How to Be a Nature-Worshipper When You're Surrounded by Concrete
A recent change to the Dedicant program is the inclusion of a section about "Nature Work." While on the surface seeming quite easy, some of us were soon scratching our heads-how do we get in touch with nature if we live in the city?
For some of us originally read the nature work requirement as two-pronged: vague notions of communing with nature" combined with becoming a walking Audubon guide; however, I've come to realize that the nature requirement is much more than that, but actually encourages a deep understanding of our world and our place in it as organic beings.
While it is certain that being a Druid is more than being a "tree-hugger"--for the classical Druids were judges, doctors, artists, lawyers, the true "professional class" of the Celts--it is usually agreed that the natural world is an important one for the modern Druid.
But how does one connect to the natural world when she lives in the city?
How can one feel as connected to nature as, say, a farmer, when she's surrounded by glass, steel, and concrete all day, when her lighting source is not the sun, but flourescent tubing?
Is it even possible to feel close to the natural world when living in an urban environment?
You'd be surprised.
Western society seems to have preconceived notions of what nature is--giant redwoods, mountains, lakes, deserts. However, if we are ever to truly understand the world around us, to fulfil our need for connection to the earth, our understanding of "Nature" must be revolutionized. We must move beyond the polarized concepts of the pastoral, which pits the "purity" of the natural world against the "corruption" of civilization, as if these were two completely separate realities. Instead, we must recognize that the word "nature" refers to the whole of the earth, wherein the city and the country are intimately connected to one another in terms of resources. Moreover, we must realize that just because a certain environment has a higher population density and evidence of human development, doesn't mean it exists in some sort of unnatural, sterilized bubble. The druid realizes that nature is everything, that nature defines our plane of existence, even in the supposedly artificial environments of the city.
It's a mistake to view the natural world as somehow absent in the city. The natural world isn't only a rural or primeval environment - the "natural world" is the entire world that we inhabit - it is the daily cycle of the sun and stars, the monthly cycle of the moon, the yearly cycle of the earth and its seasons. Being a city-dweller, I admit I'm not present at the farm where my food comes from, or the reservoir of my water. When I was younger, living in the country with my parents, we grew our own vegetables, and drank well water.
Today, I buy vegetables at the supermarket and drink city water. But the fact is that I'm aware that I still depend on the natural world to support me, to grow my food, to supply me with water, with air.
The seasons are still present in an urban environment. As a city-dweller, I am as much aware of the fact that it's winter as the country dweller is, though in different ways. Try waiting at a bus stop in Philly at 7 am in the middle of January-the fact that it's winter doesn't escape me. I notice the days growing longer, then shorter, then longer again, and so on in the well-known cycle. I notice the temperatures changing in accordance. I notice the leaves budding, falling, budding again. The cycle of the year is not lost, despite being in the city.
The point is that part of nature work is observing and experiencing the world around you-being in touch with the reality of existence in such a way that you cannot ignore that the artificial cycles we live in-the 9-5 day for instance-are only as real as the natural cycles-day and night, etc.
Now, let me say that part of this awareness of the environment is knowing the plants and animals native to the area (and it also doesn't hurt to know the plants newly introduced). The conscientious Druid has a thirst for knowledge in all areas, and knowledge of the earth and its inhabitants is no small part of this. I do believe that the city-dweller should have knowledge of the organic elements of the environment, be it knowing the few stars of high magnitude we can pick out among the skyscrapers, the weeds that pop up out of the sidewalk, the types of birds that live along rooftops, or the animals that you may have to avoid while walking under, say, I-95 (an unfortunate experience of mine involving rats). The important thing is to be able to integrate your knowledge of the urban environment with that of the surrounding countryside.
I live in Philadelphia, which, while certainly lacking in prestige, isn't lacking in vacant lots and busy streets. But Philly is a city of trees, from Fairmount Park (the largest municipal park in the world), to the numerous smaller parks throughout the city, to the fact that many of the main streets downtown are named for trees (Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, Pine, etc.). Nearly every street, particularly in the part of the city I live in, is lined with trees and flowers. Once acknowledging this, I saw how I could take this environment and turn it to my advantage. The abundance of trees, even downtown, gives me a chance to get acquainted with different types of trees on my own time without having to leave the city for the state parks out in the suburbs (not that I wouldn't do that anyway, but it's a question of having the time, and frankly, I'm conserving gas this way).
Being an Urban Druid can make you intimately aware of humanity's impact on the earth. One specific way is through the use of automobiles, for example, another advantage of living in the city is that I have public transportation, meaning that I can drastically cut back on using my car-and so cut back on air pollution, wasting gas, etc. On nicer days, I can ride my bike and so even eliminate using the bus and subway. And cities often have recycling programs, which also allows the urban Druid another way to participate in taking care of the earth.
There are a number of community gardens in the city, wherein a city block is transformed into a number of small, outdoor gardens suitable for growing flowers and vegetables, formerly only a luxury of suburbanites. If, like me, you find yourself too busy to take care of an entire outdoor garden, you can do as I did and start an herb garden. Though I live in an apartment, I have my own small container garden in the kitchen; I'm growing parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (a little joke from my aunt), and basil, which I'm able to use in cooking.
And so one can easily be aware of nature and a defender of nature, even while living in an urban environment. If anything, the urban Druid is forced to recognize how her own life is tied into the greater web, not only in her neighborhood, not only in her city, but in the surrounding countryside, where her food is grown and her water is purified in reservoirs. Living in the city should never be an obstacle to connecting with the natural world.