Here in Southern California, it's easy to think we live in a civilized urban environment. But would you be surprised if I told you that we actually live in the wild? That the wild is not something separate from our daily lives - it’s actually a part of everything around us?
This is the story of how I became what I call a “wild urbanist” - someone who sees wilderness and nature all around, even within urban environments, and makes efforts to explore the world around me - and how, with a change of mindset, you can become one, too, and connect with your surroundings in a whole new way.
It began when I was on a trip to Yosemite with my fiance Art for his birthday. We had made the mistake of staying in the valley (the biggest tourist attraction of the park) during peak season, and the bathrooms were packed every morning. I hadn’t even brought most of my beauty products - we were, after all, in the wilderness and not preparing for a fashion shoot. So I was shocked when I walked into the shared bathrooms in the morning to find every sink occupied by a woman or teenager putting on makeup, with baggies full of their regular beauty supplies arranged before them.
Here we were, nestled among towering granite walls, beautiful trees, rushing waterfalls, and hidden wildlife. We were sleeping in canvas tents and everything was covered in dirt and campfire smoke, and yet everyone seemed to behave as if they were still back at home in the suburbs. Art and I would come back from strenuous hikes, exhausted and overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded us, and would see crowds of people enjoying popsicles and large fountain drinks while lounging on wooden porches. I realized then that while we may have been transported from our homes, we were still the same people. And for some, this meant carrying on with routines from home.
It was then that something came strangely into focus. Here, it was obvious we were in the wild - there was the constant threat of bears, and there were only thin canvas tents separating us from the outdoors as we slept. But wilderness exists everywhere - even at home in the suburbs or the city. When we are at home, we trick ourselves into thinking that our lives are very separate from the wild world outside. We have paved roads, electricity, and modern buildings to shelter us from the elements.
But in reality, the wild is waiting just outside our door. Take, for example, the small blades of grass that peak through the cracks in the sidewalk. We may pave over the dirt and grass, but it is always there and even seeking to grow despite our efforts to civilize it.
Even the very pavement that we assume makes us so separate from the wild, even that pavement is made of natural elements - rocks! Even plastic is made of oil, which, although we associate it with a “man-made” product that fuels our cars, is an element from nature. When we see things this way, we can see that nothing is truly man-made. Although we have manipulated things from nature to suit our “modern” needs, everything around us existed somewhere in nature before we found it, mined it, and shaped it into the tools we use.
A change in mindset can help you appreciate all of the ways we depend on the natural world for our survival. Often, we become so afraid when animals like coyotes “encroach” upon our property, but this is only because we forget that we are not separate from nature - we are a part of it! We share the same world, the same environment with the animals and plants that surround us, even though we make great efforts to separate ourselves into some other realm. If we make efforts to see the wilderness all around us in this way, we become more conscious of the natural world and all of its beauty - and of all the benefits it adds to our lives. If we can add this layer of consciousness to our everyday lives, then maybe it’s possible for us to become even better stewards of that nature - whether we are on an officially protected nature reserve or not.
When we recognize our dependence on nature, we can have a new appreciation for it and even be inspired to explore the world around us in new ways. We may even realize that, because nature isn’t as far away as we once thought, it’s also easier to explore than we once thought. I used to believe that in order to interact with nature I had to go somewhere like Yosemite and really remove myself from my human surroundings. And there is still something incredibly beautiful to be said about that type of experience. But it isn’t always necessary to go that route in order to connect. All we have to do is hike the hills surrounding our homes, even walk our pedicured streets and search for the signs of the wild all around us. Now, when I hike the hills behind my house, I look out on the skyline full of houses and strip malls, and instead of being bogged down by the fact that I can’t escape humans, I realize that even these are like small settlements in the wild. The flip side of this, is that it also causes me to desire to protect nature and ensure that these nature settlements of ours are as compatible as possible with the world around us - what a shame it would be if we destroyed the very environment we live in and depend on!
I for one have been transformed by this recognition of the wild around me. It’s changed my interactions with things in my daily life on a wide scale. I’ve become a wild urbanist because I believe that we really are all wild urbanists, just waiting to see it in ourselves. We are all much closer to the wild than we believe. So over the course of my future blogs, I will be sharing stories with you on what the wild urbanist experience brings into focus and how you can bring this focus to life in your own day-to-day. Plus, I'll be sharing the experiences of other wild urbanists, so we can all develop eyes that allow us to see the wild even in the apparently mundane.