by Randall Amster
Growing up in a big city, the concept of nature had always seemed nebulous. This is probably because we didn’t have much of it around, spending most of our days on the streets and sidewalks of the city. If you interacted with nature at all on a significant scale it required a planned trip, usually someplace “upstate” if your family somehow could get there.
As I moved beyond these confines later in life, I intentionally sought out more immersive experiences in the wilderness. I saw nature as a refuge, a space set apart from the struggles of everyday life, someplace remote and rugged. I made it part of my focus to get there and stay as long as possible, and these experiences of “deep nature” transformed me.
Yet they were also limiting, existing in relative isolation and still casting nature as somewhere else, far away. Maybe that should have been enough, having an upwardly mobile city life coupled with intermittent doses of access to deeper nature experiences. But it wasn’t, and in many ways it was precisely this stark divide that sparked a change.
From that point, I sought places where you could live and work in nature. These scenarios are hard to find, yet in flickering moments it felt like I had. It worked for a while, yet still felt like just a better version of nature-as-refuge, set apart. It was missing a critical aspect, something integrative and connective of people and place. It was missing community.
This is what many of the early nature writers had gotten wrong, taking me years to fully grasp: if nature is a place to “find yourself,” it only works if we find others as well. In a world that atomizes individuals and antagonizes groups, while turning nature into a commodity, the antidote we need can be cultivated by our shared connection to, with, and through the environment.
As it turns out, this holistic sense of connection can be found everywhere, if we look closely. It’s in the community garden in an urban food desert, a neighborhood beautification project, backyard and schoolyard gardens, community-supported agriculture systems, watershed restoration initiatives, green energy networks, environmental justice movements, outdoor education programs, and much more.
Integrating community and ecology isn’t just a way for green-conscious advocates to network -- it’s a survival strategy for us all. We don’t get community or ecology without cultivating both. The crises at hand (from COVID to climate) can’t be borne in isolation but must be addressed collectively. As an old folk saying I once read offers: “If you dream alone, it’s just a dream; if you dream together, it’s reality.”
The dream of a just and sustainable world can, and must, become our collective reality. Helping to facilitate this essential transition, the Community Ecology Institute is a place where the community can serve and be served, where volunteers of every sort work together to manifest a vision, where people help restore nature and are restored by it in the process.
Being at the CEI gives us a glimpse of what it might be like if we got our living together. It isn’t magic (at least, not entirely!); it’s hard work. In 2020 I helped to build fences, remove decaying structures, move logs for a mushroom garden, worked in the gardens and woods, and lent a hand to an assortment of other projects that were underway when I arrived at Freetown Farm. Waves of volunteers and visitors ebb and flow throughout the days, with many hands making lighter work and producing a bounty that is shared by all. And it’s not set apart in some faraway place: it’s actually right in the middle of things, where nature always should be.
I invite you to help support this effort to grow sustainable community, and dare to dream together in the process!