Traveling through predominantly urban environments over the last 5 months, I have become increasingly frustrated with being separated from the natural world. I will be the first to admit how privileged I am to label such a thing as a problem. Who could possibly complain about a three week train trip across Central Europe, traveling through the cities of Portugal, Italy and France, or attending a family wedding in London? Especially after parts of the world have spent over 2 years trapped within their own borders.
Me, it turns out.
I have realised that I am a massive nature snob. I have turned my nose up at public green spaces and parks. That’s not the real outdoors, I told myself, just captive nature forced by humans to fit within rigid city constraints. A few sad trees dotted here and there, some scraggly looking pigeons flitting amongst litter and cigarette butts. Pathetic.
The dizzying heights of my outdoor snobbery have been unbelievable. Even when we have been in actual ‘proper’ nature, for example the woodlands of the South Downs National Park, I have managed to be dismissive. Like sure its pretty good, lots of trees and nice fields and stuff. I’ll admit I did enjoy the amount of public footpaths about. But a lot of them just lead you around farmland, there are roads everywhere, buildings sticking out like scars on the natural landscape. Plus where are the mountains? Or the long winding trout-filled rivers I could walk along for days without seeing another soul? It just isn’t on a big enough scale, there isn’t enough uninterrupted nature for it to really count.
I know, I had completely lost touch with reality. I had been well and truly spoiled by my amazing access to boundless wilderness back home.
And it was getting to me. I didn’t want to go for a run, even though it would improve my miserable attitude significantly. I sulked, thinking of the running and mountain biking trails I had been able to access from my front door back in New Zealand. How could someone who has spent countless hours climbing mountain paths, or flying down bike trails only minutes away from their home, possibly go running on some flat, grey London footpath? For me exercising has become mostly about communing with nature, forgetting about work, the city, my troubles and just enjoying the incredible landscapes around me. How could I possibly get that same benefit from a shitty pond occupied by a smog stained cigarette eating swan?
Somehow, I managed to convince myself to go for a run around nearby Bishops Park, one of these ‘public green spaces’ in the west of London. I started off, grumpily dodging prams and pedestrians, waiting to warm up in the frigid winter air. At the bottom of Fulham Rd, I turned right then crossed the busy High Street, easily slipping between the deadlocked traffic. I found my way into Moat Garden’s Dog Park, a little warm up of green space. A knot of dogs were playing gleefully, chasing each other under the leafless trees. I smiled, their joyful gambolling starting to lift my sullen mood.
I continued down a lane toward the Thames, dodging lines of schoolchildren being collected by their parents, bundled up in gloves and scarves against the afternoon chill. Yellow and brown leaves crunched pleasantly beneath my shoes, and I found myself smiling again.
A few minutes later I emerged into Bishops Park. Despite the imminent sunset and frigid temperatures, it was alive with playing children and dogs, adults reading books on benches and fellow exercisers. I decided to circumnavigate the park. When reviewing the map earlier, I had noted it was ’so small’ a few laps would probably be in order to get any sort of decent distance done. I started along the flattened soil of a desire path, avoiding the concrete alternative. It led me into a wide boulevard, lined with massive trees on each side and thick green grass covering the earth between them. A border collie with one blue and one brown eye raced after a ball thrown by its owner, exalting in the chase. I smiled again. Even I had to admit, this was pretty nice. These trees had evidently stood here for many years judging by the width of their trunks and the height of their now leafless canopies. Above me, I heard a bird cry. It was not the common demand of a seagull, nor the harsh caw of a crow. I peered into the branches and saw a pair of ring-necked parakeets, presumably feeding on something in the canopy. Spotting birds is one of my favourite things about running in Aotearoa, and I was pleasantly surprised to see such an exotic creature here.
I continued along the path, my feet and ankles enjoying the gentler impact of the packed dirt. The loamy smell of earth and rotting leaves filled my nostrils, a pleasant change from the diesel fumes and stale beer I had experienced on my run along the Fulham Road.
At the end of the tree-lined boulevard, my mood had improved significantly from its grumpy start point. Reaching Putney Bridge, I turned around to follow the bank of the Thames. The river was also bustling with activity, high schoolers in rowing boats with small dinghies pootling alongside. Boxy canal boats moored off the main channel bobbed gently in the passing wake. I continued to run along the gravel path, gazing across the famous river. Seagulls soared above it on outstretched wings, before darting back to Earth, having spotted an afternoon tea crumb dropped beneath a nearby bench. Three midnight black crows were disturbed from their railing perch by my presence, jumping a few metres ahead of me, cawing their disapproval as I continued toward them, before flying off to a more peaceful roost.
The sun was setting behind the boathouses on the opposite bank, illuminating the underside of the few clouds a bright shining gold. As it slowly descended, a pinkish hue arose, staining the mottled trunks of the sycamore trees. It was beautiful. I stopped to take a few photos and enjoy the fleeting colours. Despite the many people enjoying the park, I had managed to get the riverside stretch of path all to myself. I felt happy and refreshed, just as I had in the untouched wilderness of home. I continued my run around the park, exalting in my new found enjoyment. This was nature, albeit a small pocket, but it had everything I needed to shed the oppressive feeling of concrete and asphalt. Sure, it wasn’t quite the same as crawling over the sharp schist of a mountain ridgeline, but it still felt really, really good.
I left Bishops Park, my nature cup brimming significantly more than I ever would have expected. I realised I was the cause of my separation anxiety from nature, it had had nothing to do with my lack of access to the natural world. Dismissing the small pockets I could readily enjoy, just because they weren’t the expansive valleys of New Zealand, caused the frustration and disconnect I had experienced. My outdoor snobbery had robbed me of the ability to enjoy whatever nature was on offer.
Don’t get me wrong, this realisation doesn’t mean I am now ready to move to the big city. I won’t be looking for a job in Manhattan just because I finally realised Central Park probably is a nice place to go for a run. I still eagerly await my reunion with vast wild landscapes. But no longer will I turn my nose up at a city park. No longer will I sulk about being surrounded by concrete when I could be out enjoying whatever foliage I can find. We can find a connection with nature almost no matter where we are, and that connection can be as fulfilling and refreshing in an urban duck pond as it is in a pristine glacial valley.