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Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Rick Schwertfeger of Austin Texas. Rick is an outdoorsman, a historian and a contributor at FrontierPartisans.com.
This article is inspired by Running Iron Report’s Craig Rullman, and his righteous, passionate initiative to become native to the lands and animals of his Figure 8 Ranch. As an outdoorsman who has lived all but five of my years in urban/metro areas, my aim is to encourage others who live in such places to become native to their urban/metro areas.
“Become native to your place. Choose a path of stewardship and a lifetime of wonder and learning.” – Bill Neiman, Native American Seed, Junction, Texas
Eighty-one percent of Americans live in urban/metropolitan areas. We encounter wonderful Wendell Berry-ish rural areas infrequently or not at all. But nature is all around us. How can us city dwellers engage that nature, embrace it, immerse ourselves in it, and bring it into our souls?
Important tools for becoming native to urban/metro environments include:
1. Develop a “Get Out There” attitude – and put it into practice regularly. Even in urban/metro areas, nature is around us. Cities and their neighborhoods have trees, sidewalks, the sky of sun and moon, clouds and wind and rain and snow, the air we breathe, parks, etc. Simply getting out the door and walking puts one in touch with many elements of nature. And if it’s a big park, there are hike and bike trails. Northern cities like Milwaukee and Minneapolis track cross-country ski trails in city parks in the winter. Get out there!
2. Pay attention to the weather; and learn the annual climate variations. Being a native Yankee, I was thoroughly in tune to the climates of the mid-Atlantic and New England regions. In the process of becoming native to Central Texas these last 28 years, I’ve not only observed the weather, but studied the climate. A source listing the average high and low temperatures for every day of the year helped me understand that the “thermal seasons” here are ahead of the lunar seasons by about three weeks. I’m now in tune with this annual progression.
I’ve also had success “appreciating” the phenomenal summer heat here. Once it cranks up, it doesn’t stop! We average 108 days a year over 90 degrees; with an average of 13 of those being over 100. In the astonishingly hot year of 2011 Austinites endured 90 days of 100 degrees or higher! Becoming native to Central Texas included becoming comfortable with this aspect of the climate.
Likewise, Texas is drought. Or at least abnormally dry. While Austin averages about 34” of rain a year, more likely it’s drought or flood. We’ve experienced extreme drought at least twice since 1990 – a phenomenon to behold, for sure. Other years, as Stevie Ray Vaughn said, “There’s floodin’ down in Texas.”
On the other end of the spectrum, I experienced one of the biggest blizzards the U.S. ever has had in 1978 while living in Providence, R.I. And I mean “out and about” in it, wallowing through thigh deep drifts to get home. It truly was one of the great experiences of my life feeling the power of such an awesome storm. One can experience all of these elements while becoming native to urban/metro areas.
3. Learn the history of your place. Genius Virginia-based landscape architect Thomas Woltz uses a team to research the history of an urban area, rural farm or homestead to inform how they’ll approach renovations, redevelopments, etc. How people lived, worked and played on the land you live on helps you understand it.
My neighborhood lies on what was Texas Ranger James Patton’s ranch. My sons and I used to imagine cattle grazing in what is now our backyard! A few miles away at Longview Park was an area settled by freed African American slaves. And very nearby is Convict Hill, so named because prisoner workers excavated stone from the hill to be used for building. Through local historian Michael Barnes my wife and I learned that a berm we ride our mountain bikes over in Dick Nichols Park originally was an elevated narrow-gauge railroad track used to move the stone from Convict Hill into downtown.
Learning the history of the land, even in urban areas, is part of becoming native to it.
4. Get out to the hinterlands! There likely are natural areas within an hour drive all around urban/metro areas. Ten minutes from my house are Stevenson Nature Preserve and the Sunset Valley Nature Preserve. The Slaughter Creek Preserve has a primitive five-mile hike and bike trail. These nearby places allow one to experience the Texas Hill Country “as it once was.” Further west is Reimer’s Ranch Park, with trails and access to the Pedernales River. And to the southwest is the jewel: Pedernales Falls State Park – a truly awesomely beautiful area with long trails and those falls. I could go on and on. Natural areas are in or nearby your city. Get a map and get out there!
5. Learn where the water flows. Williamson Creek wraps around my Westcreek neighborhood to the west and south. Topographic maps showed me that it flows east through South Austin into Onion Creek in McKinney Falls State Park (still within the city limits). Onion Creek then flows into the Colorado River; which proceeds SSE to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the journey water flowing from our property takes!
