We’re going to do a little visualization, so play along:

Nature. What do you see in your head when you think of nature? What kind of habitat? What plants/trees? Animals? Where is it located? Spend 5 seconds to lock it in your head…

Where did your mind go to see Nature? Do you see Yellowstone? Maybe with Wolves? Indiana Dunes? Maybe you always wanted to be a marine biologist, so you think of a lush coral reef. Or just a forest canopy with birds, birds, birds as far as the eye can see. I’m guessing it’s a place that you love (or loved) to go to…

I see a forest preserve, like Schiller Woods on the western edge of the city, where friends frequently had picnics for their birthdays, and we would throw a football around. And, at night, I would drive down Irving Park Rd., feeling enclosed by trees, wondering if there was a deer just waiting to leap in front of our car. Trees and turf grass and the Des Plaines River. That’s what I see when I think of Nature.

How about you? Where did you go?

Why do we have to go anywhere, though?

It’s very important to have giant tracts of continuous natural areas, so animals can have sufficient habitat to eat, breed, and be protected; wolves, bison, and grassland birds can’t survive on a 10 acre parcel. But neither can all of us humans visit a national park whenever we want. For most of us, the best way to be a part of nature is to make sure we’re surrounded by it…

Let’s start at home.

One of my earliest memories is of watching my mom garden when I was three years old. We never went to a national park, but gardening is a great way for people to be involved with nature, in their yard and/or at a community garden. While surrounded by nature, you get to interact with it and be a part of it, and maybe even harvest a juicy tomato or a bouquet of roses. There are also plenty of trees in yards or out on the parkways next to houses where you can watch birds and dragonflies and squirrels.

And there are trees in parks, too. Parks filled with trees that are young and reachable, trees that are old and stately, trees that are lonely because no one pruned or mulched them in years. But there they stand, in parks, cleaning our air, sucking up rainwater, providing room and board for critters.

But what if we could find that sweet spot between 2.2 million acre Yellowstone and your local community garden? How about a natural area that we could put in a park, so it’s accessible to everyone?

Chicago Park District, for example, has many natural areas, which happen to be inside or next to parks. These provide opportunity to experience complete ecosystems in your own neighborhood. You can take a nature hike, plant some trees, and collect seeds to spread around.

We need the Yellowstones, but we also need local natural hangouts and nature in and around our homes and apartments, so we can experience nature every day. I’ll be writing about some of these natural areas where you can just walk around, or roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty.

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