Finding wilderness in the city: How to do it and why you should

“Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves.

Photo: Hong Kong, a city where I’m always astounded at how concrete and glass collide with the vividly green. 

In the rural west of Nepal, where I spent two weeks trekking in areas only accessible on foot, I relearnt what it was like to be wild. Your house is a tent pitched at the intersection of two rivers. Your kitchen a small gas cooker perched on a rock. Your shower a cup and a bar of soap in the icy river. Your bathroom a shovel. Your living area the ground under a tree. Your daily commute is along ancient pathways of uneven stone. Your lunch spot a patch of grass in the shade. Your gym is a sarong on the ground and your bed, a small tent and the only piece of inside for any particular day.

Our lives played out in the wilderness and I wanted to bring this connectedness to nature back home, but life back in the city is slightly different. We live, eat, wash, and sleep in houses, we commute in cars, and we spend our days working behind computers. I couldn’t exactly pitch a tent in the mountains and spend the rest of my days scorching my skin to bits in the African sun.

But I didn’t want to break this connection to nature either. We so easily fall into our routines and get busy with being busy that days easily go by without any contact with nature apart from a few brisk walks across parking lots or jogs along highways.

How do we connect with the wilderness when we live in cities and suburbs?

It’s easier than we think, we just have to broaden our concept of what the wilderness is. We have to become a little more flexible and open to how we see nature and soon there’ll be space for both our busy indoor lives and the wilderness. And I promise you, your indoor lives will be enriched once you rediscover your outside life.

Nature is everywhere

When we think of the wilderness, or an experience in nature, we think of hiking in the mountains, swimming in the ocean, or sitting under the stars, far away from the city lights. We want nature reserves and untouched wilderness.

These places are wonderful  – we should definitely make an effort to let them recharge us. But that’s just the thing: it takes effort. Very few of us have the luxury of having a wild mountain or a secluded beach within walking distance of our indoor spaces.

In her TED talk, Nature is everywhere – we just need to learn to see it, Emma Harris reckons we’ve become a bit snobbish about what we believe is nature. She says all these ‘untouched’ parks and pieces of wilderness are in actual fact very much touched by humans. Most places on earth have been influenced in some way by humans. So rather than going in search of something that’s untouched – which is very difficult and highly unlikely – why not open ourselves up to the nature that thrives right outside our indoors?

Emma talks about appreciating the plants, critters, bushes, and creatures that bloom in empty lots. Nature is doing it’s own thing in these spaces and even though the plants aren’t rare, labelled, and neatly trimmed, they’re still nature. Step outside your front door or your office and you’re bound to find nature. It might be a tree, a small patch of grass, or even a plant that burrowed through the paving and stuck its head out in between the cracks in the cement.

Look at the birds. Countless bird species have adapted excellently in cities. In this podcast Philip Silva and Kim Todd explain how rock pigeons, house sparrows and red-tailed hawks have adapted to American cities. Even in the most dense part of your city, you’re bound to spot some birds if you take the time to notice them.

Find a sit spot

It’s not just about noticing the nature just beyond our indoor spaces. It’s about spending time with it. Find a spot that’s close to your home – no more than a two-minute walk – and go there often. Sit on the ground and really notice what nature is doing around you. Go there at different times of the day, in different weather conditions, and different seasons and just notice what nature is doing and how it changes. Note the first bird noise you hear when you sit down. Count all the sounds you pick up. Look at how the bugs behave, how the leaves move in the breeze.

It’s unlikely your sit spot will be completely pure. There will likely be traffic rushing by, the sounds of construction, or tall buildings and pylons within sight. Don’t let this spoil the nature that’s around you. On the contrary, allow it become part of your experience. We’re not trying to pretend that our everyday lives don’t exist. All we’re doing is acknowledging and noticing all the nature that also exists here.

Go for a walk

Somewhere near you there’s bound to be a city park, a garden, or even a sidewalk in between houses and apartment buildings where you can walk safely. Go on walks to see the wilderness among the concrete. Leave your headphones at home and try not to get distracted by the other ways you could be spending your time. Walk fast or slow, but make sure you notice anything and everything wild.

You will also notice cars and people, so make that part of your walk. Bring in everything that’s happening, growing, or living, right at that moment when you walk past it. Be present. Notice the air you breathe even if you smell fumes. Feel the sun, the wind, or the chill on your face. Allow all the sensations the earth is providing to become part of your world. You’ll likely get back and find yourself concentrating much better on those things you ‘should’ve’ been doing.

“Walking, ideally, is the state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.” – Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust.

These are simple ways to bring nature back into your indoor life. They won’t consume your time like a long hike in the mountains, although that long hike in the mountains will fuel you on a completely different level as the nature in the city will.

Go find nature in the everyday. It’s right there waiting for you. Waiting for you to allow it to infuse your indoor life with the wilderness.

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