Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Urban Nature

If you were reading this blog last summer, you might recall that one of my new interests involved exploring the environment immediately around me in search of birds and nature. Since I live in a medium sized city -- or rather, two cities smashed together, Bloomington-Normal in central Illinois -- this means: urban birding. Or trying to become an urban naturalist. This interest was originally fueled by guilt at using gasoline in the wake of the BP Oil Spill, but gently nudged by three different sources of inspiration (more on those below), it quickly became a genuine curiosity.

Truly, looking in my immediate vicinity was a piece of the puzzle I had been lacking. In my mind, nature always was (truth to tell, still is) something at odds with human presence. The more people around, the less natural it is. Ergo, hiking in the Porcupine Mountains of the Upper Peninsula: nature. Walking around town: no.

But then I decided I should not have to drive across the county in order to pursue my hobby, and I started really looking around. And yes, there is "nature" in the city too, imagine that!--birds, insects, mammals, plants--and not just dandelions crowding up through a crack in the sidewalk while a flock of starlings gathers overhead, either. There's real good stuff to be found in town!

In conjunction with this, my reading material was gently pushing me to some realizations, such as: there is no longer any such thing as "pristine" all natural landscapes anyway. The human touch--and the sounds of our machines--are just about everywhere. As population and "development" increases, there will be less and less semi-pristine wilderness. On the one hand, that means that nature-loving gals and guys such as myself will have to make the best of it. On the other, it is an invitation to bring as much nature as possible into our worlds as we go. We humans have a role to play in the ecosystem; it's only recently that things have gotten so out of whack. I love the idea that I already am a part of nature--I'm already "in" it just by being alive. We evolved in the landscapes around us,and they evolved because we were there. (Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America by William Stevens has some good points on this.) This is not to negate the horrible effect of current human activities, but a point of hope for future improvement. And finally, on a spiritual level, I always welcome the opportunity to pay attention--and am always amazed by what I have been missing.

The three sources I mentioned earlier, that have inspired me in my quest, are a website (The Urban Birder), a magazine article, "Big Green Birding Challenge" by Diana Doyle in Birder's World (my original discussion of that article is here), and a book, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

It has been a while since I read Haupt's book, so don't quote me on the details, but what I enjoyed most about Crow Planet was how she came to terms with being depressed about living in the city by becoming an urban naturalist, actively striving to learn all she could about the environment around her (which included many crows).

I have been nudged along in my quest by an unexpected gift: my work place is adjacent to a nice pond with a scrubby, tangly trail winding halfway around it (if I speedwalk there and back I can even get to the trail on my lunch break -- unfortunately it does not connect to my area directly). There is a sort of ditch lined with trees on one side of the lawn, and a nice thicket of trees on the other. Just a couple of blocks away is Bloomington's major thoroughfare, and let me make it clear that this truly is in the middle of the city, and yet it is full of "nature."

In fact, though I find my current employment rather frustrating and unsatisfying (it is not a bad job, but it is definitely something I am doing just to pay the bills), I have always been able to step outside on my breaks and find solace in the unexpected: a red fox dashing across the lawn. Once, a deer. (Exactly how did a DEER get into the middle of town? I am still wondering about that one.) Yesterday, a muskrat. This week, turtles have been sunning themselves on logs lying across the water.

My bird list for the location is now up to 45 (ebird's new "Patch" lists makes this easy to calculate), including 35 species this year and 27 this month. Today, for example, on my afternoon break, in ten minutes I saw: 45 Canada geese, 2 American coots, 4 cedar waxwings, 1 fox sparrow, 1 brown creeper, 2 cardinals, 2 dark-eyed juncos, 3 American robins, 1 America crow and two northern flickers. Earlier this week I have also seen wood ducks, a Carolina wren, song sparrows, pied-billed grebes, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, an eastern phoebe surprise of the week...Monday morning I flushed an American woodcock which was skulking along the treeline! Seriously, this bounty is one of the reasons I stay at my job!

Which brings me to my final point: as I wandered through the scrubby tangle around the pond before work this morning (added bonus: a bit of exercise!), I thought of a criticism I read of Crow Planet from an Amazon reader, in which the dissatisfied customer questioned Haupt's definition of an "urban" environment because Haupt has access to both a huge park and a strip mall. The reviewer pretty much stated that the ability to "see some trees" made the book for a purely middle-class audience. This negative review has stayed in my mind ever since, because I seriously want to know where the reviewer lives! But more to the point, I think it illustrates a fallacy that many share: that nature is far away from the average Joe or Jane. It's a luxury, only for the middle class.

Although I do feel privileged to work right next door to one natural area, and within walking distance of two parks, plus my husband Greenturtle works right next to a huge pond and another two nature in the city really so exceptional? I have never lived anywhere without a park or natural space, and believe me, I have lived a lot of places: small towns (Alma, MI; Russellville, AR); big cities (Honolulu, HI); moderate sized towns (Monterey, CA; Newport, RI); other countries (Ifrane, Morocco; Maizuru, Japan), and I have wonderful memories of enjoying the natural bits of all of them. As an occasional visitor to Saint Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis--I can say, yes, they all have parks, too! In fact, some of the best birding in Illinois seems to happen in Cook County. (The county of Chicago, for all you non-Illinoisans.)

The only place I have truly been nature-deprived was a brief stint in a ginormous subdivision of Virginia Beach, VA--I was a teenager at the time, but I still remember the endless sprawl, block after block, mile after mile, no sidewalks, no parks, no trees, no ponds---finally, after a several mile trek, one would get to a busy road that had a Pizza Hut and a convenience store. But still no sidewalks. This landscape plunged me into the first serious depression of my life (shortly afterward, thank God, my parents moved to Eureka, CA and a more human scale), and resonates in my memory to this day as a tiny sliver of Hell. Perhaps negative reviewer lives there?

I end this post with two questions: one, do you know of any inspiration for urban birders/naturalists other than the ones I've listed above? And two, do you live or work within a short distance of a park, pond or other good natural area? Where do you find your urban birds?


  1. When you live in the Western UP, it's more accurate to say you live in a little town that's mostly not forest! The long downturn in the economy means lots of bushy vacant lots and streetside ditches full of vegetation. One is apt to see anything! Except for horrible places like the subdivision in Virgina Beach, VA, nature always seems close. And even Virginia Beach had Mt. Trashmore and The Gardens by the Sea. Mom

  2. OMG...who could forget Mt Trashmore??? But as memory serves, all this was a good driving distance away, no?

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  4. Dear Anonymous who posted about the crimes of your comment had nothing whatsoever to do with birds or nature or anything else in my post, I assumed it was spam and deleted it. If it was intended to be an actual comment on my post, I do apologize, as all non-abusive comments are welcome!