Bringing ‘Nature’ Nearer

Connect With Nature

David Johnston

Permits Coordinator for the Waste and Recycling Division of Salt Lake City.

URA Board Member

What do you think of when you think of Utah?

For me, it’s always been this state’s incredible outdoor recreational resources. Premiere national parks, incredible alpine hiking, world renowned skiing, diverse wildlife and so many other opportunities continually inspire me to get outdoors. These things were a major inspiration for my moving here 18 months ago and I know that I’m not alone in appreciating Utah for these wild wonders.

The tough truth, however, is that many of the more iconic Utah wildernesses are distant. Sure, Salt Lake City and other Utah communities are much, much closer to these awesome, natural places than other communities in other states may be (another reason we need to be more conscious of our personal, daily footprints), but few of us have the opportunity to bring ourselves up close and personal with such distant ‘natures’ on a daily basis. Humanity’s isolation from such wild places can be detrimental to our health – both physical and mental – and, unfortunately, too frequently, this isolation feeds into other ill-habits and frames of thought, which can wind up hurting our natural world further and, again, pushing ‘us’ and ‘it’ further apart.

When nature feels far away, people are more prone to act in less responsible and sustainable ways. The consequences of excessive driving and idling our engines may only cross our minds when the winter inversions roll through the Salt Lake Valley – when our personal health is more at threat. Excessive waste and litter may be seen as ‘not our problem,’ especially if we’re fortunate enough to not live near a landfill or polluted waterway, while the nature with which we share our urban and suburban spaces is disregarded. Wildlife in a city or town may be seen as a nuisance or even a danger, and not as the natural evolution of our ever-expanding development into what may also be wildlife corridors and natural roaming grounds for creatures whose ancestors were there long before us.

So how do we reverse this? How do we bring nature nearer?

Let us start by recognizing that ‘nature’ is just a word, one with myriad definitions at that (see: Noel Castree’s Making Sense Of Nature, 2013). We can choose to include within that definition the parks, the creeks, the street-side trees, and the many wild creatures that dot, stripe and inhabit our towns and cities. We make such a decision for ourselves, by ourselves, and when we recognize these nearer ‘natures’ we transform more than our state of mind. We can transform our communities. Physically, morally, abstractly. Spending more time appreciating nature nearby, and less time escaping to distant natures, means less vehicle emissions and a lower impact on those far away places. It means a greater respect for our local community, and a subsequent desire to protect our nearby natures and to protect our immediate environment. We will begin to treat these near natures as if they were the more iconic ones to which we escape.

The easiest way to fight our tendency of putting ‘nature’ only in those far away places, those special retreats for weekends and holidays, is to work a little harder at recognizing the nature immediately around us.

Keeping a nature journal as encouragement to get outside can help, as can finding activities you can share with your family and friends out-of-doors, whether at the park down the road, at your school’s sports fields or even at the end of the cul-de-sac. For more, check out our own Sarah Bateman’s recent blog post.

If you you’re not finding enough to note, consider doing what you can to build natural spaces and attract its critters to your own home. If you have a yard or some green space in the neighborhood, work with your family, friends or neighbors to build out some habitats that might attract local wildlife. Birdhouses and perches, feeders and baths, even unique sorts of shrubs, grass and other landscape architecture techniques are more likely to attract wildlife. If you’re looking to learn a bit more about the choices we can make – both as individuals and as communities at large – check out Michael Rosenzweig’s Win-Win Ecology (2003).

If you’ve got young ‘uns at home, there’s no better time to start working to inspire their curiosity in the natural world. As widely discussed throughout The Geography of Childhood (Nabhan & Trimble, 1994), the first six years of childhood are profoundly important in shaping physical children’s physical competence, environmental awareness and appreciation for the natural world. And all of this can build towards incredible inquisitiveness and independence in our youth.

That said, if you’re an adult reading this (which you likely are!), it’s by no means too late to start harnessing these and other techniques to reconnect, or grow your connection, with the more immediate ‘natures’ around you. When people do so regularly, starting from any age, it’s easier to remember that humanity is, even if it seems so often that we’re working against this, a piece of ‘nature’. As you go about examining your own natural-ness and role in the greater environment, I hope you’ll also do your part to care for the natural environments and wildernesses you choose to enjoy. Brush up on your Leave-No-Trace knowledge, take on a habitat-building project like a bird house, orconsider participating in clean-up projects around wetlands, streams, woodlands and in the mountains. Even simpler matters like reducing your household waste, recycling, carpooling when you can, and taking public transit all contribute towards a healthier local environment – for us and for the life with which we share it!