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Patrick Honan on why ecology matters

For a long time, the western narrative of how we relate to nature has been one of adversaries; a battle for survival. We built walls, started fires and clothed ourselves for protection from the outside world- and rightfully so. To the weak, naked ape that we essentially are, the harshness of the outside world was our greatest threat. We were at the mercy of the uncaring elements and the cruel  twists of fate that characterise the natural world.

However, the 20th Century brought about a fundamental shift to this relationship. The industrial revolution and all the technological and societal advancement that came with it completely redefined the way the Western world approached the natural realm. The battle between humanity and the natural world was decisively won. No longer at nature's mercy, we would decided the terms we would interact with it, if at all. The prevalence of the manicured hedge stands testament to our pride in our complete control over the wild form. In the animal world, large predators went from being something to fear to something we could cage and use for entertainment purposes at a children's birthday party.

We all know the environment isn't in great shape. We're filling our oceans with plastic and our rivers with runoff. It's getting hotter. We are experiencing a period of mass-extinction, and geologists propose the changes we have made over the past century are so distinct they have ushered in a new age; “Anthropocene”.

For people living in the city, these are realities that are too easily forgotten. If you are living in an urban area, like 66% of Australia's population does, these unpleasant details are often more convenient to neglect. If your food comes to you in a sealed package, you start to forget that it once dwelled deep in the earth. If your only interaction with animals is the cosseted creations at the dog park, your knowledge of the breathtaking diversity of life scattered across this continent is going to be severely limited. If you are encased in a climate controlled office all day, only to hop in your air conditioned car on the way home to your pre-chilled house, the realities of the impact of climate change on this sun-burnt country seem a little too far in the distance of your rear-view mirror.

For me, this is the real value of urban-ecology. As more and more people move into urban areas, there exists the danger of our innate connection to the natural world being severed. This is a connection to be cherished and nurtured, not starved and neglected. Our connection to the earth, to life outside our own, and the natural systems that go along with it, offer the potential to imbue our lives with so much meaning, interest and joy.  A connection to the ecology of urban areas is important, if only for the selfish reasons of the immeasurable interest, value and meaning it can impart to your life.

If you walk past a tree every day on your way home from work, the seasons start to mean a lot more. You notice the vibrancy of the rushing spring growth and the singed leaf tips after a heat wave. A previously arbitrary date on a calendar now has a meaning attached to it, one that lives and changes. If you're growing your own vegetables, you realise the time and effort that goes into your food supply. You know that a beetroot takes 4 months to grow, and isn't something that you extract from a can that costs $2. In valiantly defending your hard earned crop with a garden hose, you know what a scared possum looks like, and how to make your partner laugh. You know what a screech from a cockatoo sounds like as it echoes down a city street. Your tongue knows that berries are better warmed by the sun than chilled by a supermarket shelf.  Summer comes and you know that you prefer your tomatoes yellow and small, sweet enough to be little globs of jam. Your Italian neighbour agrees with your informed opinion and you feel eminently cultural, and resolve to swap seedlings next year. On the way in to work you pause at a small shrub. That type of plant always reminds you of your grandma and her penchant for dried flowers. You are pained for a moment as you remember her, pulling a flower off and stuffing it in your pocket to bring home.

On your way home you seek shelter from a sudden downpour of rain, and now you truly understand the value of the darkened canopy of a huge tree. The relief the cool change brings washes over you as the humidity breaks. You wonder how many people for how many years have cowered under this very tree, feeling the same relief. You think back to a time before you or anyone you have ever known even existed, and for a moment feel connected to the history of this little patch of dirt you're standing on and feel humbled by the scale of it all.  You wonder why you don't see those butterflies around the neighbourhood anymore, the black and red ones that would be everywhere in the spring. A bird rustles in the tree and begins it's familiar croaking song, and although you don't know what kind of bird it is, your ear instinctively knows it belongs to the area.

I love urban living. I love being exposed to new people, art and the everyday beauty that the city springs on you. City life holds a heady mix of constantly changing detail and fast pace that I don't think I will ever break free from. I am a rat that loves my race. Imagine Sisyphus happy. I don't want to go back to living in a cave, cold and scared. I love nothing more than lying on my back on a balmy summer evening, feeling grass cradle my head and prickle my neck as my view of the dimming sky is framed by boughs of trees more ancient than I will ever know. Surrounded by my friends, we exorcise the days worries and breathe more deeply. The pace slows, light begins to prick through from the heavens. A steady line of bats migrates across the night sky as cicadas begin their torrential chorus. The murmur from adjoining streets combines, the human noises of laughter and music competing.  Soon you will join them, maybe even dance. You can feel the warmth radiating out of the earth on nights like this. Children shriek with delight as they fill their sticky hands with captured beetles and stab at the warm earth with pointed sticks.

This is the world I want to live in, the world I want to leave for others to share after I am gone. A world, and a society where the conflict between humans and nature has at last reached a state of peace, for the benefit of all. A world full of the beauty and wonder we have created with our society, but one that also champions the beauty of the natural world and the value of sharing it with others.

Urban-ecology suggests a positive vision for the future that is completely inspiring. It is made even more so by the fact that it stands in the face of huge adversity, complex problems on ever-changing ground. Urban areas will continue to grow in size and scale into the future. This much is certain. What is now up to us to decide is how we want these urban spaces to look, feel and commune with the surrounding environment. This is choice between harsh concrete or flowering meadows, between barren weedy wastelands or lush, thriving wetlands, a choice between bird song or traffic snarl. Urban ecology provides the answer to this pressing question, one that is deeply rooted in our history and what it is to be human in an urbanising world, while looking strongly to the future.

Patrick Honan, Horticulturalist

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