Does it Have to be Wilderness?

A red winged blackbird on my front porch this morning--didn't have to travel very far at all for that!

A red winged blackbird on my front porch this morning–didn’t have to travel very far at all for that!

I often used to think I could never really write about nature, or write well about nature, because I never went to these amazing natural places. I live in Iowa, where less than one percent of our native prairie remains, and so it often felt like a lost cause. Growing up on a farm, I spent a lot of time in nature, and I probably observed more than I thought I did. Yet when I got to my first nature writing class in college I felt like I had absolutely nothing to offer. I didn’t even know where to find nature. As far as I was concerned, I was miles from anything anyone would consider nature.

After college I got a job working for a nonprofit conservation organization. Part of my job was running the social media, and I was amazed by the jaded comments coming from people much older than me. I remember one man specifically who responded to a John Muir quote I posted…

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” 

And said there was no such thing as wilderness in Iowa. While Iowa doesn’t have the kind of wilderness some other places in the world have, and it is largely touched by man, I think the hopeless attitude is a worthless attitude.

John Muir also said,

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

This has been the attitude I have taken as a nature writer, or even as conservationist and human being. Nature can be found anywhere, if you’re looking for it. I don’t get out of the city very often, and I’ve had moments with nature that were just as meaningful to me within the city limits as ones I’ve had on an open prairie. Are the experiences the same? No, of course not. But does that mean one is less meaningful than another? Absolutely not.

It may be true, may be true, that one must see the tree in the wild to see the tree in the city. I’ve certainly become more interested and aware of nature since I’ve started visiting prairies regularly, but I think that is because I’ve had wonderful teachers. I’ve seen nature with teachers who were extremely knowledgeable, and aware. And they taught me to observe. A skill I think most young people are without.

I’ve noticed amongst friends who are around me frequently an increasing awareness of nature and its presence in the world around them. While riding in the car with a friend last weekend he pointed out a bird and said, “What is that? The one with the orange breast? I see them everywhere.”

I was a little astounded that a 24 year old man didn’t know what a Robin was, but I was happy to teach him. I hope there will always be those who are willing to teach others about nature. And I hope there will always be those who are willing to learn.


63 thoughts on “Does it Have to be Wilderness?

  1. There are an incredible amount of positive effects on ones health upon being immersed in nature! There is a huge mismatch between the environment we have evolved in, and the one in which we currently live.

    When you take a wild animal from its natural habitat and lock them in a zoo, many health problems start to occur, one of which is a psychological change toward increasing psychotic episodes. This has been realised, and now many zoos attempt to incorporate aspects of an animal’s natural environment into their zoo habitat to the benefit of the animals’ health. The same could likely be done with humans! In fact, we see many benefits from incorporating more exposure to nature that relate predominantly to psychological health.

    I hope you will continue to enjoy teaching others about nature!

  2. Reading this post gave me a bit of a giggle, to think there isn’t much nature in Iowa. I admit I’ve flown over your state a few times but never actually been there. From the sky it looks somewhat barren, as do many places from that perspective.
    Your post was very inspiring because I very much appreciate nature and see it in the city and the countryside as well.
    We recently returned from a trip to Kentucky and well, there’s almost nothing but nature. I love it there but that’s mostly because I like open spaces.
    It’s a real contrast to my current home, Orlando. Here it seems like wall to wall people. Which in their own way, are nature too.
    Keep up the great work. You have a good eye for the reality of life.

    • Thanks for your comment and kind words. I also love Kentucky for the exact reasons you mentioned. Iowa does indeed have nature–look up the Loess Hills if you want to see some beautiful Iowa landscapes. 🙂

  3. A 24-year-old didn’t know a robin when he saw it!? What a shock to someone who had a field guild in her pocket by age 10. (There’s an idea for my granddaughter’s birthday.) Nature is as close as the birds outside your front door, the tadpoles in the nearest pond, the ants under the sidewalk, the clouds in the sky. Rural nature, away from man, is harder to come by, and true wilderness, rarer still. We must cherish it, and instill in the next generation a deep appreciation for it. We need it and, increasingly, it needs us.

    • It was pretty shocking to me as well haha. I completely agree with what you said about cherish it and instill a deep appreciation in the next generation. One of my biggest beefs is with the lack of education about natural resources in our current education system. How can we expect the next generation to care if they have no connection with it?

  4. City dwellers can find a lot of nature in the produce department of major organic foods grocers (for example, Whole Foods Market). Heritage tomatoes, Chioga beets, mullti-colored carrrots, grains like amaranth and quinoa are just a few of the unusual foods that are on display, and can even be grown in a city window garden. Nature is making a big comeback in some unexpected places.

    • I’m actually not! There is a music festival in town so I am going to that instead. I’ve already camped several days this summer with several more to come, so I’m not too beat up about. 🙂

  5. “to observe”…yes I agree, a skill that seems to have been lost along the way by some. I enjoyed this article very much.

  6. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | Hope is Near

  7. Lovely read. I completely agree with the overall theme of this piece, plus the comments written, that humanity needs to re-immerse itself within Nature. After all, we’re natural aren’t we?

    • Definitely agree! We are a big part of nature whether we realize it or not! Studies show that people are instinctively drawn to natural elements, but society pulls us away from them.

