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Urban Wilderness: Bioregionalism in the City
By Lisa Michalak
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2001, Vol. 16, No. 3

Eight years after my semester course, one class still sticks in my mind. We sat on a small peak in the Lagunas mountains, and listened to one of our instructors talk about bioregionalism. Bioregionalism teaches that you should understand the place you live in as part of an ecosystem. The awareness of your natural surroundings gives you a stake in their continued good health. He ran through a list of questions about the Baja environment, to demonstrate how the average person doesn't understand his or her home ecosystem. In the process, he gave us the tools to understand ours. When he asked us to close our eyes and point north, we all knew exactly where to point.

In February, I packed my life into boxes and moved them with varying degrees of efficiency from my hometown of Washington, D.C. to New York City. Today, after a few months of living in New York, I notice the NOLS habits I still carry around with me. I wear hiking boots for walking shoes, pack my suitcases for weight and balance, and carry a map and water wherever I travel. I even know which way is north. So I decided to approach Gotham City with my NOLS semester student skills and seek out the wilderness in one of the most urban spots in the country. In the process, I realized that my first impressions of life after a semester course were wrong. The adventure isn't over, and the backcountry doesn't have to be so different from the city.

New York's location along a major migration route makes it easy on a lazy birder like me to get in touch with local wildlife. According to the NYC chapter of the Audubon society, more than half of America's native bird species pass through or live in New York City, so while "local" may be a strong term, the abundance of species ensures a continual parade. Sitting in the graveyard by Trinity Church, I've watched several little brown birds-much more savvy than their D.C. counterparts-dodging pigeons to win a coveted crumb. On a walk through Central Park, I saw what looked like a red-tailed hawk flapping from tree to tree, pursued by a community of grouchy ravens. Of course, there are organized bird walks around the city, but I prefer just to sit and observe.

As I watch birds, I also watch the clouds to see what they indicate for that day. Weather is utterly indifferent to humanity. It rolls over the landscape whether the landscape is covered with buffalo herds or highways. You can't damage the weather's habitat, block its migration path, or destroy its food supply. It's also pretty easy to observe. If you pay attention, you can learn your local weather patterns and know what to expect next. I'm teaching myself to recognize fronts by checking the weather in the paper or on the Internet to see what's overhead. Then I watch the sky to see what they look like and how they act. The weather section of the paper also has moon phases, planet rise and set times, and tide tables-useful tools to get in touch with urban wilderness.

In the backcountry, you have your instructor and your library as resources. In the front country, you have the newspaper, a much larger library, and the World Wide Web. On the web, you have access to universities and libraries all over the world. Local libraries usually have books on area wildlife, geology, and history. All these resources can help you learn more about your ecosystem, or even find fellow urban explorers.

Understanding your natural as well as urban surroundings not only gives you a deeper feeling for the place in which you live, but also reminds you daily that everything is interconnected. The storm tapping on my windows today swept over the Midwest yesterday, and the piece of sandstone lying in Central Park probably caught a ride here on the last glacier. When I bring some of these green and fuzzy details into focus, I get the same feeling I have in the backcountry, a feeling of understanding and being in tune with a small corner of the natural world. It keeps me sane in the city. It keeps me on track with conservation. It reminds me that even though I'm surrounded by buildings rather than canyons, I've never left the outdoors.


Lisa Michalak is a graduate of a NOLS Spring Semester in Mexico in 1993 and a Baja Alumni Sailing Trip. She lives in New York City.


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