Appreciating the Nature On Our Doorstep With Kelly Brenner

Image Credit: Kelly Brenner, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Over the last few months, extenuating circumstances have confined us to our homes, and the areas immediately surrounding them. For those who love nature, being trapped in the city or suburbs might seem like we’ve lost our daily opportunity to explore the ecosystems around us. Yet over recent years, the push to appreciate urban ecosystems and the species that flourish in them has grown. The exploration of urban ecosystems makes up the lion’s share of my PhD. With the increasing urbanisation seen worldwide, we are at risk of getting alienated from nature, unless we actively make an effort to stay in touch – the phrase: “You can’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know” comes to mind. Urban ecosystems can offer the opportunity to reconnect with nature without having to travel far and wide to find a patch of green.

With this in mind, Sam and I recently had the chance to sit down and talk to author Kelly Brenner. Kelly, whose book Nature Obscura chronicles the many fascinating lives of urban species, has been leading the charge for renewed appreciation of the nature that is available right outside our doorstep, or in the backyards of those fortunate enough to have them. We spoke with Kelly about her new book, our attitudes toward urban nature, and even how useful Pokemon Go is in an urban nature context.

Tanja Petersen (TP:) Your book, Nature Obscura, is mainly centered around your home in Seattle (and North America in general), but you have done quite a bit of travelling and photography in several places in Europe as well. Is there a difference in the attitudes of people to nature as it exists in the city between the two continents, in your experience?

Kelly Brenner (KB): A lot of my travel has been in Finland, where people are very connected to nature. In Helsinki, going out to nature is just part of the day. And here, it’s something that you have to make an effort to do, you have to travel to get to nature and connect. Most people don’t, it’s either going outside to jog or ride a bike, not to actually be in nature. There’s a bigger push here to tell people it’s good for your mental health, to tell people they need to get outside and get into nature. Whereas especially in the Nordic countries, spending time in nature is a given. It’s just engrained in their lives.

London is a great example. I know in London they are having a push to make the whole city a national park. They have a lot more programs and initiatives connecting people to nature in London too. In the Pacific North West, places like Portland, and Seattle where I live, people are a bit more connected to urban nature than other cities in the country, which might have more urban sprawl. But there’s definitely a difference between the US and Europe.

Sam Perrin (SP): You mentioned that people often have to make that effort to go out and get into nature. Is there a growing realisation at all that nature can be experienced in the city?

KB: Definitely. In Seattle there’s a big push to preserve parks so that they’re never sold or developed. But at the same time, people here in Seattle think of nature as “out there”. We go out to the cascades, out to the islands, out to the mountains, we go out to the wilderness to see nature. We go to nature here in the cities to jog, or maybe to fish.

One exception is maybe the beach. The Seattle Aquarium has a particular program for low tides, where they have dozens of beach naturalists roaming the beaches, and then they tell people about beach ecosystems. Lots and lots of people go to the beach to see those events, but otherwise there’s not a lot of connecting, or going to find nature in the city.

TP: One of the problems with getting people to connect to nature you mention in your book. You refer to a quote from the “The Sense of Wonder” book by Rachel Carson: “Many children lose their sense of wonder before they even reach adulthood…” – how do you think we can help to retain that sense of wonder?

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“…if we can manipulate the heartstrings, even anthropomorphising these species if possible, I’m not opposed to it if it means people might look at them more favourably, and not spread pesticides to kill them.” (Image Credit: Kelly Brenner, CC BY 2.0)

KB: It’s tricky, because a lot of the things that I geek out over, worms or ladybugs, eggs hatching, are things that people spray. They think of caterpillars, or mosses as something bad, that they need to douse with pesticides. And that’s almost exactly why I wrote the book, to show people what is literally right outside their door and hope to retain, or reintroduce that sense of wonder.

A lot of it can be done through children. They already have that sense of curiosity, and if as adults we can preserve it, and through the children get to the parents, that’s a great start. Twitter-based science communication is also making a huge difference, because you have these scientists directly communicating with the public, and their enthusiasm shows through so naturally. Of course we have people like David Attenborough who have made a huge difference, but having scientists who show their specialties, whether it’s dragonfly larvae, or something equally specific, I think that helps people see the less talked-about parts of nature. It shouldn’t all be lions and tigers and megafauna. Highlighting the little things helps people understand the big picture.

TP: Your book featured a fantastic chapter about moss, which ended with the quote “moss is going to grow where it will. Maybe it’s time we embrace it”. Do you have any ideas about how to make people embrace species that they don’t normally find charismatic, such as moss or spiders?

