I recently held a couple of events in New York City. A question came up a few times: How can someone who lives and operates their daily life in a big city get the nature they both need and want when they're unable or ready to change where they live? The answer can help many people in our culture achieve a deeper relationship with nature no matter where they live.
Step 1: Check your vacation.
Although the exact number and distribution of everyone's vacation days range, if you're someone who gets vacation time at work, take a good hard look at how you spend it. Do you spend this portion of your life—when you're (supposedly) under the least amount of obligation—in nature camping or hiking? Start with this. Take seven or eight months to plan the wilderness experience you've been wanting. It doesn't have to be expensive—see if you can borrow or rent camping gear, or share the costs of a campsite with friends. It can also be closer to home than you realize, and there are often organizations that help people connect to nature via public transportation or intercity buses.
Step 2: Check your weekends.
Any nature there? Are you hitting the trails for a day hike or taking the family to the park for a picnic? Is it difficult to get to nature because you're already scheduled for and immersed in non-nature activities? Figure out why and adjust as possible.
Step 3: Check your time before and after work.
It may not be abundant time, but you can likely find 15-60 minutes at both the beginning and end of your day that are ripe for adjusting. Are you going outside for even 15-minute walks first and last thing? Do you ever step outside (or even look outside!) to gaze at and identify the phase of the moon? Ever get up early to revel in a sunrise, or is it too hard to get up that early? Hint: Going to bed earlier is sleeping in on the other side.
Step 4: Identify the many components of nature.
Although I'd argue that nature is everything, nature as we often think and talk of it—that wild place where we can escape and be free—can be thought of as the sum of many parts. When you say you want more nature, what draws you to it, exactly? A few aspects of nature include:
- fresh air
- natural light
- long distances for viewing
- temperature variations
- plant interactions
- the rhythm of seasons
- the speed of the wind
- natural movement
- biophony (the sound of the natural world, as opposed to anthropophony, the sound created by humans)
Step 5: Adjust your environment.
If you love interacting with plants in nature but don't have any on your desk, there's a gap you can fill immediately, no matter your zip code. If you love the beauty of nature, decorate your windowsills or shelves with rocks and shells, and your table with bouquets of leaves or branches (from your weekend hike!). If you have or work with kids—or even if you don't—keep baskets holding rocks, fossils, moss, snake skins, antlers, and bones where curious hands can find them easily.
Practice natural movements for exercise, sit on the floor or seats of various heights to use your knees and hips differently, and add rugs with various textures to stimulate bare feet. Lower your thermostat or open the windows more often. This way, you can start interacting with the aspects of nature just outside the walls of your office or home by moving the thermal-regulating parts of your body.
Go without sunglasses more often, starting off early and late in the day, a few minutes at a time, and build up to being able to tolerate natural light. Or walk without an umbrella sometimes and experience a little discomfort (and recognize how exhilarating that can be).
Try to eat locally enough that you're in touch with when things are growing in your region; get to know which foods are ripe when. Keep some containers of medicinal plants (aloe is an easy one), herbs, or vegetables in your house or on a balcony, or volunteer at a community garden.
Keep a pair of binoculars by your window and become an urban bird watcher. There are more than pigeons out there, and even if there aren't, pigeons are fascinating to observe.
Put your phone down and turn off your GPS and start navigating by map and then by landmark—skills that you'll likely call on during your wilderness vacation.
Read books and poetry about nature. What you read helps to form your worldview. What you read is where you're putting your attention. What ideas are you spending time with?
Step 6: Keep going.
When we have strong tendencies toward all-or-nothing thinking, we forget the value of small transitioning movements. Before you start a marathon, you've taken hundreds of smaller steps in small runs. In this same way, you can transition away from a nature deficit through hundreds if not thousands of small steps.
Where the magic happens is, once you take an hour or two to create a nature space on your desk (or wherever you start), you'll find yourself thinking about how to change your weekend time. Once you decide to schedule your birthday party as a hike instead of a dinner party, you start thinking about how to get a garden started on your kitchen counter. As you adapt to nature, you sort of get pulled towards it. Just keep stepping, and you'll see more nature appear...even in the heart of the Big Apple.