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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Ithaca, New York writer Bonnie Auslander remembers that her move from the city to the country brought some personal as well as physical changes.


CURWOOD: Clashes over country living don't always take place between homeowners and farmers, or in courtrooms and town meeting halls. They can also happen on a more intimate level. That's what commentator Bonnie Auslander discovered soon after moving from the city to upstate New York's bucolic Finger Lakes region.

AUSLANDER: When I moved to the country a few years ago, I started dating an outdoorsy guy. You know the type. He wore hiking boots everywhere he went, even to his sister's wedding. This man took me hiking not for fun, but to improve my mind. So, we would stand in front of a ridge next to a pond or alongside a tree, and he would point out a stalled low-pressure system, a lacustrine community, and a prime example of floral pedoturbation, whatever that is.

I wanted to keep the conversation going, to respond somehow to this incredible barrage of eco-info. But my lack of expertise in the natural world left me speechless. It's no surprise. I grew up in the suburbs, and my family was too busy reading the New York Times or eating leftover Chinese food from cartons to care much about going outdoors. My mother wanted to move to an apartment where she wouldn't have to mow our lawn. A lawn, by the way, approximately the size of a throw rug.

Despite my family's indifference to nature, I grew fond of hiking as I got older. I enjoyed the light taps my feet made on the trail and how rugged clothes made my body feel longer and leggier. But mostly I liked how being outside made going back inside more piquant. There would be hot tea. There would be a cozy fire. There would be very slow kissing.

Even so, the boyfriend's habit of talking about the outdoors while already being outdoors struck me as redundant, not to mention pedantic. It got so bad that I decided to look for a hiking partner who knew even less about the natural world than I did. The new guy stumbled gamely down the trail, the tassels of his loafers bobbing up and down. He'd pause now and then to make sure his cell phone was still in range. We argued about which cafe made cappuccino with the deepest foam, and played matchmaker for our single friends. But when we got to my favorite spot by the river, the place where the dappled trees remind me of a painting by Corot, he didn't even seem to notice.

"Hey," I said, "look at those sycamores. They're so gorgeous."

"Sycamores?" he said. "What are you, a Girl Scout?"

"Uh, don't worry," I said. "Sycamores are the only trees I can identify. Really. The rest all look the same to me."

What had just happened? Had I gone over to the other side? What exactly was gained by calling a sycamore a sycamore, and was it the same thing that motivated my former boyfriend to call a pile of dirt by an upturned tree an example of floral pedoturbation? Is naming the natural world, classifying it, really that pedantic after all?

Well, gradually, I found middle ground, a sort of Zen spot along the trail. I've come to realize that nature isn't something I have to be bad at in order to appease someone else. Nor is it something I have to be good at in order to please myself. The sycamores don't care if I don't know their name, but they also don't mind listening to lectures about their preferred habitat. I've learned that what I appreciate most about nature is nature's generous indifference to who's doing the appreciation. So maybe the first boyfriend was right after all: hiking has improved my mind.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander lives and writes in Ithaca, New York.



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