5.3 Editor's Pick
March 20, 2019

How to be an “Urban Naturalist” (& Save the Planet).

As a child, the butterflies I loved were my playtime obsession.

In the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where I grew up a missionary kid, these striking creatures were unusual, plentiful, and intense. Their batting wings filled the humid air surrounding Chefoo, my isolated boarding school.

After class, I would bash through the dense, steamy jungle, hunting elusive stick insects and horned rhinoceros beetles whose backs shone like polished obsidian. At jungle’s edge, my mesh net would swing wildly over “monkey cups” toward flashing, iridescent butterflies. Wood nymphs, rajah brookes, blue bottles, lacewings, red Helens, painted ladies.

Like the other boys, I was a collector. I would catch insects, then I would pin the ones I caught onto a plywood board, stretch their wings out under wax paper, and watch their death throes with tears dripping down my face. These glistening creatures were destined for my glass display frames.

At the time, I just wanted to preserve their beauty.

Now, the thought of harming insects disturbs me. How could our foster parents have let us kill those innocent beings? How could I have done that? As an adult, I have a more ethical way of preserving what I love. A way that keeps animals alive.

I practice what I call “urban naturalism.”

Urban naturalism is not yet a movement. It is just a phrase I use to describe how I watch, observe, take notes about, and take photos of the nature around me—in the city.

I’ve spent many adult years living in concrete jungles. In cities, we may have to struggle to find the nature with which we seek to connect. As urbanites, urban naturalism can be one way of doing this. It can also be a zesty way to spice up our leisure time.

Nature is vital to us.

Naturalism has a revered history. This is because, like our relation to art, nature has a way of moving us. We sense in our hearts something inexplicable, sacred, touching. Something extra that we can’t get from interactions with other humans. We yearn to understand its mysteries.

We find peace in the contemplation of a forest, sitting alone under the shady tree canopy near a gurgling stream. We listen to owls and downy woodpeckers. Absorbed, we tremble with astonishment when the alpine meadow explodes with a mosaic of flowers. Or when, at night, a host of blue ghost fireflies eerily ignites the dusky air. Sinuous, red canyons strike reverence into our hearts, declaring amnesty, rest, vision.

These feelings are not what we ordinarily get in the rigid, human-made grid of our cities.

A peer of mine, Haley, suggests that this feeling with nature is like connecting with an innate structure of our souls. A structure of nature that is more random. Fractal. Neural. As she put it, like a lightning bolt or a river’s tributaries or a network of arteries.

“I am convinced there are hours of Nature, especially of the atmosphere, mornings and evenings, address’d to the soul,” wrote Walt Whitman in Specimen Days.

Experience with nature teaches us that just as the world needs its poets, cities need their naturalists. But why is it an important practice for us?

To answer this, let’s talk for a moment about insects.

Insect life is never as abundant in cities as in the countryside. Today, even in the countryside, insect life is in peril. It’s no secret anymore that insect species are disappearing. A recent New York Times article spells out this global decline in insect populations, which is a disturbing trend for the earth’s health and biodiversity.

A spectacular example of this is the monarch butterfly. The monarch’s breeding grounds in California and Mexico are succumbing to human development. Milkweed, its main nectaring plant, is vanishing along the monarch’s migratory pathways. (Check out The Xerces Society, one organization spreading this warning word.)

Which of us wants to lose such a glorious butterfly?

Whatever your attitude toward insects, these small animals do more than provide fascination. Bees pollinate much of what we eat. Even the ones you don’t like, such as flies and mosquitoes, provide crucial food for many birds. The survival of insects is ecologically important.

This summer, I got serious and personal with houseflies. In our home, we had a sudden infestation of these insects. The fly eggs had entered on sunflowers my wife, Carmen, set out as a coffee table decoration. After they hatched, I spent two weeks slamming drinking cups against our window panes to trap the horde, one by one. I released them all outside. What I didn’t do was to kill the flies like I used to before urban naturalism.

While saving flies from my living room is not urban naturalism per se, it’s an action that stems from that awareness. I’ve learned through urban naturalism that insects should be treated the way we might treat our garden plants.

We need to adjust our awareness and our consumption habits so that we are protective of insects. As my flies illustrate, we may even have to change our view of those insects we tend to see as pests.

As an adult, I returned to visit my boarding school. I was devastated to find that terraced vegetable farms have replaced the same rainforest where I grew up. Pesticides used on the farms have eliminated almost all insect life in that area. The beetles and butterflies I once loved are almost gone.

Sadly, this same story is happening all over the world.

After taking note of what happened to nature in my childhood stomping grounds, I determined to buy only organic produce. It was my response to help save nature.

Urban naturalism is a mindful response to our situation.

Along with other popular grassroots movements such as urban gardening and urban farming, practicing urban naturalism may contribute to slowing down the detrimental effects we’ve had on our planet. Like meditation or reading, it is among the many responsible activities we can do to help raise awareness to preserve nature. It’s important to remember that we actually depend on the non-human for our water, food, resources.

