What is ‘Natural’ ? : Reflections on Green Spaces and Places

What is ‘Natural’ ? : Reflections on Green Spaces and Places

Listening in on a course in the past month, I had heard the mention of the natural environment and how, some scholars really don’t like that term. Immediately, my gut reaction was pretty visceral. The idea is that everything should be considered our natural environment. When I first heard this notion, I was a bit repelled. Growing up in California, there was a VERY clear divide, in my mind, between the urban environment and the “natural” environment.

To me, the “natural” environment contained within it, rolling hills spotted with oaks, sprawling meadows that stretched for miles, craggy cliffs that sunk down into fresh ocean spray and dense, damp, forests with silent sentinels for trees.

I was extrapolating about this during my trip in November to Stonehenge.

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Three friends of mine and I decided to take an impromptu trip out to Stonehenge and Bath in the UK. “Let’s get out of the city!” I urged my friends. I’m decidedly, one of the “outdoorsy” people of the bunch, but the appeal of seeing one of England’s oldest and most iconic monuments was enough of a pull to get them all to agree to venture out. With much enthusiasm as well, I might add. Add this to the claustrophobia of London and it was a done deal.

It was an early morning bus ride we had to take to get there. The views of English countryside were a greatly welcomed sight. London has quite a few large parks, but there’s always the impending sense of ending when you’re in one. The inevitability that there will be pavement or concrete sooner than you know.

Here, peering out over vast expanses of green pastures, saturated from fresh fallen rain, I was excited at the prospect of feeling that connection with nature.

The air was decidedly chilly but not as bad as it could have been. After a short ride in a tram, we came upon the hilly area where Stonehenge sat. Sarsens stones and bluestones make up the rocks and boulders within it. Outside of this, one of the oldest dated portions, is a circular ditch with an outer and inner portion. There has been widespread debate about the purpose behind Stonehenge. Theories range from being a burial ground to a possible house of healing. The headphones provided give one a tour of the site and you can take your leisurely time walking around the monument to explore various pieces of it. If you’d like to know more about the history of Stonehenge, I’ve provided a link to the heritage site here.

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As I walked around though, I noticed how relieved I had felt. It had been my first major outing outside of London in a couple of months. This time, my eyes stared up at the marble, gray, skies, which swirled and covered everything. My favorite part of the day, was being able to take photos of the things that were bringing me peace at that exact moment. The sun just glinting in slants through the clouds, the curves of the rolling hills, spatter of mud mixed with grass.

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It was also fantastic to see my friends with me out of the city. Enjoying something new and getting closer to the outdoors. The soft air smelled of drenched earth and I tried imagining what the landscape might have looked like before the farming, where the tree line may have originally started which I saw in the distance.

Two of my good friends here are Latinas. One of them is from the Dominican Republic; the other has Puerto Rican roots and grew up in New York. My friend Pam, a born and raised Dominicana, gave me some of her thoughts on the connection between herself and nature.

“As a person that lives in a tropical country, one of the things that I love the most is being constantly surrounded by green spaces. However, the downside of this privilege is that sometimes you don’t appreciate all that beauty that you face every day. I believe that is my case; it is only when I go to the mountains or the beach that I stop and take it all in. I absolutely love going into nature basically because…you find answers…it helps you connect with ideas that you never thought you could encounter.”

These notions and my experiences at Stonehenge then caused me to connect back with what had been said in one of my courses a couple of weeks prior, the concept of the “natural” environment. Where did it start? Where did it conclude? There was the socio-politically charged notion that, for the environmental movement as a whole, it would behoove us to encourage the common linkage between what is traditionally considered natural landscape i.e., earth, trees, plants, rivers, lakes, etc. as intrinsically tied to everything. To encourage the thought process that, cities are in fact, also ‘natural’ environment. I mean, here I was, feeling a connection to nature when in reality, there was so much there that had been moved, etched, dug, and shaped by human desire. But why did I feel so different here? Why was this such a hard thing to find in a city?

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I want to change this perspective and I challenge others to do the same. What I think of as true “nature”, high mountains, cliffs, woods, and everything in between, brings me such inner peace. I have many notions as to why I keep the idea of that type of nature and the kind found in our everyday urban settings separate, but I invite others to join the conversation. I want to find the kind of therapeutic healing I find in the natural landscape in my everyday. It would definitely promote a much healthier lifestyle with me, considering much of my life has been within highly urbanized settings. However, do we really draw lines about where “nature” begins and ends? If so, why do these lines exist and what does this mean for our daily interactions within our environments?

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As I step into the New Year, I bring with me these thoughts and ideas. I also bring with me the wonderful memories I’ve created in the environment so far, whether it’s in a park down the street, or in the vast expanses of green spaces. I wish for everyone else, all the same. Great memories, personal reflection and enthusiasm to get out there and bring your friends along for the adventures that await!

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Estefani Morales is a new Latino Outdoors Ambassador abroad. She is pursuing a graduate degree in London. Stay tuned for her stories, narratives, articles, and other contributions as an ambassador abroad! You can contact her at emorales@latinooutdoors.org.