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Murmurations: Experiencing Urban Earth Beauty

August 4, 2023

Note from adrienne maree brown: Suhaly offers her healing touch to the world through her Moon Mother Apothecary. I always have one of her healing salves on me. She shows us the way of the “city nature girl,” understanding nature in city spaces, our wildness in all places. 

I’ve always wondered where the myth of the “nature-starved city kid” originated. Who first penned the story about urbanites who are chronically disconnected from their natural environments, and how has this parable persisted into the present day?

Understanding the assumption is easy. Combine a bustling metropolis, a sea of “cranes in the sky,” a disproportionate car-to-tree ratio, streets smothered in cold, gray concrete, and millions of people moving at a superhuman speed that allows no time to stop and smell the roses, and you have a recipe for a life allegedly detached from the natural world. I see that all. But I see other scenes, too. The other side of that nature-starved narrative is a beautiful and powerful story about locating our unique earth connections within ourselves, from wherever we are born and wherever we may be.

I was born and raised between two major New York City parks: the 40-acre woodland landscape of Central Park’s North Woods, and the sprawling waterfront oasis of Riverside Park. These parks were my playgrounds, my classrooms, and sites of infinite wonderment where my curiosity for our precious planet was seeded. In retrospect, whatever universal fate deigned to set my roots between these two urban parks ultimately led to my identity as The Earth Warrior, and later, as Moon Mother—two aliases that make clear my connection to our home planet. By tuning in to the soundtrack of the natural world—a practice I call “intentional earth listening”—my relationship with these two parks taught me that I was not only a witness to the wonder of Earth, but just like the trees, flowers, and waterways I studied and adored, I, too, was an earth being.

In the back seat of my mother’s navy blue Oldsmobile, I memorized the West Side Highway and FDR Drive, two New York City freeways that hug the riverbanks of the Hudson and East rivers, respectively. As we rode up and down the island of Manhattan, I’d watch the morning sunlight spill over onto the surface of the water like a blanket of silver glitter. At night, I’d follow the full moon as it played peek-a-boo across the skyline, letting her escort me home, all from my backseat window. I cherish these nature-filled childhood memories: from packing coolers with spaghetti lunches for a family beach day at Coney Island or Brighton Beach, to waking up early to get a good picnic table at Bear Mountain. I feel fortunate that these experiences, inspired by our ancestral connection to the natural world, rooted me to my native land and inspired my fierce connection to New York City and its vast and unique ecological cosmology. On a 13.4-mile-long island, I learned my position in the universe. I accepted my place in the divine flow between humans and Mother Nature, and leapt joyfully into a life that honors our sacred, innate union with the natural world. I was a city kid and an island kid, and I didn’t have to relinquish my urban identity to feel my connection to the living world. Both were possible, and both were essential elements of my reality.

Still, despite the more than 200 bird species that visit New York City annually via the Atlantic Flyway, some people assume there’s no nature in cities. They assume that our cities lack meaningful ways to connect with the air, soil, grass, wildlife, and waterways more commonly associated with the suburbs and rural areas. New York City nature is beautifully real, and I hope someday to document the experiences of New Yorkers whose lives stand in as counter-narratives to this myth—those who are connected to their earth birthright through community gardens, rooftop farms, balconies, and even fireplaces. Until then, I find immense joy and pride in making these New York nature connections through my own stories.

Every afternoon, I empty my daughter’s school backpack and pockets knowing that what awaits me is a treasure trove of rocks, sticks, weeds, and wilting flower petals—living remnants of her long day of play in the Ramble of Central Park. Each artifact is special in its own way, she insists. The rocks are transformed into crystals, sometimes diamonds, through her mind’s eye, and the most special ones often make their way to her altar: holy earthThis is Luna’s love language with the earth. In this ritual of collecting, she brings the preciousness of her planet closer to her person, seeing in nature such a captivating beauty that she welcomes it into her world.

