Renate Sander-Regier: Writer, Naturalist, Part-time Geography and Environmental Studies Professor
"If the natural environment is dynamic and healthy, if it is functioning well, then we can be healthy."
Photographs: Courtesy of Fletcher Wildlife Garden Photoblog and Renate Sander-Regier
Q.1. What is your favourite memory of time spent in nature when you were a child?
My favourite memory of nature in childhood actually involves a tree, a big old Basswood tree in a corner of the backyard. It had a double trunk that curved to form a bit of an alcove, a private space hidden from view of the house and the rest of the yard. It was my secret corner, and I spent a fair bit of time there. I felt hidden and safe in the embrace of that tree.
Q.2. You have conducted research on a small green space at the University of Ottawa called the Husky Energy Courtyard, which was created 10 years ago as a small boreal forest and outdoor classroom. What contributions does this courtyard forest make to the campus?
The Husky Energy Courtyard is another hidden space – a well-kept secret on campus. It is an enclosed courtyard that has developed into a dynamic and unique little ecosystem where a surprisingly wide diversity of species thrives (including some invasive species, which is another story). Over 30 tree and shrub species are found there.
The courtyard forest is not used much for formal purposes like education. It serves more of a mental health role for people who go there just to spend time, hang out. Students go there mainly to relax, sometimes also to remove invasive species and plant native vegetation. They find it a great getaway from computers, deadlines, and other pressures. Because it is enclosed and quiet, the courtyard offers peace and solitude. The students find the courtyard to be both calming and rejuvenating, helping them to recover the mental energy they need to deal with academic stresses and personal challenges. One of the most important things is the connection they make with nature there.
Q.3. A lot of your research looks at the impacts of green spaces and access to nature on human health. Why is this an important topic?
This is important because human health can’t be separated from the health of the natural world. Nature makes us feel good in so many different ways, which health scientists are exploring. Also, we depend on nature for, well, everything. The natural world offers the living conditions that keep us alive and healthy – from clean air and water, to fertile soil, and food, medicine, inspiration, and so much more.
If the natural environment is dynamic and healthy, if it is functioning well, then we can be healthy. But if the natural environment is not well, if it is suffering, we can’t expect people to be healthy. It doesn’t make sense.
Q.4. Your PhD dissertation looked at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden and the impact volunteering at the Garden has on humans and nature. Briefly, what is the Fletcher Wildlife Garden and what roles do volunteers play?
The Fletcher Wildlife Garden (http://www.ofnc.ca/fletcher/#.WGaQ31yQrIU) is an urban green space located not far from Dow’s Lake. It is actually a long-term project of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (http://www.ofnc.ca/) which has, over time, created a series of interconnected wildlife habitats there. The Fletcher Wildlife Garden is a wild oasis in the middle of the city, and it demonstrates how to create wildlife-friendly habitat and gardens on urban or rural property. The habitats include a demonstration backyard garden.
Fletcher Wildlife Garden volunteers can play many different roles, typically in groups, but also alone. The various habitats are maintained entirely by volunteers who carry out a wide variety of tasks, including planting, watering, weeding, invasive species removal, and much more (http://www.ofnc.ca/fletcher/volunteer/index_e.php).
Q. 5. What are some of the ways that volunteers derive meaning from their experience volunteering at the Garden?
Working on-site at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden can do so much for volunteers, depending on each individual’s interests, passions, and motivations. Some volunteers find the opportunity to work physically outdoors to be the most rewarding. Other volunteers really like meeting people with similar interests, working together toward a common goal, sometimes making new friends. Most volunteers also find it meaningful to connect with nature at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden – with the plants they tend, the soil they dig in, the birds and other wildlife they see, the greater natural cycles they are part of, like seasonal growth.
Many volunteers also describe the Fletcher Wildlife Garden as a peaceful place, somewhere to get away from the stresses of urban life. Most also appreciate opportunities to learn about nature there. Others describe having spiritual experiences on-site. Volunteering at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden really does cover a wide range of meanings.
Q.6. You wrote about human-nature reconciliation with respect to the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. What is human-nature reconciliation and how is it manifested at the Garden?
If we understand reconciliation broadly, in terms of restoring peace and friendly relations between estranged parties, then human-nature reconciliation can mean many things. For example: re-connecting people and the natural world, helping to resolve misunderstandings about nature, creating spaces that meet the needs of both people and nature for co-existence.
Reconciliation is, I believe, the driving force behind the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. The project and the place bring people and nature together in many different ways. As already mentioned, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden provides opportunities for volunteers to perform a variety of tasks on-site. While they are there, they can learn about nature, have intimate experiences, and develop personal connections with the natural world. Human-nature reconciliation is one of the things that make the Fletcher Wildlife Garden so compelling.
Q.7. Can you give an example of human-nature reciprocity?
Human-nature reciprocity can also take many different forms. If we understand reciprocity broadly in terms of, for example, mutual giving and taking, a back and forth exchange of benefit, then reciprocity is certainly possible with nature.
A good example is composting. Nature provides us with food, and we can give back by composting what we don’t consume. I get very excited by composting. It’s such a beautiful, magical process. You put apple cores, banana skins, and carrot peels into the compost, and nature works these things into a beautiful, nutritious substance. You can add this substance to your garden, grow your own food, and then compost the trimmings and surplus to keep the cycle of reciprocity going.
The Fletcher Wildlife Garden offers another example of reciprocity, on a different scale. At the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, volunteers create and maintain natural habitat to attract wildlife. Wild species arrive and make use of the habitat. The volunteers are encouraged, happy, and motivated to continue creating and maintaining wild spaces, all the while experiencing the volunteering benefits we talked about earlier. The vegetation at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden thrives, wild species find their needs met, and many either stick around, or come back regularly, further delighting and motivating volunteers – and the cycle of reciprocity continues. It’s a cycle that started over twenty years ago when work first began at the site, and it carries on today.
Q.8. In your opinion, what impact do urban green spaces such as the Fletcher Wildlife Garden have on influencing people to take more action to protect and enhance nature?
Urban green spaces offer opportunities for people to connect with nature fairly easily, and intimately if they wish, in their own communities. Urban green spaces make nature accessible, meaningful and relevant to everyday life. And when nature becomes meaningful in that way, people start to care about it. When people care, they are motivated to take action.
Q.9. What do you personally gain from spending time in nature?
Spending time in nature is an essential daily activity for me. It helps keep me sane and healthy. It teaches me, inspires me, and makes me whole.
Q. 10. Finally, do you have a favourite native tree species in Ottawa? If so, which one and why?
There are two, actually.
One is the Tamarack or Eastern Larch (Larix laricina). I love this tree because it is beautiful and quirky, a conifer that sheds its needles in the fall – late in the season, when most other leaves have already fallen. The Tamaracks glow at a time of year when the landscape tends to be rather gray and dreary. Their red-gold beauty can literally take my breath away.
The other is the American Beech (Fagus Americana), with its smooth, elegant trunk and gold leaves that often stay on younger trees and lower branches through the whole winter. Those leaves add surprising and welcome colour to the winter forest – a radiant beauty that also takes my breath away.