In Sandra Cisneros's beloved novella, main character Esperanza recounts her coming of age experiences in the low-income Latino neighborhood of Chicago. Esperanza feels out of place in her concrete, urban neighborhood and dreams of living with her family in a house set among rolling hills in the countryside. Despite her state of loneliness, the young Mexican-American girl finds a connection with an unlikely friend— four skinny trees. Esperanza shares, “They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here. Four raggedy excuses planted by the city” (Cisneros 1984, 79). Though slightly younger in age than my students, I think of Esperanza in the faces of the young folks I teach.
Having grown up in neighborhoods and surrounding areas of New Haven, each of my students has a unique relationship to nature. Like Esperanza, some of these young people’s experiences with nature are limited and can be depicted as a houseplant in an aging high-rise, a patch of browning grass by the stop sign, or another slivered piece of something natural in a concrete jungle. Many may expect that these students do not care, recognize, or consider their relationship with nature in their environment. In fact, many people may fail to recognize nature when in context with the urban environment. Literature, movies, and the outdoor industry have romanticized nature to mean a place that exists only in remote, exclusive, or pristine places. In this dichotomy of thought, it is easy to think that nature is a place that belongs to those who can access it, and thus estranged from the minds and experiences from those who cannot. In this way, we devalue the relationship and interests urban children may have and have the potential to develop with nature.
The Urban, The Wilderness, and Me is an original curriculum unit that explores the interconnectedness of city ecosystems, the natural world, and the ways our individual human lives are uniquely entwined with these spaces. In the unit, students explore the ways in which the wilderness manages to survive and thrive within the cityscape. In environments where nature seems to have been suffocated and swept away, students look at how plants, insects, and animals have reclaimed their place. Students also look at the reclamation of the relationship between the global majority and the outdoors in the face of western ideologies and romanticisms of nature, the discovered, and the explored. Though authors, scientists, and the commercial outdoor industry may have whitewashed the depiction of whom the wilderness is for, students learn of the cultural relationships indigenous people and people of the African diaspora have developed with nature and the ways black and brown leaders of today are vocalizing their ancestral relationship with the land.