  8. There are so many people who seem to be oblivious to the beauty around us. It’s a shame because nature is so calming. There is an entire symphony of birds, crickets, and frogs chiming around us all of the time – whether in the city or the country. It’s as if an entire world exists but we, for the most part, don’t listen.

    • I love this comment CJ. This sentiment is one of the biggest things I’m trying to get across on this blog. There is a whole world out there that we are a part of. We need to listen and get to know it.

  9. As John Burroughs (and Muir, and Thoreau. . .) remind us, there is an art to seeing, to observation, to the awareness you identify. Wilderness all around, within. . .it’s who and what we are. Thank you for this reflection. Very timely.

    • And what I love about the art of observation is the more we practice the more interesting the world becomes 🙂

  10. So very true! Nature is all around us and within us! It shocks me that so many people do not seem to realise that we are constituted through it..! Wonderful write- up. Regards!

    • Yes, wilderness and the earth’s natural processes are what keeps us alive–and we are a major part of those processes! It’s easier to understand if you develop a connection with the earth.

  11. Nature is a beautiful thing and it is never too late to learn 🙂
    I am quite happy to experience nature and be out in it even if I don’t know everything about it, it feels right and relaxing and natural 🙂

  12. This is exactly what I hope to inspire in people: “I’ve noticed amongst friends who are around me frequently an increasing awareness of nature and its presence in the world around them.”

    I spend much of my weekends volunteering at a natural history museum to promote just such thinking!

  13. Thank you Terra for your insight. Being in real wild nature is of course different from experiencing nature in, say, your garden or a park, but like you say, it’s still nature. Just on a different scale and adapted. That’s what I admire so much about nature, it always adapt and always find a way. Give it a millimeter and it will fill it.

    • Most definitely. I love being out on the biggest prairie in Iowa and our in the mountains, but I also love enjoying a cup of tea on my front porch want watching the red-winged blackbirds eat from my feeders. All of the experiences teach me about the world and bring joy into my heart.

  14. I get this. My parents build their suburban house on a lot next to a golf course “so we would always have a nice view of nature.” For years I’ve been trying to figure that one out. But a robin is a robin, where ever it’s seen. I just worry about the adults who will only see the monarch butterflies so common in my youth in sanctuaries… or books.

    • Yes, the disappearing monarchs are definitely a huge concern. This is why I think it’s so important that we cultivate a love of nature in every person, including current adults, because that is the only way they will realize how important nature is for all of us.

  15. I had a similar experience a few years back when walking along a tree lined avenue with a friend and work colleague when she said ‘that’s a strange looking sparrow – I pointed out it was a greenfinch…. a few days later she asked what another bird was as we walked into town… was a goldfinch.

    • Haha my friends now expect me to know what everything in nature is just because I can tell them what common birds are–but I enjoy it.

  16. At first I was shocked that someone would not recognize a robin, then I remembered taking a friend from Cincinnati for a paddle on a lake. She pointed to the lichen hanging from the trees at the shoreline and asked me if it was seaweed. Fortunately, she was facing the front of the canoe and didn’t see my jaw drop to my knees. I recovered, dismissed any impulse to laugh, and answered her question.

    • I’m always happy when people ask questions, even if I’m shocked by them, because I know that I have been in natural areas I wasn’t familiar with and probably asked just as many dumb questions–but that’s how you learn!

  17. This is a great read. We need to entice nature, there will come a time when nature struggles to exist in our fuel filled world. Take a breath, stop walking, look around and notice nature. The birds. The flowers. Even the rain. Stop hiding under that umbrella! Believe me, you won’t melt if you get a little bit wet! Appreciate all things, great and small. Once again, love this post.

  18. I prefer nature in rain, green and clouds than in a zoo: may be this hints my meanness 😀
    But then nature is what pleases and captivates your body, mind and soul. Nature is peace, nature is love and nature is also kindness. I am sure you know a lot about nature now. These comments in your post are profound 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. It’s interesting how the word nature seems to take on so many different meanings, when in reality it is just the state of the earth around us and something we are a part of. It means different things to me at different times. 🙂

  19. I absolutely agree. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, where almost all of our forests, where they stand between residential neighborhoods, are secondary growth. Yet growing up where I did, especially beginning in my teen years, I started really opening my eyes to what was around me, seeing beauty everywhere. That was also around the time when I started reading Dillard, Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir, all of whom I consider to be my teachers.

    • I would consider all of those writers to be my teachers as well. I only wish they were required reading for everyone!

  20. I live across the street from a farm and am surrounded by farms and swamp, but some of my most intimate moments in nature occur in my yard. You picture reminds me that the best shots I have of bluebirds were taken with me lounging on the porch.
    Even though I live and teach in what is considered a rural area (my FFA has a huge barn and greenhouses) many of my kids don’t know wheat from soybeans. Few of them desire to be in nature. When we study Transcendentalism, the first thing we read is a passage from Emerson’s “Nature”. How sad that many of them would rather play a video game or text rather than explore the fields and woods around us.
    Love your post.

  21. Pingback: Is There Nature In Iowa? A Story of the Loess Hills | Modern Girl Walden

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