Wandering but not lost: Urban natural history for everyone

I am a wanderer-observer, especially in places I haven’t been before. Even in urban settings, I take walks whenever I get the chance, taking in what bits of nature are available. Much of what I find is unusual and unexpected, so urban wanderings often amount to extraordinary nature adventures.

During a recent visit to Encinitas—in northern San Diego County—I wandered around the grounds of Scripps Hospital, admiring the way the ornamental bunch grasses had been attentively trimmed back, and how the parking lot drainage system had been reimagined into a bioswale. A hummingbird enjoyed the small flying insects around this ecological area beset on all sides by concrete, steel, and glass.


The medians in Encinitas are planted with exotic tropical plants—San Diego County boasts one of the most biodiverse cities in the world, owing to its mild climate that is favorable to all manner of tropical and Mediterranean transplants. Golden kangaroo paw (native to—you guessed it—Australia) stands almost as high as me, blazing in the sunlight with the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean’s horizon. Wafts of jasmine weave through ivy hedges, giving themselves away on the other side. Over the roar of the nearby I-5 freeway, the senses still have plenty of natural stimuli to keep them entertained.

During my hospital walk I was intercepted by a security guard in a golf cart asking if I needed help or a ride getting somewhere on campus. No, I told him—I was just enjoying the beautiful grounds as I walked on my lunch break. He came around a second time about 10 minutes later, as I was looking up at what to an outside observer must have looked like nothing—the tiny hummingbird. He was embarrassed and apologetic when he noticed I was the same person he had just stopped minutes ago. I told him about the hummingbird and complimented the bioswale, and he agreed. He then exchanged a critical piece of natural history that I had missed. “Have you seen all the butterflies?” he said. “I’ve seen a hundred already—apparently some kind of migration.” I looked up, again, and sure enough were dozens of medium-small, colorfully understated butterflies, all traveling from south to north on the coastal breeze. They passed by like wind-dispersed seeds, driven forward by something invisible to me. For the rest of the day they were all I could see. And I might have missed them had it not been for the nice security guard.


Humans are designed for interaction with their environment, having coevolved with it, so part of the practice of natural history is just practicing being a human again.

A friend is outspokenly not one of nature’s biggest fans, especially when it is unsavory or inconvenient. Still, one day she told me about how she was so happy to see the arrival of spring, and that she knew it was here because she heard one specific bird singing outside her window. She is not a birder, an ornithologist, an ecologist—but she has a bit of naturalist in her. She doesn’t care whether they are yellow-rumped warblers or white-crowned sparrows; but, the noticing enriches her life enough to share with another person about it. And that is what matters—whether we realize it or not, nature nourishes us, feeds us in ways we aren’t even aware of.

New research has just revealed that even in our ever-more screen-addicted world, the interactions people have with those screens—on Wikipedia anyway—follow the seasons. Perhaps my friend really did want to know what that bird singing was outside her window every spring. She would likely end up on Wikipedia. People are noticing nature, even though we spend less time outside, and are less and less equipped to understand natural cycles and seasonal changes, or even why these things happen in the first place. We are slowly declining into nature illiteracy, yet we still notice nature, because it’s part of who we are. And Wikipedia is there to help.

Where I was raised, everyone—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents— knew what nearly all of the local plants and animals were, how they behaved, and their seasonal cycles, and they passed this information on to me. I am the first biologist in my family, other than one uncle who wanted to be a marine biologist but ended up working for Ford Motor Company, so my relatives are not biological or natural history specialists. One side of my family grew up on a farm, so they learned about nature first-hand. The other side of my family was suburban, but had the nature understanding as well. It was just part of being a human living where we lived.

On the return portion of my Encinitas walk, a piece of trash fell from the sky, nearly hitting me in the head. I looked up, expecting to find a snarky teenager in a second story window. Instead, I saw a crow perched on the telephone pole. I greeted him. “Hey dude,” I laughed. (In my anthropomorphic moments, crows are a cross between a biker and a surfer). The urban environments we have intentionally and unintentionally created are bizarre, resembling mock-up imitations of real ecosystems at times; and other times, completely novel assemblages of the heartiest flora and fauna, and in their own way, very real ecosystems. The crow—often a cultural symbol of magic and mystery—also represents intelligence. The crow’s family—Corvidae—is among the smartest of birds and of many other animals. They do well in urban and semi-urban settings because they have figured out how we work, and they are smart enough to make the most of it.

Perhaps the crows are natural historians of humans.

Natural scientists do not hold the keys to nature—we are simply more attuned to its languages. Every human has the innate ability to notice nature, and in doing so can give natural scientists a fresh perspective, if we are willing to listen and see the world through untrained eyes. In Buddhism, this is often called “don’t-know mind” or “beginner’s mind”. Sometimes all we know can hold us back from deeper understanding. If I dismiss all the ornamentals as non-native plants that “shouldn’t be there”, for example, I lose the opportunity to enjoy them and learn more about them and where they came from.


During my visit to Encinitas, I also visited the world-renowned Meditation Gardens, where flagstone walkways soaked with irrigation water are flanked by orchids, bromeliads, delphinium, and Anthurium, none of which are native to the area, most of them recently transplanted into the ground from pots. A pond—with the largest koi I have ever seen—is pumped full of fresh water that cascades through a series of concrete-lined waterfalls and pools. All around, people take photos of the flowers, selfies with the trees and the koi. All of them—so unusual for a public place—are visibly happy. In order to enjoy the gardens along with them, I have to turn off my ecologist brain, which is screaming, “There isn’t a native to be found in this whole place!” I sat on a small bench and enjoyed the stunning clifftop views of the Pacific Ocean, even with a hedge composed almost completely of birds of paradise partially obstructing my view.

Paradise occurs when and where it is allowed to exist.

Natural history and the sharing of it can come in the most unexpected forms. Its full embrace merely requires open mindedness and a willingness to be surprised.