Given my love for nature, gardening, and the quiet life in general–as well as my desire for my kids to experience nature as much as possible–I am often asked why we don’t move to the countryside, or at least to a bigger suburban home where we’d have a larger garden. I am sure if we really wanted that, we might find a way for it to happen. But at this stage we cannot afford to ‘up sticks’ for that kind of living situation. And if we could afford it, it would be at the expense of other things we value (for example, not having to rely on a car, being able to commit to our local community, getting to know our neighbours more easily, being able to spend more time with my partner and kids because our jobs+home+nursery+creche+many friends are all within walking distance).
However, it does mean I spend a lot of time thinking about raising kids in a city environment. I think about it a lot in comparison to my own childhood, which was never entirely rural, but always adjacent to or surrounded by natural spaces. There were always places where I could be out of view from my parents for significant periods of time. I remember being able to cross the main road, or walk through the waterway under it, to wander down to the river where we would light fires to heat baked beans or fry up bacon for afternoon tea. We would hang from vines and build huts whilst making up wild stories about who we were.
Where we live now, I cannot offer what I had as a child to my kids. It is often hard work to get out into nature. I am trapped by my fear of heavy traffic in our area. I worry about the judgement of strangers (as in, ‘are those kids running about barefoot outside neglected or delinquent? Do we need to do something about that?’). I wish that my garden were larger, more established, less over-looked by other flats. I would like to be physically stronger and more hardy myself so that I could take the kids on more daring expeditions.
And then I remember: in spite of there being a lot of things that I can’t control in my life, I do still have choices in almost any situation I find myself in (albeit sometimes limited choices within parameters I have not necessarily set). These choices are what allows my spirit to have some degree of freedom, even when I feel trapped in the circumstances of life.
Occasionally, we do need to make big changes for our lives to better align with our values. But more often it is the small choices within the context of life as it actually is that can be the most meaningful. I once watched an unshod mum+small son tip-toe carefully through the daffodils alongside a path down to The Meadows in Edinburgh. There was something hopeful about their choice to stray from the path and engage more with nature right in the middle of a vibrant city.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the book Last Child In The Woods: saving our children from nature deficit disorder by Richard Louv. Despite its ominous-sounding title, this book does not have a ‘the-world-is-going-hell-in-a-handcart’ tone. It is encouraging and helpful because it acknowledges that nature can be, and should be, experienced anywhere, including in cities. Just by being in nature (as opposed to learning about it from a book) is enough to make people want to care about it.
Louv notes that to develop a relationship with nature, we need daily contact with it. And this means that there are more benefits to spending time everyday in the muddy puddle in the lane than spending a week in the mountains once a year. This means that EVERYDAY I have a choice about how my kids and I might engage with nature. Maybe it is not within the majestic and ‘more natural’ surroundings of the Cairngorms, but it is in another kind of eco-system where we humanimals–we are of nature too, of course–could be more mindfully present.
When I walk with my kids through city streets, parks, and lots, I try to see the possibilities for deeper engagement with nature. Sometimes this is extremely hard work. Sometimes not. Sometimes this means stepping off the pavement to walk on the other side of a noise barrier in order to get to the trees. Sometimes it means smelling every single rose along the garden fence of the house down the road.
Given that the vast majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, being able to experience nature must not only be a privilege for those living in the country or for those who are able to afford a big garden in the suburbs.
For the sake of the planet, we must not separate out nature from the city. It is this idea that keeps me wanting to stay in the city and to work hard to find all the natural spots that exist here, not to mention to help maintain and increase these areas for everyone to enjoy. It is this idea that in part keeps me cultivating my own garden, and writing about it as well as the small interactions we have with nature around us.
It also offers me hope that the weedy verge along the lane to nursery could be a whole world of wonder to my sons if I allowed them to spend time in it. That my muddy pit in the front garden is a place of bliss for them in spite of the busy road on the other side of the hedge.
Oh, there is so much more that I could write about this. Indeed it is a topic that I circle around throughout this whole blog and will no doubt spiral back to in future posts… I wonder if you have any thoughts on the matter?
*The title is actually pinched from this interview I heard a while ago on the same theme. It’s a worth a listen if you are interested…