What is it in one’s life that allows a love of the natural world to develop? I was discussing this question over coffee with a friend: as people who put in the effort to go camping, canoeing, hiking, and generally go out of our way as often as possible to maintain a relationship with natural space, how did we develop this love, compared to our friends and peers who did not? Was it childhood opportunities to camp or go to the cottage, walk in the woods or see animals at the zoo?
I found it surprising that when I reflected on my own experience, it was not these kinds of experiences that inspired an early passionate sense of place and love of nature. The feelings and state of mind I associate with this passionate love of nature – open, alert, curious, calm, belonging, exploratory – I link primarily to early experiences in distinctly urban spaces, to the presence of wildness in these spaces.
In my early childhood, wildness was the network of gates, fencerows, driveways and alleys between properties on my block, liminal spaces at the back of apartment parking lots, beneath the spruces in the strip of untended greenery between two driveways, a muddy spot behind a neighbour’s fence and compost pile where many snails could be found, treasures in the alleyway’s sewers and puddles and trash bins, a narrow sliver between two garages where leaves would pile up over the seasons into a rich and slippery humus with its own memorable smells and shadows.
Later it was the vacant lots, factory grounds, railroad tracks, helicopter landing pads, golf courses, boulevards, parking lots, cemeteries, churchyards, bridges, building rooftops, abandoned factories and warehouses, skyscraper stairwells, tunnels for watercourses under highways, greenbelts around expressways, edges of schoolyards, building sites, alleys and courtyards.
These undeveloped public spaces, forgotten post-use industrial sites and neglected underpinnings of urban life were rich with mystery and solitude, sensory information, engaging, and yet spacious, free of expectations.
I first realized that the moon could cast shadows in an empty factory parking lot.
I learned the names of birds and plants walking along the railway tracks.
I learned how to be alone, peaceful and at home with myself, under the branches of a tree in a waste behind an apartment block.
I learned the names of the constellations from a rooftop.
I began to talk to trees in the graveyard.
In these places I developed a love and care for unstructured wild space, a relaxation with gaps of decay and change, sensitivity to the ecosystem in a sense that transcends rural, urban and wild spaces. And it is this that draws me out to the mountain and lake and forest, and this that allows me to see the world beyond questions of use and profit. To see the world as animated and intelligent, not as a series of inanimate objects for use and quantification, as tools to an end, nor merely as an indifferent Other. When nature is animated, so am I.
Love of wildness creates love of wilderness.