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Jeremy Faludi, 26 Sep 05

imageDBxx.jpgOne of the most neglected but important parts of being an environmentalist is having a relationship with the place you live in. Some green thinkers such as Alan Durning (in his book This Place on Earth) and William McDonough (with his phrase, "What does it mean to be native to this place?") have set people thinking about it, but most of us still haven't done the legwork to get to know our corners of the world well. Especially those of us who live in cities, and too often think of nature being outside the city limits. So how do urbanites get to know the nature in their cities? Do your own observation and exploration, but give yourself a huge head start with someone who's done the research already.

For example, David Williams -- whose book The Street Smart Naturalist: Field Notes From Seattle we reviewed earlier -- engagingly illuminates the local landscape: geology, water, flora, fauna, natural history and the changes people have made. His work not so much a field guide as a set of stories; he acts as the matchmaker who can tell you why you should fall in love with this place. We mention it again because Dan Gonsiorowski at Seattlest recently did an interview with Willams.

Williams's book is hardly the first one on urban nature; New York has had a couple such books written about it (The Urban Naturalist and The Urban Wilderness: Nature in New York City), as has Chicago (A Natural History of the Chicago Region and The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History) and New Orleans (An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature and A River and Its City), just to name a few US ones. And Seattle has had a couple more standard-style natural histories written (The Natural History of Puget Sound Country, Nature in the City: Seattle, and others that specialize in birds, plants, etc.)

If you don't need the stories and history, and just want to learn about what's around you, field guides are what you want; but I don't have widely useful recommendations, because good ones are so topic-specific. There should really be databases of all the flora, fauna, geology, etc. of the world, but as you might imagine, aggregating all that data is a very hard problem. (We should sic Google on it.) There are some fledgling efforts underway (such as the Integrated Taxonomic Information System and Species2000), but they have a long way to go. Right now, the best tip is to ask local mavens for book recommendations. And get outside, yourself.

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yes. And that relationship is strengthened by sustained investments of time - in the place & the people as well as the environment. Given the prevasive impact that humans have had on ecosystems & landscapes anyway, you can take pleasure in little urban patches of wildlife rather than despairing over the lack of virginal wilderness at yr doorstep!

Due to this importance of having a relationship with a place, I'm a bit cynical about short-term placements of 1st world workers/volunteers in exotic 3rd world locations. Of course such programmes can be extremely beneficial by facilitating learning & sharing between cultures & worlds, but as complements, not substitutes for training & employment of locals who can have a longer-term, deeper relationship with that area.

On this theme I recommend the book 'The good news for a change' by Dr D Suzuki & Holly Dressel - how people in their everyday lives can improve their local areas.

Posted by: Roadside Flower on 27 Sep 05

Brainstorming here, but what I would love to see an index of environmental groups around the world that actively take part in local conservation work.

Too often the NGOs (non governmental organizations) and GOs (governmental organizations) are jet-setting around the world instead of taking an active interest, heck any interest, in their own backyard.

Posted by: Ron Mader on 28 Sep 05

yeah. I restrained myself from user stronger language, such as the developing nations are often a dumping ground for inexperienced volunteers trying to build up their CV and expensively educated workers, ie learning (hopefully) from many mistakes & ill-gotten programmes at the expense of the clients. (Not to diminish the efforts of those who do work ethically, restrain their excesses, ensure that they learn from experience & manage teh donor-client conflict of interest well)

I really believe that we have to get issues right in our own backyard before we can try to tell others how to do it. Rather than NGOs going to exotic destination & engaging in 'participative workshops', they should replace themselves with locals - spend all their resources giving locals the skills & experience thy need to do the NGO work themselves.

Posted by: Roadside Flower on 28 Sep 05

I like this post and the comments. It's about learning to work at the scale of one's competence. The opposite of hubris. Here's a test: what do you know about living sustainably in your surroundings that you'd feel confident expressing as instructions?

Posted by: David Foley on 28 Sep 05



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