Fishing is a wonderful way to learn the water ecology of a place. My sons and I explored numerous Hill Country creeks and rivers as we learned to fly fish.
We found many beautiful places, had soul-nourishing experiences; and learned where the water flows.
6. Learn the animals. Even in urban/metro areas, they’re here! Our backyard has had an opossum, snakes, and squirrels. Two beautiful ducks rested on the roof of the house behind ours. The cooing of mourning doves was a constant. But white winged doves, expanding north, have driven them away. Blue Jays and cardinals appear. Just days ago a beautiful hawk swooped over the fence. Recently, I’ve twice seen coyotes in Dick Nichols Park. And there I once saw a beautiful Texas Indigo snake. Most magnificent of all, I’ve seen sand hill cranes flying over Southwest Austin on their migration to the Gulf Coast.
Develop a “Get Out There” attitude, and truly become native to your urban/metro area. You’ll become immersed in the natural world that IS around you; and have a deeper, even spiritual experience living in your place on Earth.
© 2018 Rick Schwertfeger, Austin, Texas. Used by permission.
Paul McNamee says
Great post, Rick!
I’m in suburbs not urban but I’m trying to work in the same ideas with my kids. (and for myself, too!)
Jim Cornelius says
I thought of you when Rick told me he was doing this post. You are “becoming native” most fine.
Rick Schwertfeger says
Thanks Paul. When I talked with Jim about this article I emphasized that, despite how some of the photos may make it look, I do not live in exurbia. I suppose where I live might be considered a suburban part of Austin. But I am well, well within the city limits. Downtown is a 10–15 minute drive. Outside my subdivision is an elevated, divided US Highway on one side and a 6 lane, divided surface road on another. Both with moderate to heavy traffic. That “Get out there” attitude can overcome these things!
Rick Schwertfeger says
Thanks, Matthew. Glad you enjoyed it!
Breaker Morant says
Good post. I remember how surprisingly “Northern” Central Park felt on my one trip to NYC.
I suggest another way to add context to “Getting Out There” in your area is through some books on the natural history of the city.
For example: “Manahatta: A Natural History of New York City” and “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.”
I have a couple books in my TBR pile about New Orleans and San Antonio.
Rick Schwertfeger says
Good idea, Breaker. Here’s an example of something I learned from a book about the history of Austin shortly after it was founded. Downtown Austin is on the north side of the Colorado River (TX). Congress Avenue runs north south from the state capitol building, across the river (now called Lake Lady Bird) and through South Austin. It’s considered to be the Main Street of Texas. Why is it where it is? Turns out there was a natural ditch that drained south into the river. Folks walked up and down on either side of the ditch — a natural corridor. As the city grew it really was “the Main Street.” So the decision was made to fill in the ditch and make it a road/street.
I learned this from Edwin Shrake’s 2001 historical novel “The Borderland: A Novel of Texas.”
Great post, gotta love those central Texas summers, I’m just to the north of you in Georgetown.
Susan Schambach says
Wonderful article! We all need to be aware of our natural world as we are passing our planet to the next generation. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Robert Michael Pyle “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?” Making an effort to be native to your place would benefit all of us. ♥️ Susan
Breaker Morant says
The discussion of all the different outdoor landscapes reminds me of my Real Estate Appraisal days. Real estate appraisal is the quantitative analysis and comparison of real estate properties.
I was never happy with the way we compared outdoor properties with differing outdoor amenities. Then I came up with something I called the “Outdoor Recreation Profile.” I may be mistaken, but I have yet to see this concept incorporated into the scientific literature on the subject.
I intuitively incorporated Topology with the varied Topography of the different properties and it just made sense to me. I compared different properties under the previously mentioned term -“Outdoor Recreation Profile.”
Breaker Morant says
I have done a few fishing trips up north and I ran across something neat yesterday that shows just how big a “Small” world really is. An outdoor newspaper had info on the 8 largest lakes in Minnesota and I am completely gobsmacked by the amount of shoreline for 2 of those lakes.
Lake of the Woods has 3,339 miles of shoreline. I am not sure if that counts island shoreline or not. If not, there are thousands more miles, but either way it is completely mind-boggling. One lake (among thousands) maybe has more shoreline as the west coast of the US.
Jim Cornelius says
Nature astounds indeed.