The Green Space | How I Fell in Love with Nature

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

My childhood was much like any other. I spent a majority of my time outdoors, picking dandelions to line up in the cracks between the floorboards of my swingset, making strange elixirs out of various common plants and building flimsy forts out of fallen branches.

But as I grew older, indoor recreation became more and more appealing, while the great outdoors faded in comparison. My parents would have to drag me away from my Nintendo DS for hikes in the woods, and my mother urged me to put down my book and spend time outside. Being a snotty little kid, I sulked and dragged my feet and utterly refused to have fun. I never understood what I was supposed to be enjoying.

The pendulum took a while to swing back in the other direction. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I began to truly appreciate nature. Perhaps it was when I began running cross country in seventh grade, and my only entertainment for 4 miles was counting how many trees had changed into their fall attire. Perhaps it was as late as my senior year of high school, when I began taking extensive walks and filling my phone storage with sunset pictures.

In reality, though, it was probably in the small moments in between, staring out a classroom window at gently drifting snowflakes, watching summer thunderheads puff out their chests, listening to rainwater gurgling in the gutter. I fell in love with nature all over again, and you can too — even while living in the big bad City.

First thing’s first — you must get out and about every day. This is essential. I know this can be difficult considering you no longer have to commute to class every day, and venturing out into the world now requires the extra step of masking up — but I can guarantee that you’re not doing yourself any good by staying cooped up in your stuffy South O apartment. Just take a turn around the block, around the neighborhood and maybe even past its bounds, if you happen to have time on your hands. You don’t have to have a particular destination to appreciate the breath of wind on your forehead and the flowers sprouting up from the cracks of the sidewalk.

This isn’t the main purpose for your trip outside, though. The biggest reason I’m urging you to leave your place of residence so adamantly is because that’s the only way you can see the sky. Look up, look up! Look for beams of light breaking through the gray wash of clouds. Look for particularly interesting framings formed by the buildings cluttered below. Look for our lady Cathy, rising tall and proud into her misty shroud.

Now, I’m going to provide you with a very valuable piece of information — my favorite sunset spot. At the very tippy-top of Cardiac Hill lies the OC Lot, accessed by a set of stairs set into the hill next to Sutherland Hall or a twisting staircase down closer to Trees Hall. If you can bear the climb, you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. From there, you can watch the sun tuck itself behind a distant hill and observe as its last rays beam across the City for miles around. This sight has made me cry multiple times. I hope it makes you cry, too — not in a bad way, but a cathartic way. We all need a joyful cry now and then.

This next tip might sound a little weird, but hear me out. I believe a fantastic way to gain a deeper appreciation for nature is through observation of artwork that centers nature — mostly landscapes. Artists can often capture natural beauty in a way that forces us to look harder at the actual colors present in our environment. You may think snow is just plain white, but actually, as the artist shows, snow contains a whole range of colors — bruised purple shadows, icy blue highlights, a sparkling silvery gleam under direct sun.

The artist allows us to see what they see, all the nuances of shade and lighting, all the shapes, all the motion, on the canvas and in real life. Enjoying nature involves a lot of noticing, and art, by drawing your attention to what the artist has noticed, can help you determine how you want to focus your attention on the world around you.

It’s really quite easy to see art in the flesh because Pitt students have free access to the Carnegie Museum of Art with our student IDs. The Museum is open Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Tuesdays, and open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday until 8 p.m. In order to keep the number of visitors to 25% of the Museum’s capacity, the Museum requires all visitors to reserve timed tickets in advance. If you, like me, are not in the City at present, I would recommend checking out the websites of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, where you can read a bit about the history behind the art while also viewing high resolution images of the works.

While you should pay attention to the natural world surrounding you while out and about, don’t be afraid to embrace a little drift. When I’m out on a hike, my mind wanders all over the place, fumbling with problems, humming a tune or playing old and well-worn memories of more pleasant times on repeat. It’s a little like being in the shower. Occasionally, though, my mind will come back to earth with a thud, and then it will be like I’m seeing the forest around me for the first time. That golden light! Those flaming leaves! Those ethereal branches, bending over the path ahead! This can make hiking a lot less boring. Towing a friend along can have a similar effect, with the natural dips and pauses in the rhythm of conversation serving as opportunities to notice and appreciate.

Perhaps nature isn’t for everyone. You could be deathly afraid of insects, justifiably afraid of ticks or just plain not into the great outdoors. I know young Sarah would agree with you — she could never wrap her mind around why anyone would want to walk just for fun. But I believe that anyone can learn to love nature, and that it’s incredibly beneficial to your mental and physical health to try. It’s simply a matter of attention — attending to those things of beauty in your vicinity, rather than focusing on the nasty bugs or the sticky heat or the lovely whiff of hot garbage that you might catch while strolling the streets of South Oakland. So yes, I wrote this whole article just to tell you that. Pay attention. And, for goodness sake, look up!

Sarah writes primarily about trees, climate change and walking. You can reach her at [email protected].