Earth Day Reflections – Finding Nature in An Urban Childhood

Lilac bouquet 4-2014

I believe that every child is born with a natural affinity for nature—mammals that we are—and it is only when we have had that connection severed by our life circumstances that we become disaffected. Although asthma and allergies kept me largely confined to my bedroom with an air conditioner as a child in Detroit, I still found ways to engage with the natural world.

There was a lilac bush that grew in the alley behind our garage. I don’t know if anyone ever tended it. When it would bloom each spring, I would bury my nose in the fragrant blossoms whenever I could, allergies be damned. Sometimes we cut the branches and placed them in vases in the house during that precious few weeks I would look forward to each year.

My other significant connection with nature was my relationship with the ants in the driveway. A thriving colony lived under a broken piece of concrete. I would lift up the chunk of pavement and watch the ants for hours, use a thin stick to make what I thought were helpful tunnels, and worry about them when it rained.

What I lacked in access to the outdoors, my mother’s encouragement made up for. Although she did not have the same focus, she supported my interest in the natural world. She helped me find books about animals and natural history from the library and let me watch TV documentaries. Sometimes she drove me and my siblings to an urban park where we could feed the ducks at the pond.

I remember watching yet another show about one of our national parks, and begging my mother to take us on a trip there. With little money and four kids, this was never an option. “When you’re older,” she would reassure me, “you can go there on your own.”

With my interest nurtured throughout my childhood, in college I went camping for the first time. After graduation, I moved to California and went on my first hike. By drawing on memories of library books and TV shows from years earlier, I recognized bird species I’d never seen before.

I look back at my Detroit youth with wonder. I would never have dreamed then I’d become a professional naturalist who has explored parks throughout the world and had the privilege of teaching urban kids in the outdoors.

My wish for Earth Day is that all children, no matter where they live, can discover the transformative impact of looking at bugs on the sidewalk or burying their noses in a flower.

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