I have been very lucky in my life to have been, willingly or not, often cast into nature. My home was close enough to the woods that the occasional rabbit, would wander through and mingle with the stray cats. My grandmother ran a community center, and while not the crowning jewel, a solar garden held a prominent place there. My parents enjoyed picnics held by a local organization where us kids were encouraged to walk, unsupervised, through a nearby hiking trail.
I could never get over the novelty of these places. The idea that these little nuggets of wilderness exist within the concrete confines of Dayton Ohio. I could not escape the ideal that the deer, which was standing in the middle of the road, would skitter back as soon as the car stopped moving. That that wild and overgrown garden was right down the street from train tracks, where trains passed by at 2:30 on the dot. Even that narrow hiking trail, which took us far enough away that we couldn’t hear the adults call, eventually wrapped back around to the wide-open park and a parking lot.
It's only after typing this that I realize my mistake. Those pieces of nature I’d thought so unique, were as much a part of the urban sprawl, as the urban sprawl was a part of the wilderness I so revered. Even as I venerated those spaces, I had set them apart in my mind from the rest of the world, and disservice myself in two ways.
First, by framing these spaces as something unique and special, I had completely dismissed the idea that these spaces were completely attainable. The deer hadn’t disappeared back into the woods. It was still my neighbor. I had created a distance in my mind where there truly was none, especially by someone willing to try. Not everyone has the means or knowledge to plant a forest, but a community garden or a personal garden can remind an individual that we are as apart of the natural world as anything else.
The bugs and rabbits that invade my garden, are not really invaders. They just are. They are living creatures who have at the moment, stumbled upon a bite to eat and a place to rest. In a similar vein I simply want some ripe tomatoes to pluck. At odds, as we may be, they are no longer something that can be pushed to the back of the mind and dismissed as distant. Those rough unfiltered truths about nature, that aren’t always clear from a quick jaunt through the park.
This is not an encouragement, to wage war against rabbits to protect your turnips. It is an invitation to dig deeper into the connections that tie these things together. You can ward rabbits away from a garden by planting lavender and many common pests can be turned away by planting garlic. Thousands of years of evolution to create an undesirable smell at work.
The second great disservice was that I, by imagining these places as something separate rather than continuous, had dismissed the effect I had on these spaces, and the effect that these spaces has on us. I had created two minds: One that was enraptured by the sublime nature of the woods and swore they would work to protect it, and the other that knew they should sort recycling, but didn’t.
I carefully followed the guidelines of “leave no trace” as I wandered those hiking trails. Leftover candy wrappers shoved into my pocket so as not to dirty the pretty forest. But what did I care once I reached the parking lot and threw it into the nearest trash can. Did I consider where the wrapper went? Maybe, occasionally, but more often than not, no. The wrapper had not touched ground, or the forest floor and so I had “Done good”.
This is not solely, my burden to bear though. Our human desire to protect what we find beautiful and worthy and reject what we don’t runs deep. We extoll the majesty of the forests, the beauty of the beaches, but we peg our oceans and our grasslands with epithets like “vast”. We give them these with the idea in our heads that they are too big to fail. A bottle in the Ocean, while harmful, is simply a drop in the bucket compared to the seemingly never ending well of life that exists there.
Still these places are lucky. They are considered beautiful, and so worth protecting. The bottle that drifts away on the tide, may be forgotten and shrugged off. But for the most part people will be hesitant to allow that bottle to drift in the first place.
The same cannot be said for those “ugly” places. Swamps, drylands, desserts, places whose mystique and beauty is not instantly recognized, conjuring images of oil paintings. Who cries out for these spaces other than the people that live there and the scientists who make it their business too?
Even they lapse at times. Within the United States fisheries management councils are given near unlimited power to protect essential fishing habitats, such as wetlands. However, they simply don’t use these powers, instituting minor restrictions on fishing gear. Without these protections the future of many species appears bleak.
But then what becomes of our most forgotten spaces of all. Our urban areas which seem so detached from the natural world, have become the ecological lost causes. The ecological effort is to hold the line against these places and minimize the damage coming from them.
Efforts to promote recycling and reduce emissions are the “leave no trace” of the urban wilderness. They work on the fundamental concept that there are going to be traces, that have to be dealt with somewhere at some time. Here we acknowledge our fundamental ability to affect our surroundings, but the worry is not that, that damage will affect our immediate surroundings, but rather that it will leak out like an oil spill.
This is of course because it does. However, that does not excuse the negligence for our own urban wilderness. A stray dog or raccoon can choke on something carelessly left behind as easily as a fish in the sea. Birds flying above can be poisoned by factory smoke flying through a neighborhood, the same as they can be poisoned flying through a factory.
Our urban areas are merely, the epicenter of the ecological destruction. And so more so than anywhere it is important to pay attention to the destruction that is happening there. It is not a solitary monolith in the ecological space, but a piece of it. One continuous natural world
Shiffman, David. "‘Essential’ But Unprotected: How The United States Fails Its Most Important Fish Habitats” The Revelator". Jul 20 2020, https://therevelator.org/essential-unprotected-fish-habitats/
Sandia Seed Company "What To Plant With Tomatoes To Keep Bugs Away". Sandia Seed Company, Jan 25, 2020, https://www.sandiaseed.com/blogs/news/what-to-plant-with-tomatoes-to-keep-bugs-away#:~:text=Don't%20just%20stop%20at,anise%2C%20onion%2C%20and%20parsley.