We spend such a great deal of time navigating the challenges and demands of the 21st century that carving out the space to spend still moments in nature can seem like a most burdensome feat. There are the obvious obstacles like work, endless to-do lists, maintaining the house, feeding ourselves and our families, taking the kids to practice, picking the kids up, shopping for necessities, taking care of bills, and…well, we all get the point. Aside from the direct monopolizers of our attention, there is also the very real inconvenience of getting ourselves physically into a natural setting. For those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to live in a country home along a pristine forest with a stream running through it, we must spend more of our precious time traveling to get to nature (as Bendites, in all fairness, this isn’t an enormously difficult task, but it does still take time and energy of which we are already stretched thin). Even those who live in the forest with a stream out back may spend a majority of their time inside the house, catching up on the ever quickening pace of modern life. I don’t know about everyone else, but this can leave me feeling drained and guilty. Drained by stresses of keeping myself afloat, and guilty that I don’t have the energy to walk ten minutes to a park and sit in nature to rejuvenate myself (or at least take a conscious breath). It is easy to perceive a most unfortunate predicament of having to balance our contemporary needs to live in the 21st century with our more primitive needs of feeling connected to the natural world. In other words, how do we live in the city, and all that it entails, and still find time to interact with nature, which is essential for our well-being?
During the first day of our Beaver Builders summer camp, I asked our students a similar question: When did humans stop living in nature and stop building shelters out of natural materials? To my delight, they knew exactly where I was headed with this trap. They immediately chimed in, all at once, with assertions that we never stopped living in nature, and that everything we build is made of something from the earth, and thus ‘natural’ (which opened the discussion of which materials were sustainable vs. which ones were harmful). The days of being able to trick them that easily are over, it seems. But I wonder what the response would be if I asked that same question to adults. Would they take the bait? Do we really still live in nature? Surely, it is not a nature that our ancestors would recognize. Of course there are some trees, some animals, quite a few bugs, often a couple creeks or rivers, and some plants. There is nowhere near the abundance of these elements that ‘true’ nature has, though. And these things aren’t nearly as healthy as they are without the hordes of people, buildings, streets, cars, pollution, etc. So, from this angle, we really do still live in nature, albeit a grossly sick version of it.
Why is this something that is important to understand? For one, it is a truer version of reality. As a species of this planet, we have yet to escape our confines upon it. So, everything we do here is done in the one natural place we all share. This understanding opens our eyes to an expanded awareness of our actions. Throwing away trash in the city garbage can is still littering somewhere in nature. Defining one area as ‘natural’ and another as ‘man-made’ gives a false impression of separateness. We are misled into believing that we are ‘leaving no trace’ when we pack our gas stoves into the back country and pack our trash and waste out. Our trace upon the mountain trail may be minimal, but somewhere else there are gaping holes in the earth where the gas was mined and the garbage is dumped. Those were once called ‘natural’ areas, too. And truthfully, they still are. Ugly, sick, abused natural places.
With this in heart, we can ask ourselves how we are taking care of our own little pocket of nature that we live in daily. Do you let native plants thrive in your yard? Do you have trees and plants that feed you and are good for the soil? Is there suitable habitat for animals and birds in your pocket of nature? In tending to our little piece of this whole, Amara and I have found a great deal of nourishment returned from our efforts. We spend time walking out behind our house and interacting with the plants, birds and animals. When the Evening Grosbeaks stop by during migration, we notice. When the Mariposa lilies bloom, we soak up their beauty, and even feast on their bulbs. When the deer stop showing up, we wonder why. We’ve come to love our little pocket of this city-nature, and have found ourselves feeling connected again without having to go anywhere (though we still love getting out, too). Perhaps this is a taste of what our collective ancestors felt in living without cities.
