Finding Nature In The Urban Jungle

My husband and I are raising our little boy in Baltimore, Maryland, a city with a vibrant music and art scene, racial and socioeconomic diversity, and a scrappy, post-industrial appeal. But it is also a landscape of urban decay and eight-lane highways, with a harbor so polluted that incidental skin contact with its water can cause diarrhea. This wasn't in my plans. I grew up in southern Colorado in the foothills of the Rockies, beneath the magnificent, motherly Spanish Peaks, known to the Utes as the Wahatoya, or Breasts of the Earth. I always assumed any children I had would grow up much as I did, perpetually sticky with sap, losing snakes behind the piano, more familiar with the real Milky Way than with its chocolate-bar namesake.

But then I fell in love with an East Coaster who sees culture as I do nature: as necessary to life. We live in a charming if minimally insulated former millworker's house, blocks from the stream where the millwheel once churned. An elevated freeway now casts a permanent shadow over this stream, the city's first major source of drinking water, and the riverbed is a constantly evolving snarl of debris—old tires, broken tricycles, fluttering wings of plastic tarp, bed frames, orange traffic hazard cones. We may not be up shit creek, but we're only steps from it.

Nature is here, too, I remind myself. A few times a week, I set out with dog and stroller for a long walk through the abandoned backside of Baltimore's largest city park, located nearby. (Overgrown parks and city lots are an unexpected perk here, where the population has dropped by a third since its peak in 1950.) It is not a healthy ecosystem. Curtains of invasive porcelain berry and oriental bittersweet weigh down the trees and, in spring, you can smell the stands of garlic mustard. But in early summer, wood thrushes burble here, and at least once a year I come home with a giant armful of chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms for dinner.

In our own yard, I've begun to replace the hostas and mums with natives: viburnum and goldenrod, little bluestem and Joe Pye weed. I imagine crouching down with my son when he is a little older, examining them and the insects they host. Milkweed bugs have already found their way to my lone butterfly weed patch in a neighborhood dominated by prim cultivars. I hope they do not devour the plants before the monarchs and swallowtails find them. In spring, we'll take binoculars and visit the yellow-crowned night herons that, improbably, nest along the stream. We'll go camping and hiking in state parks, and visit the ocean and the diminished but still grand Chesapeake Bay.

The wisest approach—short of moving, which is, for many reasons, not feasible now—is to come to know and care for the particular patch of Earth one finds oneself in, rather than yearning for another. Yet I find that wisdom isn't enough. When I remember drowsing in a high mountain meadow to the ambient drone of insects or gazing up at literally countless shooting stars, I cannot help but draw comparisons. In Baltimore, rats gnaw at the tomatoes in my garden and police helicopters drone overhead like giant menacing flies. There is a hole in my heart that will never be filled here.

What I am coming, begrudgingly, to realize is that my son will not share my sense of loss. My husband spent his childhood in what I would call a bland suburb, but his memories of exploring the creek that ran through his subdivision are as richly meaningful to him as my own wilderness experiences. Our son will find as much magic in discovering that the leaves of the ubiquitous jewelweed gleam like silver when submerged in water as I did finding fossilized palm trees among the piñon and junipers of southern Colorado. And in the end, perhaps my desire for him to have a childhood like mine is selfish. Maybe I simply want to relive my own.

Of course, nostalgia has also blurred the imperfections of my childhood home. Water was already scarce there when I was a kid, and a century of cattle grazing and coal mining had left their marks. So as my boy grows and becomes more alert to his surroundings, I resolve to become more familiar with the flora and fauna in this place and do my part to preserve its beleaguered woods and watersheds. The world was not in mint condition when I got here, and I have found it heartbreakingly beautiful nonetheless. That, above all, is my hope for my son.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.