I used to wonder whether Luna’s connection to nature was instinctual, or whether we’ve nurtured an earth-love in her through our family values, stories, and overall ways of being in the world. I am confident now that both are at play. In 1984, American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia,” referring to “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” His book by the same name discusses the inherent tendency and desire for humans to seek connections with nature and natural systems. Wilson suggests that as humans, we have an evolutionary bond with the natural world. Furthermore, our well-being is closely intertwined with the health of our ecosystems. This is devastatingly clear when we consider our present-day health and climate change crises alongside one another. We are not only intimately connected, we are interdependent. And while Wilson offers us some language for this knowing, our natural harmony with the earth and our predisposition toward nature run deep in our bones, predicated on our ancestors’ understanding of our role in the interdependence of all living earth beings.

While walking Luna to school recently on a gorgeous spring morning in Brooklyn, I was reminded again of the intuitive relationship we have to our natural surroundings. We’d recently shifted our school commute and started riding a new subway line, a decision sparked by the deteriorating conditions along our original route. Things had gotten unruly and unpredictable after the height of the pandemic, so we decided to switch to a new line. But another major factor behind the shift was the advantage of riding aboveground, outside of the dark, claustrophobic MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) subway tunnels, for 3 minutes between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Our 60-minute trip on the original train was fully underground, but on our new commute, Luna has an opportunity to view the East River from 90 feet above the water. Riding aboveground is a unique New York delight that many of us eagerly anticipated as children on our journeys to Van Cortlandt Park or Yankee Stadium.

This intentional adaptation in our morning routine proved to be a complete game changer, offering Luna and me a moment of serenity amid the chaos and an opportunity to emerge from the darkness of the tunnel. I watch Luna now, her nose pressed against the train car window, as she counts the boats traveling up and down the river, marveling at this seemingly mundane miracle of flying above hundreds of buildings and cars, her wonder unmatched, never diminished by the everydayness of it all. I think about this slight adjustment in our otherwise very usual New York morning school commute as one that prioritizes the sensory experience of witnessing nature above all else. I revel in the choices we’re able to make to be closer to the beauty of the world.

One morning, while traveling on our new school route, Luna turned her small, radiant face to me and asked, “Mommy, do you hear the birds chirping?” I replied, “I do, my love.” And she added, “It’s going to be a beautiful day, right, Mommy?” I beamed. What a proud moment, to know that this native Brooklyn child can distinguish birdsong from the cacophonous sounds of her home city; that she can, and makes an effort to hear the beautiful earth music that surrounds her over everything else competing for the attention of her ears. Most importantly, she equates the morning birdsong with knowing that it’s going to be a beautiful day. Nature is beauty—and we can return to experiencing that earth beauty anytime we tune in, even in our urban environments. What’s more, we are attracted to the sensory experiences that nature gifts us every day: the smell of lavender flowers, the flute-like sound of the robin’s morning song, the feeling of wet grass or warm sand beneath our feet, and the overall calm these earthly sensations provide.

We can activate (and reactivate) our connections to the earth from any place, and most importantly from within ourselves with intention, focus, and confidence. The orange-breasted robins in New York City have always been here, and they still sing their morning song, adding to the city symphony of taxis honking, babies crying, planes roaring, ambulances wailing, and the buzz of nearly 9 million people living their lives side by side. These same robins make their nests in the small, secret openings of our lampposts and streetlights, but they’re here among and together with us—adding their earth magic to the fullness of urban life.

Suhaly Bautista-Carolina

Suhaly Bautista-Carolina (she/they/we/us) is an Afro-Dominican herbalist, artist, cultural worker, and community organizer whose work lives intentionally at the intersection of plant power and people power. Through her practice, Moon Mother Apothecary, Bautista-Carolina centers care, collective wisdom, and ancestral legacy, while creating spaces of agency to facilitate healing. Their work has been featured in The New York TimesOprah MagazineCosmo, People en Español, and Nylon Magazine, among others. She is based in her native home of New York City (Lenapehoking), where she lives with her partner and their baby girl, Luna. She speaks English and Spanish.

Tags: building urban resilience, connection to nature, interdependence