As a brief story of tying all of this together, I’d like to share about a recent scare that Amara and I experienced. Shortly after coming home from camp on Wednesday, July 8th, we were alerted to the fact that our neighboring quadplex was on fire. I was in the shower when I smelled the smoke and Amara was already banging on the door of the burning unit to see if anyone was inside. Dripping wet with only a pair of shorts on, I ran out back to see a horrifying sight: flames pouring out of the complex twenty feet from our own, having already consumed a back porch and much of the roof. Even more alarmingly, the fire was spreading quickly toward our unit and had already ignited our backyard hill full of grasses and junipers. I knew several calls had already been placed to the fire department, but I could not hear a single siren. Amara and I set to work with a garden hose and five gallon buckets, first dousing the flames close to our complex, and then making runs up the small butte to gain a foothold until the professionals showed up. As I was dumping bucket after bucket of water on the flaming junipers, grasses and sage brush, a man dressed in slacks and a button up shirt appeared on top of the hill. I was grateful to have his help and motioned toward a shovel I had brought on one of my water runs. That gratitude turned to disbelief when he shook his head and revealed a camera in his hand. He had walked all the way up there to take pictures. What boggled my mind even more was that he was the manager of the green space that was on fire. He wanted to take pictures of the fire that was burning the land he was in charge of. Fortunately, I was in an altered state of trying to protect my home and pocket of city-nature to give too much attention to this outrageous behavior.
After some time, the fire department showed up and took care of business. I was eventually told to leave the still flaming hill by several police officers, just after being given the thumbs up by a fireman stomping the grasses (the fireman seemed thrilled to see a barefoot, shirtless citizen lugging water up a hill to put out the flames while his team was taking care of the house). I ignored the police and carried several more loads of water as they became increasingly annoyed that I wasn’t listening. Finally, they made it clear that I was violating a police order and I threw in the towel, so to speak. Most of the hill was contained at this point, and the forest service had just arrived to help out. In the end, our house was spared by the graces of the wind blowing gently away from us, our humble efforts with a garden hose and five gallon buckets, and the heroic efforts of the Bend Fire Department. Our little hill out back got scorched in places, but remained largely safe from the flames. The neighbor’s complex was not so lucky and will have to be entirely rebuilt. Luckily, no people or animals were seriously harmed.
Afterward, I lay awake late into the night, unable to sleep from the excitement of the evening’s events. I contemplated the reactions of all of the people in the area. One of our neighbors went into a pre-drilled fire evacuation and fled with all of their valuables. Another raced home to grab their dog. One just jumped into their car and left. Dozens of people lined the street and watched, even before the fire crew showed up. And then there was the camera wielding land manager. Why did Amara and I react the way we did? It occurred to me that fire is a force of nature, and that most people were entirely unsure how to react to it. How long ago was firefighting a community task that most citizens had at least an understanding of, if not experience with? How long ago did living require intimate knowledge of fire and how to be with it? How complete is our illusion of separateness from nature that we are unable to react to a natural disaster with anything but a snapshot on our phone? When some force of nature strikes our city lives, we ought to be painfully aware of our connectedness; viscerally cognizant of our inability to separate. Yet, as I saw on Wednesday night, many of us will just stand by and watch, wondering what caused the fire. Did Amara and my connection to the space we call home, as a city dwelling and as a natural space that deserves our love have anything to do with our reaction to save it? Does our work with fire on a regular basis give us a sense of capability in dealing with it that others less experienced lack? I don’t know.
I do know that as a community, we seemed wholly unprepared to face a fire that, despite our fancy technology and modern safe guards, is a continual reality of life in the city-nature. I’m not talking about the fire department. Without them, who knows how much of Bend would have burned to the ground. I’m talking about the rest of the people who live in this city-nature. What if we understood the responsibilities, as a whole people, of living in a city that is nature. How would we function differently? Not just in the face of natural disaster, but in every realm of living. I can only imagine the answer, and this is something I do often. Perhaps it is time that I invite others to do the same.
With the prevalence of technology in our everyday lives, it is important to have a solid grounding in physical reality. Interacting with the world through a camera lens has its limitations, especially in emergencies. I hope that teaching children how to safely and skillfully interact with natural elements such as fire will encourage them to take responsibility for the health and protection of the city-nature they call home.
Thank you for taking the time to explore this matter of great importance and I hope to connect with you soon,
Rainbow Eagle Dreamer