can’t seem to stop mentioning—not in some vast wilderness but in the suburbs of Roanoke, Virginia, though you would never know it from the breadth of insight, science, and mind-blowing insect statistics that she included. Instead, she simply found a small natural place and returned to it again and again, watching how the environment changed over days and seasons, noticing everything she could. You can do the same—at the edge of a pond, a bench in the park where squirrels always hang out, or in the corner of a community garden. The point is to have a place you know well, so that you can observe its changes over time: plants blooming and dying, cocoons opening, first buds coming back in spring. Build a ritual of it; stop by once a week with coffee, and sit there (without your phone) until you’ve finished your cup.
Most cities in the U.S. have nature and environmental centers, like Houston’s Arboretum and Nature Center or Philadelphia’s Discovery Center. These community spaces offer guided walks, kids’ and adult education,and other chances to get outdoors–and if you want to get more involved, they often rely on volunteers to maintain trails, restore habitat, or even care for rehabilitated wildlife. Your nearest nature center may also be able to keep you posted about communal work days, when people come together to plant trees, remove invasive plants, or clean up trash in parks and arboretums. (This is a great way for kids to practice taking care of their environment!)
If you don’t live near a nature center, you can still volunteer for citizen science efforts, which rely on people around the country to collect data on the plants and animals they encounter. Check out Cornell’s FeederWatch, which (for $18) will send you identification guides for common backyard birds; the sightings you report back are used to estimate population counts continent-wide. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Budburst app relies on volunteers to identify plants and report observations about their life cycles in order to monitor the effects of climate change. And another option, the iNaturalist app, helps users identify the plants and animals they find, keep track of their sightings, and contribute the data to studies on biodiversity.
We tend to relate to the parts of nature that feel closest to us—trees, mammals, and so on—but changing your sense of scale can open up a ton of options, especially if you like science. Read about the geology of your state, and you’ll notice how that boulder by the highway was left by glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. Get nerdy about the weather by downloading RadarScope ($10), a meteorology app, and learn how to use it by watching storms, wind, and precipitation roll over your screen. (This is also a great party trick because you can predict, almost to the minute, when it’s going to start raining and where.) For a more tangible way to engage with the weather, bundle up and take a long, meandering walk on a December night, when the cold has driven everyone else indoors; some of my favorite city walks have been late at night on streets covered with fresh snow. And of course, cities that are big enough may have natural history museums, science exhibits, planetariums, aquariums—all ways to get grounded in the history and wonders of the place where you live.
Try New Ways to Move
Part of the fun of the outdoors is the chance to be active in interesting ways—through backpacking, canoeing, skiing, and so on. But you don’t need wilderness to find new ways to move. If you normally walk, take a bike ride. If you normally bike, try rollerblades, or go ice-skating in the heat of July. Go to an open night at a climbing gym, take a yoga class in the park, or look up hiking groups with carpool options if you don’t have a car. (A good way to find classes and meet-ups is by checking the bulletin board of your nearest outdoor store.) If something’s slightly outside your comfort zone, that’s a good sign; surprise yourself.
Build Skills (or Things) That Translate
You can’t go kayaking out your front door—but you might be able to take a kayak-rolling class in your city pool, which means that if you ever do head out on a river, you’ll be far more prepared. Can’t go camping until next summer? You can start walking long distances—and planning your day hikes—now. If you play guitar, learn some new songs for around the campfire. If you’re crafty, you can sew anything from a hiking skirt to an ultra-light backpack. Or for a little more guidance, buy a kit with everything you need to make a custom knife, hammock, toboggan, tent, or snowshoes. To be clear, this isn’t about spending all your time longing for some distant trip in the future; it’s about using a goal to add some structure and fun to the hobbies you already love. You might even pick up some new ones along the way.