Today you get to meet the Stonecrop Review editor, Naomi Racz. Naomi has been writing about urban nature for the last seven years – and, as a lifelong urbanite, thinking about it for much longer. You can read some of Naomi’s words over on her website.
1. What was your relationship to nature as a kid? When did you first start to notice nature in cities, and start considering this a unique category of nature?
In terms of my relationship with nature as a kid, I loved spending time in nature. I grew up in Manchester, which is really close to the Peak District, and my family spent a lot of time there at weekends. My parents were really into hiking and rock climbing, so we spent a lot of time doing what we called “visiting the countryside”. So I grew up thinking that nature was something that existed outside of the city, out in the countryside. Having said that, I definitely have memories of nature in the city, very strong memories. I remember collecting autumn leaves with my mum and making collages, I remember climbing trees in my neighborhood, and I remember digging holes in the garden. I was definitely aware of nature in the city, but I still had this notion that it existed somewhere outside of the city. It wasn’t really until I was doing my Master’s degree that I started to think of nature as something that existed in the city. It was Richard Mabey’s book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ that showed me that nature does actually exist in the city, and so I started to explore that idea. I started writing about nature in Manchester. I was also inspired by Tim Dee, who came to speak to our class and told us to “write what you know” and so I realised what I know is cities. I’d always lived in a city and I found it difficult to write about landscapes that weren’t the city, even though I had spent time in the countryside growing up, I didn’t feel a deep connection to it. So I started writing about urban nature. I started exploring cemeteries and wastelands and edgelands, and I realised that I found these places really fascinating and compelling. That really changed how I thought about nature.
2. Which authors have most inspired how you see or think about urban nature?
Well obviously as I already mentioned, Richard Mabey’s book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ was a huge influence. It focuses on nature in and around London. He walks along canals, he writes about the nature that he sees from the bus, he writes about strips of nature and edgelands. That really inspired me in terms of the kinds of places I could look to for nature. But it was also just his style that I fell in love with. I fell in love with the way he writes. He’s an amazing writer, but it’s also the personality that comes across in his writing. You want to just sit down and have a chat with him. He’s very unpretentious. He writes about feeling self-conscious walking down an urban street with a pair of binoculars, looking for birds. There’s another hilarious bit where he’s walking through Hampstead Heath and gets stuck in a bog. He’s sat in the pub later on and the mud is drying on his feet and legs and it’s getting really itchy. It really inspired me to write in a voice that is mine and that’s honest. Also, just being able to laugh at yourself, I think that’s really valuable for a writer.
Another big influence is Leonard Dubkin. He wrote a number of books about urban nature, but one that I read and particularly loved is ‘The Natural History of a Yard’, which is a book about his yard. He lived in a hotel, a shared apartment complex, and just had this patch of grass out front. There’s one tree and I think there are some hedges around the edge. It’s very plain, it’s not a space that you would really think of as rich in nature. But what is great about Leonard Dubkin – again talking about being unpretentious – he’s not afraid to get down and stick his face into the grass to look at the insects that are living there. He also spends time with that yard and he gets to know all its different inhabitants, whether it’s the squirrel, Nutsy, that lives in the tree, or a spider or ants or aphids – they become a part of the natural history of the yard. It doesn’t matter that there are no large mammals or interesting birds. He’s happy to write about the local pigeons and all the unassuming little creatures that live in the yard. I found it to be a delightful book, and again just funny and unpretentious. These are books that shaped the way I see nature in the city, but also as a writer they shaped the way I think about writing about urban nature.
3. Is there an urban plant or animal you have a special soft spot for?
Well, I’d have to go with an animal. I’m not a huge plant person. I guess I’d have to say raccoons. I live in Toronto now, which has become famous for its raccoons. They were actually featured in an episode of Planet Earth 2 that focused on cities. They’re loved and hated in equal measure because they can be a bit of a pest. They get into people’s houses to nest and they knock over people’s bins to get at the food in them. So people hate them, but I think also love to hate them. Personally I’m not really capable of hating any animal. All animals are just trying to survive and we create these spaces for them. We put all this tasty, delicious garbage out for them at the side of the road, so I can’t really hate any animal that takes advantage of that. I have some raccoons that come into my garden. I think they’re hibernating at the moment, but they should show up again in the spring. I just love seeing them, even though they try to get into the bird feeder and they knock it down. I can’t help admiring their smarts. They’re really clever and also kind of cute looking. They’re definitely a favourite.
4. Do you have a favourite city or urban environment? Why?
That’s really hard to pick. I’ve lived in a number of cities now and, as I said, I grew up in Manchester. I’ve lived in Nottingham and Amsterdam, and now I live in Toronto. It’s really hard to pick a favourite city. All the places I’ve lived and visited, they’ve meant something to me at the time. I spent a year living in Nottingham and really loved it. It was after I’d done my Master’s degree and I was really getting into bird watching and cycling. We didn’t have a lot of money at that time because my husband was still studying, so we spent our weekends cycling down to the local nature reserve and bird watching, or going for a cycle ride along the city’s canals. So I have really fond memories of that city. I spent a week in San Francisco and really loved it. It’s a particularly cool city just because it’s so hilly and you constantly get these different views and perspectives on the city. I also spent a lot of time cycle there and I felt like I got really fit just in that one week, cycling up and down all the hills. I really love Brisbane in Australia. Again, a hilly city where you get all these neat different perspectives. So I guess if I had to pick a favourite urban environment, I definitely like cities where you can get a perspective on the city. Having said that I lived in Amsterdam for four years, which is an incredibly flat city. But it’s also really beautiful, with all the tree-lined canals, and it’s really easy to cycle around. I guess cities that are bike-friendly, that’s definitely important to me. I live in the suburbs of Toronto now and it’s definitely car heavy here and not very cycle friendly, so I really miss being able to get around by bike.
5. Does being an urban nature writer change how you move through cities? In what ways (if any) do you find that writing about urban nature changes how you view your surroundings?
I think as a writer you’re always on the look out for the next thing that you want to write about, so I think that adds a sense of curiosity to the way I approach cities. I’m always noting things that could be interesting. I always read plaques on buildings because I think maybe the person that lived there could be someone interesting. I think it makes me more aware of my surroundings as I’m going through the city. You never know where you might find the next blog post you want to write. I think that’s also just from reading so much urban nature writing as well. A project that I’m working on is a history of urban nature writing. Just reading lots of different writers who write about the city has made me more aware of different animals or different aspects of the city. I read one book that was all about pigeons, I read another book that was all about rats. So you start to notice those animals and see them differently, and you have a certain respect for them because you just know more about them. That’s what I love about urban nature writing, it transforms the way people see the city and nature in the city.
Bonus question…. if you were to plant an urban garden, what would you grow?
It depends on the size of the garden I suppose, but if I had enough space I would definitely include a lot of trees. I recently moved from Amsterdam, where I was living in an apartment and didn’t have really any outdoor space, to living in a house in the suburbs of Toronto. I do love having a garden and having lots of trees around. I think my ideal garden would probably just be a forest. I think I’m just not particularly green fingered but I love trees. I’ve always loved trees. I love climbing them. I love seeing the leaves change colour. I love having birds in my garden. So I think I’d just plant a little mini forest.