From Nature to the City
by Kathryn Norris
After spending the first eighteen years of my life surrounded by nature, moving to Boston was a dramatic change. I have never lived in a city, and the shift from constant nature in California and Colorado to the skylines and subway rides of cities was overwhelming. Seeing the tall buildings, all the glass and cement, the endless j-walking, angry drivers and constant noise was something that made me feel suddenly exposed. There have been times when I’ve been yelled at across the street for no reason, or I get lost and embarrass myself, or I realize I have no idea where I am and get a panicked feeling. Sometimes I have the frightening realization that I am one person in a city of over 600,000. While I love the feeling of being anonymous, that anonymity can also feel alienating and lonely. I know wherever I go no one will know me, but I also don’t know anyone. I was excited to break out of the small towns I’ve grown up in because of the raw aspect of cities. I never really know what’s going to happen and I feel like cities give you the opportunity to be whoever you want to. But at the same time, I miss the quiet of nature and the ability to disappear into the environment.
Nature has been a constant presence in my life. In my hometown, Santa Barbara, California, the ocean is never further than a few miles away, the mountains are a short drive, and it’s easy to find open spaces with few people. There are six beaches in my immediate surroundings, ranging from populated to completely empty. Hiking is something that occurs year-round, with flowers in an almost constant state of bloom.
The only entertainment I needed growing up was nature. When I was bored, I got in the car and drove until I was in the middle of nowhere. When I was with friends, we packed a picnic and sat overlooking the ocean. When I was stressed, I hiked or floated in the ocean.
I’ve also grown up in Colorado, a state known for mountains and wide open spaces. When I lived there, I had two options — in the winter I could ski, in the summer I could hike. Driving anywhere took me past abandoned mining towns, gushing rivers and huge expanses of nothingness.
When I was younger, the unbridled nature I experienced in California and Colorado felt claustrophobic. There were only so many places I could go, and I usually ended up feeling incredibly small compared to all the open spaces around me. There was also this feeling of vulnerability — physically being exposed to the elements and the separation from civilization’s comforts.
When I’m home and back in nature, I miss the bustle of cities and the feeling of never knowing what’s going to happen; what striking building or street I might see, what store I might stumble upon. The lack of knowing makes the world feel more gritty and genuine. But when I need time to escape the noise or people, I find that there is nowhere to turn. Instead of being able to immerse myself into unfiltered nature, I remain stuck in a developed and industrialized world. I miss the sea breeze, or the complete sound of silence that exists when it snows. But when I return back to the natural world, I feel misplaced and off balance. I no longer have the same feeling of anonymity — instead I’m raw to the environment and natural processes.
When I’m in Boston, I notice how many people are either on their phones or have their headphones in. The need for constant noise or entertainment amidst the bustle of city-life feels like a defense mechanism. When I play music or podcasts, I’m disconnecting myself from everything going on around me. Since moving to Boston, I notice I almost always have my headphones in when I’m out in the city — the extra noise and information I look at or listen to when walking around is something that calms me down in a place where almost everything is heightened. Like many Bostonians, I turn towards my phone and music to suppress a sometimes overwhelming urban environment.
When I’m back in nature, the need for constant distraction dissipates. Both cities and natures can be vulnerable spaces, but nature leaves me feeling more open to emotions and the world around me. Cities are constructed spaces that can require more effort to navigate than the natural environment, and the synthetic aspects of these places cause people to look for continuous distraction. Meanwhile, the restful and serene qualities of nature creates a space where there are no other distractions.
Living between these two worlds that are vastly different often leaves me feeling unsettled. In cities I’m accustomed to constant stimulation and to a world where separating myself from my surroundings through my phone is normal. When I’m back in California or Colorado, I know what to expect from the places I’m in. The routine and cycles of home in a natural environment are so different from a city where everything is in a constant state of flux.
During my time in Boston, I’ve realized that there are some people who only feel confident in cities and completely lost in nature. Then there are also people who are only at ease in nature, and terrified and overwhelmed by cities. For city-livers, the response may be to tune out their surroundings, or attempt to disappear into the city. For those in nature, the response may be to completely connect with the environment outside of the human-made world we’re constantly surrounded by. While the dramatic differences between nature and cities can be challenging to navigate at times, it's rewarding to experience the benefits in both places. Moving back and forth between the two environments has become easier with time for me, and being a part of both settings has made me appreciate the differences of each place.