I grew up in the country. I used to pretend it wasn’t the country because I was worried people would think I was uncultured, a country mouse, or from “the sticks.” To my childhood friends, I would say, “we just live a little way out of town.” In my college years, I would just tell people I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, usually leaving out the part that it was not IN town. In reality, I lived 5 miles outside of our small town. Our house used to be a barn, we had horses as neighbors, a trout stream in our backyard, and 5 acres of fields, trees, and open space for my brother and I to explore as kids. It was, without a doubt, the country. Now in my mid-thirties, living in a San Diego suburb, I have found myself dreaming of having all that open space and nature to retreat to whenever I want.
It took me a long time to wear this fact about my childhood with a badge of honor. I now proudly tell people “I grew up in the country” because now I see how important it was in shaping who I am now. I crave nature in my urban home as a place for not only decompressing but feeling alive. As a new mom in Long Beach, I made trips to El Dorado Park to escape the confines of my nursing chair. As that baby became a toddler, I’ve admittedly struggled to keep nature a part of our lives. I’ve fallen into this awful parent routine that involves Target, Trader Joe’s, making dinner, and cleaning the house day-in and day-out. And laundry. Don’t forget the laundry! How did this happen?! Now, with baby number two due in a matter of days (!), I’m resolving to actively bring more opportunities to explore nature into our family’s daily life. (Starting this blog is partially due to this goal!)
This will be a challenge. But it’s totally doable, even in this metropolis of urban sprawl! I don’t really know how I ended up living in Southern California, the land of cars, concrete, and channelized rivers. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I treasure about SoCal — the people, the mix of cultures, the opportunities to do basically whatever you want — but it’s hard to escape to nature in the same way I did as a kid. Runyon Canyon in LA is a popular as South Coast Plaza on a Sunday. If you can’t find parking at Torrey Pines in San Diego, you get to park in the lot across PCH that feels like it’s the size of the park itself. The Huntington Gardens are a beautiful cultural and natural sanctuary, if you don’t mind allowing thousands of others to share in your quest for tranquility. It’s safe to say that most people enjoy being outside and a lot of Southern Californians will tell you they love living here because they like to be outside at all times of the year.
So, how do you escape to nature without feeling like you’re just another stroller-pushing parent, calling to your kid to keep up (or slow down) in a crowd of joggers, Instagrammers, and dog-walkers? Well, you adjust your view of what an idealistic trip looks like and find nature where it’s hiding. Sure, you can take that weekend trip to Julian, Anza Borrego, or whatever the equivalent escape is in your city, to find some trailheads, but you can also take a walk down your street to look for nature. Here are some easy things you can do with kids to find nature in your neighborhood:
- Next time you are on a walk, look for birds (they might be pigeons!) and see how many different types you can find. My 2-year-old son was very intrigued by the pigeons and blackbirds we saw in the Target parking lot last week!
- Pack a picnic and take a morning trip to a nearby open space. In Long Beach, we could almost always find an empty stretch of green grass and trees at El Dorado Park. In San Diego, a favorite for us is the Mission Trails Nature Center, where you can sit on the benches and admire the view. This could be a bench along a river walk, a shady spot under a tree in a courtyard, or a patch of lawn in front of a library or museum. Mornings also tend to be less crowded than afternoons for most places.
- Go outside at least once a day for 10-20 minutes, either by yourself or with your kids. It sounds so yogi, but just take in the air and sounds around you. Even in the city you can take notice of a tree thriving on a dirty sidewalk or hear the birds in your backyard.
- Find a nature space near your house and make it your place. My city, San Diego, is full of nature reserves, parks, and trails. Does your city have hidden (or not so hidden) parks? Find one that is close to you and start exploring it. I find the easiest way to do this is to go to Google Maps and literally look for the green spaces. You might have to take a miss or two before you hit your spot. Go here on your own or with your family on a regular basis.
Why do we crave nature? I feel like the answer to this question could be a Masters degree thesis. In short, it’s eco-therapy. It’s where we come from and at the most basic level, we are still a part of. “Forest bathing” has been a Japanese practice for decades and the general idea can be applied to any time we spend outside to recharge our mental health.
Most of us spend the vast majority of our time indoors and finding the time to really experience the outdoors — whether it’s a local park or real wilderness — through all our senses can create a “sixth sense” connection with nature. This, in turn, can reduce our levels of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. It’s the easiest mental therapy you can do!
Will you resolve to find more nature in your busy life? How do you connect with nature? Do you have any favorite places that you are willing to share? Please comment below to share your thoughts!