KB: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions, like with the moss on the roof. There’s a widespread conception that it damages the roof, but there’s not much evidence to support that, so maybe it doesn’t. And then spiders, people are scared to death of spiders, but you’d be very hard pressed to get them to actually bite you. I’ve explained the life histories of species like the wolf spider, the female carries around the babies on her back, and even when it’s a spider, it makes people go ‘awww’. So if we can manipulate the heartstrings, even anthropomorphising these species if possible, I’m not opposed to it if it means people might look at them more favourably, and not spread pesticides to kill them. People even spray caterpillars, somehow forgetting that they turn into butterflies, which they love! So really just reinforcing those connections so that people can understand these creatures would help a lot.

SP: From the perspective of urban ecology, was it slightly frustrating that despite how hard it is to get people to go out and connect with real urban animals, people were very eager to get out there and connect with made-up ones during the Pokemon Go craze?

KB: Yes and no. I think Pokemon Go is good because it got people out to new spaces that they might have never known were there. Especially green spaces. And I think even if they haven’t switched Pokemon Go to iNaturalist or something, I think it’s probably still a step forward that they are now going to those green spaces. Even I found new green spaces using it. So I think every little thing that gets people outside helps.

Trimmed green lawns are almost a trademark of suburban settings in many cities. Yet often they’re ecological wastelands. How can we get people to eschew a lawn in favour of something more biodiverse?

KB: I mean it’s just stupid isn’t it. Because lawns are high maintenance, they take tons of work and cost, and they’re labour intensive. Whereas a moss garden or a wildflower garden, you sow it, and you’re done. But it’s just a monumental task to get people to get rid of their lawns. I’ve done it with my own mom, she’s got this backyard, and she’s got a corner that she considers wild. But the rest of it is lawn, and I keep asking her, why do you need all the lawn? Tear it out and put in some more plants! You love the birds, you love the bugs. “No I need the lawn.” But WHY?

In my landscape architecture program they talk about Prospect-Refuge Theory, where it goes back from our time of being prey, and we wanted to have that expanse that shows us that we’re safe so we can see threats coming. I think it’s nonsense, I think it’s more to do with fitting in. I’m looking out at our front yard now and it’s complete chaos compared to the other lawns in the neighbourhood.

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Kelly’s book Nature Obscura takes readers to a wide array of locations, from moss gardens in Japan to her own backyard, pictured here (Image Credit: Kelly Brenner, CC BY 2.0)

SP: Do you get letters from ‘concerned’ neighbours?

KB: No, I’m closer in to the city. I’m sure if I was more in the suburbs I would, I’ve heard lots of stories of people who get notes from their homeowner associations. Complaining about the weeds. And then they’ve had to explain that they’re actually native plants.

Urban conservation is tricky, as on one hand, we are the drivers of these ecosystems, but we can also threaten their structure. What sort of responsibility do we have to urban creatures when it comes to conservation?

KB: I think if we really mess things up, then we have a responsibility to do what we can to fix that. The question is will we? It can also depend on if the urban species are native or not. A lot of our urban species are not native, a lot of ours come from Europe.

Another thing I think about is domestic cats. It’s a hard topic to discuss, with convincing people to keep them inside. Our nextdoor neighbours dont, and their cats kill our birds. I think we have to do our best to fix what we mess up.

TP: Lastly, Natura Obscura is a reference to the concept of camera obscura – would you mind elaborating on the reasoning behind that reference?

KB: For starters it’s a cool word. But it wasn’t until I went to the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland that I really appreciated the concept. They have this circular room, and you walk in and it’s pitch black. And there’s like a big round table in the middle of it. And then up above is a constantly rotating prism. And it takes the image of the mountains and projects it down onto the table, in the same manner as camera obscura does. So you can stand there and look at the topography of the mountains around you. It’s a projection of what’s around you, which makes you focus on it. And when you’re out in the mountains, you kind of just take it in, you don’t really observe it. But when you’re in this dark room, focussing on the centre of the table, it gives you a new perspective.

That was the thought with the book. People go out and see the park and see the trees, and theory don’t think about it, but when it’s kind of focussed down on a piece of paper, it’s projected down to really enhance what’s surrounding you, and gives you that focus to go back out again and see it with a new perspective.

You can read more about Kelly on her website at this link. Her book, Nature Obscura, is available through a range of source linked here.

Tanja Petersen s a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She studies the effects of urbanisation, land-use and land-use changes on biodiversity, focussing on threatened and alien species. She uses records from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and offical land-cover maps to track the patterns and changes over time and in space. Check out her previous articles at her Ecology for the Masses profile here or follow her on Twitter @NeanderTanja.

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