“Let’s go find some trees,” my friend said a few days ago. So here we are sitting on a rock in High Park where trees are not hard to come across. They are right in front of us, sticking their bare branches into the sky. I try to block out the noise coming from Queensway and imagine I am in the forest. Not an easy task so I focus on birds chirping and twittering instead.
My friend tells me about going on an ecotour in British Columbia a few years ago and how every sudden sound made her think a subway train was coming, every cliff reminded of a highriser. I can relate to that. City life is so deeply etched into us that it can be hard to shake off. She also tells me how this desire to search for vegetation was born during a meeting when she was continuously distracted by a tree outside the window and realized how badly she needed to be in nature.
On my way home, I start thinking about wild places. When we talk about nature, wildness, wildlife, we usually think of remote, uninhabited by humans locations, lions prowling around a savanna, bears lurking in the woods, signifying danger for some, solitude and bliss for others. City and nature are often perceived as mutually exclusive. In fact, the whole reason we, humans, retreated into cities was to protect ourselves from wildness. The irony, of course, is that even though we have built high, thick walls to physically separate ourselves, we haven’t managed to squeeze nature out from inside us.
The need to spend time outdoors is in the spotlight right now. Doctors prescribe nature walks. Ecotherapy is a rising trend. Numerous studies demonstrate various positive effects of getting outside: better physical and mental health, improved cognitive functions, increased concern for the environment. I never needed convincing that nature is important. I always sought it out even in the busiest parts of town: the sound of a cricket amid traffic noise, a sunflower by the curb, a spider web on my balcony. But I always saw nature in the city as inferior to that other, faraway nature, too tame, almost artificial. To me, it was a stopgap before we could go camping again.
Over the past month, I have spent a lot of time exploring parks in and around Toronto and it helped me rethink my understanding of wildness. Two Thirds Wild blogger captured it perfectly in her comment to one of my posts about microadventures with this quote by Roger Deakin from Robert Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places: “There is wildness everywhere, if we only stop in our tracks and look around us.”
And that is what this past month has been about: not just finding beautiful, can’t-believe-they-are-in-Toronto places, but also searching for wildness in my daily life.
On our walk through High Park that day, my friend and I spend good twenty minutes watching a northern cardinal. The bird isn’t afraid at all and seems just as curious about us.
We then make our way down to Grenadier pond and come across a bunch of ducks. Most of them are mallards but then I spot a wood duck among them. I get overly excited because I have always wanted to see one and here he is, right in the middle of the city. My friend waits patiently while I snap dozens of pictures. Ducks seem mildly interested in us but get bored quickly and move on. And so do we.
Later, there is also a heron and swans, which at first seem so incongruous with the traffic down on Queensway and condo towers rising along the southern edge of the pond. But then when I think about it, they don’t seem so out of place after all.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not giving up our camping trips any time soon. I still need regular doses of undiluted nature. But from now on I will cherish these short expeditions to look for trees in the city just as much.