Nature is all around us

We rely on the nature around us to create safe, healthy places to live.  And by taking a careful look, you are likely to find nature closer than you might think. 

Emily Kowalski | TPIN
Anna Westbrook

Environment Illinois Protect Pollinators Intern

When was the last time you were in nature? Really think about it. Where were you? What were you looking at? What did you smell, hear, and feel?

In my Environmental Science 110 class, my professor posed this question to me and my classmates. We recounted exhilarating summer trips to the Grand Tetons, 8-mile hikes, and weekends immersed in the moss-covered forest behind our campus. 

Standing at the front of the room, my professor listened to the varied stories my classmates offered up about their adventures. When there was finally a pause in the conversation, she leaned forward on her desk and asked, “Are the trees outside this building not a part of nature?”

Silence washed over the room. People glanced at each other, unsure of how to respond to what seemed like such an obvious question. “Well, yeah the trees are nature,” one student responded. “But that’s different from being in nature.”

My professor nodded like she had been expecting this answer. She knew we were going to offer up examples of what we thought we knew to be true: that nature is somewhere ‘out there’ we intentionally go and visit.

“Don’t discount what you’re surrounded with every day,” she cautioned. It’s true that the nature on my college campus is highly maintained and certainly not allowed to run wild — the flowers and lawns are weeded, mowed, mulched, and pruned within an inch of their lives — and it’s true that walking through campus is not the sublime experience that adrenaline-junkie college students seek out on the whitewater rafting trips our Outing Club leads. But as soon as I step outside my dorm and start walking to class in the morning, the chatter of morning birdsong greets me alongside the rustling of bushes hiding rabbits and chipmunks. Trees sloping over the sidewalk shade me from the bright morning sun, while squirrels scurry between their roots in an attempt to hide from the hawk circling above. Small plants peek out from cracks in the brick walkways, stretching to reach patches of sunlight in the dappled shade. On my left, the lawn is covered with bright yellow dandelions that ladybugs and beetles dance between during their race to slurp down the flowers’ nectar. And the trees outside my academic building grow beautiful spring blossoms that sweeten the air, blanketing the Adirondack chairs below under a layer of soft petals.

Emily Kowalski | TPIN
Even in urban landscapes there is wildlife to be found hopping around.

The narrative that people live separately from nature is as encompassing as the everyday nature my classmates and I overlooked. 

If we think of nature as only existing in national parks, swaths of forest, preserved wetlands, and mountain peaks, we create high standards a natural environment must satisfy in order to be considered worth protecting — and that can keep us from protecting wildflowers sprouting in traffic medians, birds nesting in backyard trees, and cicadas serenading us from the shadows. Large undisturbed natural landscapes are critical to protecting the natural systems that support our planet and its biodiversity, but the natural elements of our college campuses, towns and cityscapes are important too. 

The plants living alongside us clean our air and soil, create shade, and reduce the temperatures of our cities. They create rich soil, sequester carbon, and control erosion and absorb stormwater runoff, which helps prevent pollutants from entering our waterways. Too often, our eyes gloss over the lichen dotting tree trunks outside office buildings, vines crawling up lamp posts, and moths flitting about in garden boxes lining restaurants’ outdoor seating. We rely on the nature around us to create safe, healthy places to live.  And by taking a careful look, you are likely to find nature closer than you might think. 

Humans and nature are not at odds with one another, and we do not exist separately from each other. Humans also contribute in unique ways to the ecosystems we’re a part of. What we need to do now is figure out how we can live within our ecosystems in a manner that is sustainable and harmonious with other forms of life. This starts at home with you.

Don’t discount what you’re surrounded with every day

In your home, you have the power to petition your local government to increase the number of trees they plant each year, preserve green spaces like parks, gardens, and community woodland, plant wildflowers and native grasses in medians, and create more green roofs. You can become part of a community garden or start your own, advocate for more beehives and bird boxes to be placed on public land, and grow plants in any outdoor spaces you maintain. You can familiarize yourself with the plants and animals around you by going to events hosted by your local conservation organizations and using what you learn to begin fostering connections with nature among your friends, neighbors, and family.

Reframing the way you interact with the nature around you can start small. The next time you’re outside, take a few seconds to appreciate the nature surrounding you. Do you have a favorite tree that you travel by on your commute to work? What sorts of animals do you see when you walk around town? 

Simply appreciating the flowers on your way to work is a radical shift in perspective that — if enough people start doing it — has the potential to drive much-needed change. 

Nature is beautiful and gritty and full of life, and it is all around us constantly. 


Anna Westbrook

Environment Illinois Protect Pollinators Intern

Emily Kowalski

Outreach & Engagement Manager, Environment Illinois

Emily manages the marketing and public engagement strategy for Environment Illinois's campaigns, including our campaign to protect the Great Lakes from plastic pollution. Emily lives in Chicago where she enjoys knitting and biking.

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