We leave whatever else we are doing and leave our electric screens dark and silent inside. We go outside into the weather, adopting a mindful practice of observation that focuses on taking note of “nature.” The atmosphere, seasons, birds, trees, bushes, streams, insects. We may take photographs. The observations we make when doing this can form a window onto a natural world we don’t often notice in cities.

Personally, I specialize in finding insects on buildings, on trees, in the ground. When I’m in the mode of urban naturalist, I scour my home for whatever bugs rest or scamper on the siding or under porch lights at night. I spend time with bees on flowers. I dig up earth chasing a beetle’s trail, wondering what enables him to bear the weight of damp soil in his underground tunnels. When I see a dragonfly zipping over the ground, I recall how she spent her first years swimming underwater and now may be migrating to Central America.

Have you ever walked your neighborhood identifying trees with a guidebook?

Are you an urban birder? (Check out David Lindo’s inspiring book called Tales from Concrete Jungles.)

Have you checked out the IUCN red list of threatened species to see if any live in your neck of the city?

Isn’t the city hostile to naturalism?

According to a 2018 UN report on urbanization, 68 percent of humans will live in cities by the time 2050 rolls around. This sounds like it bodes poorly for nature and naturalism.

In the city, we don’t see what is actually and almost secretly there as nature. This is because our urban surroundings feel “unnatural.” Think cement and asphalt. Power poles and metallic street signs. Exhaust fumes and blaring horns. Zooming machines meant to serve human interests.

Contrary to this idea that cities are artificial and devoid of nature, Steven D. Garber urges us to “view the urban landscape and its inhabitants as part of a vital, busy, intense, yet natural habitat.” In his book, The Urban Naturalist, he claims that “our cities are living laboratories where anyone can become an urban naturalist.”

We have neighborhood parks with birds frolicking amongst the leaves. Backyard firs cradle sleeping raccoons who wait for nightfall. “Weeds” overgrow empty lots. Squirrels scamper across fences. Rivers flow like molasses under steel bridges.

The urban jungle cannot wall out nature.

Isn’t naturalism practiced only in the wilderness?

I tend to link nature with uncluttered spaces of wildness where my body and mind can roam. I imagine myself a companion of Muir at Yosemite. I take fancied strolls with Thoreau around Walden Pond. I sit with Carson at a silent spring.

It is an adjustment for me to think of the city as a suitable place for naturalism.

In a poem entitled “Lost,” Brigit Pegeen Kelly brings native wisdom to play:

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

Kelly’s point suggests that nature is different than us and here with us. Even in cities.

Perhaps our urban minds are too busy, too rushed. Or we cave into electronic distractions. Or city social life takes priority. This is what Annie Dillard speaks about as cultured consciousness that takes us away from our own sense of world mystery.

In her classic, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard writes, “Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies.” She is saying that in the culture of cities, we lose our wonder. Everything we perceive becomes merely a reflection of our self-interests.

While it inspires us to travel into the wilderness, this kind of idealistic naturalism ignores the reality of millions of us who, for various reasons, are unable to live outside our urban boundaries. Those of us who cannot explore the wilderness.

Yesterday, I saw a child stop on a crowded, city sidewalk to stare amazed at a surprising wildflower that was poking out from a concrete crack.

Nature is not just what blooms, buzzes, sings, and lopes out in the countryside, the forested mountain, the prairies. Nature whistles through our suburbs and flutters past garbage heaps in the ghetto. Nature creeps through our city lanes.

A small act in saving the planet.

Many today focus on trying to save the “environment.” An admirable mission in the face of climate change, habitat loss, and diminishing biodiversity.

For some like myself, practicing urban naturalism is our part in saving the environment. Acting to observe nature in the city, we learn to preserve nature. When urban naturalism influences us, we think of creative ways to solve “pest” problems that are non-chemical, humane, and life-preserving.

Besides flies, my wife and I had an “ant problem” this summer. Instead of spraying chemicals on them, we meticulously escorted each ant we found outside. It was tedious, but we felt good. We kept our counters clean. The ants respected us by not returning.

Ultimately, this type of mindset has to do with our legacy of choices. What world are we willing to entrust to the next generations? And what sacrifices are we willing to make to ensure this? The only price that caring for nature exacts is time.

And it is a soul-healing practice. If “poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason” (Novalis), an urban naturalist could say: Nature heals the wounds inflicted by the city.

How? In the same way nature has always healed us. By soothing us from speed. By humbling us. By slowing us down into an attunement that acts unselfishly for nature. By holding up to us the mirror of an existence where we don’t go around killing flies or ants or spiders or moths.

We make different choices under the influence of these sensitivities. Gentler, wiser, kinder choices.

Choices that do our part in leaving a legacy of thriving biodiversity. For ourselves and for the planet’s future.

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