I didn’t always have a connection to nature and strong sense of place. When I was a child I had a pretty strong nature connection, while I was in a natural environment anyway, freely interacting with and engaging in it, playing with the earth, the plants, feeling the air on me, and swimming and wading through whatever body of water I could get into.
I grew up in the suburbs, I count myself lucky for growing up with a big backyard and lots of time playing in the nature that was there, and also for having parents who took my brother and I on trips to natural places throughout our childhood. But, growing up in the suburbs had drawbacks too. Often our nature excursions were few and far between, generally a week or two long trip in the summer. The nature of our backyard was awesome, considering it was in the middle of suburban sprawl… but it wasn’t really very wild. It was for the suburbs, but it wasn’t like going out to the wilderness, and probably none of the plant species were native to our area. As a result of my upbringing, I knew that wild and native nature existed, but I wasn’t really connected to it once I reached my teens. And because of that, it is apparent that the suburb I grew up in could have been practically anywhere and it really wouldn’t have made much of a difference. It was filled with homes built in the 1950s, apartment complexes, shopping malls, strip malls, movie theaters, chain restaurants, a few unique shops and restaurants… and a place like that could be in pretty much any state in the U.S..
It may not seem like nature connection and knowing a place would matter that much, but, on the contrary, I think it is really important. Fast forward to when I was about 23. I would go for walks around my neighborhood for exercise, and I felt almost lifeless. I didn’t feel connected to anything. I was living in suburban sprawl day in and day out, in a place that could have been transplanted anywhere and it wouldn’t make a difference, and I would take my walks on pavement and dirt parkways past big stucco houses landscaped with plant species from other places, and almost no people outside. The one unique thing to the area where I walked, which was peering over the edge of our neighborhood from across a valley, was a big rocky mountain, El Cajon mountain. That was about the only thing that made this place any different than if it were located in some other region. I remember feeling like I was so disconnected I actually began to touch this big smooth eucalyptus tree on the other side of the block each time I passed it because I felt like I wasn’t interacting with my environment. Of course the eucalyptus tree isn’t native to here, but to Australia. Still though, it was a small way that I could interact with the place I was in while on my walk.
Skip a few years ahead, to about 29 years old. I had begun becoming interested in nature. I had started hiking every so often, and then I went on a local plant walk. And from there I took an herbalism class with the person who led the walk. Just after being exposed to plants on that first plant walk I began noticing that the weeds on the side of the road in the cement covered industrial area I worked in were not just weeds, but had names, and even had edible and medicinal uses. I then realized that a big nearby park, Mission Trails, situated in the middle of the suburbs that I always thought was boring because it was all dry and just chaparral shrubs and didn’t have many trees was actually full of plants who had names, and uses, and most of them are actually native to the area. It was as if just by learning how to identify a few plants and their uses, the whole landscape I was living in, both the wild and the urban, had come to life. I was now connecting to it in a whole new way.
Before this, and before I began hiking in the remote, most wild areas of the county, I had desperately wanted to leave San Diego County. I couldn’t stand the hot dry climate, lack of trees, dead looking hillsides. And even though I was destined to leave and it isn’t where I will make my home, I found a great amount of appreciation for the wilderness of this area, the wild nature that is here, in the open spaces and in the cracks in the suburbs and urban areas. I felt better about this area. Sure it wasn’t the forest and lush green countryside I longed for, but it was filled with it’s own beauty and qualities that are completely unique to here.
Since then I went on to move to western Washington state, live in a temperate rain forest climate covered in enough forest and rivers and creeks to fill up my soul, and I attended a 9 month wilderness survival, naturalist training, and permaculture program through Alderleaf Wilderness College. My awareness of the natural world and all of it’s elements and creatures expanded exponentially. I returned to San Diego County 3 and a half months after graduation. Now I am again living in the same place as I did before attending school, in an area that is somewhere in between suburbs and countryside, let’s say the edge of the suburbs with great big yards, just before you get to the wilderness. While I dream of settling down in a place much more surrounded by the wild, I am now so much more attuned to the nature taking place in and around the boundaries of our property. I am much more aware of both the wild native species, as well as the non-native plants and garden plants growing here. I am more aware of the weather and the seasons. I now notice what birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects are here, when and where, and what part in their cycles they are in. The world has truly become more alive to me just by getting to know my place better.
Establishing a good sense of place by getting to know the unique characteristics of where you live allows you to feel a much deeper connection to the area, an appreciation of it, a desire to protect it, a sense of confidence from knowing about it and feeling comfortable in it.
Another critical reason to get to know the place where you live, which I will cover more extensively in an upcoming article, is so that you can determine if the area that you live can provide all of the necessary requirements for your survival, both immediate and long term, in case of a disaster that may cut off supplies of vital resources, and for long term care of the earth and it’s resources to make sure we are living as sustainably as possible.
To sum everything up, if you are like most people in the U.S. who are not naturalists, you are likely not super attuned to all of the life and natural systems in your immediate environment and the surrounding area. There are many ways in which you can benefit from establishing a greater connection with nature. In the next few articles I am going to write about a simple way to begin creating your own nature connection, determining if an area provides all of the necessary requirements for survival and therefore makes a good place to live, and the importance of building necessary short and long term survival skills. If you want to be notified as these articles are posted, please feel free to sign up to the newsletter by filling out the sign up form below.
As always, I appreciate hearing from you in the comments below, and invite you to share this article with others if you feel inspired to so together we can reach more people.