Redefining “Nature”—Ted Talk of the Week

I love TED Talks. For those of you who haven’t experienced the inspiration of TED yet (seriously, check TED out!), TED is a nonprofit organization focused on “ideas worth spreading”. Begun in 1984 as a conference about Technology, Entertainment, and Design, TED talks are short, inspiring/entertaining/powerful/funny/awe inspiring talks that cover virtually every topic imaginable.

If you’re new to TED, here are the top, must-see TED talks, according to TED.

I love watching TED talks on my lunch break or when I need a short pick-me up. They are a great way to take a step back from work while still staying engaged.

I recently came across this TED talk from TEDSummit 2016, given by Emma Marris, a writer on environmental science policy and culture. Titled “Nature is everywhere – we just need to learn to see it“, Ms. Marris presents a very compelling argument for why we need to see Nature everywhere, and why we need to broaden and expand our definition of nature.

We often have this idea of what Nature is, what Nature should be. When you think of Nature what image immediately comes to mind? Clear mountain streams running through pristine grasslands? Or old growth forests with ancient trees and lush undergrowth? Something like these images, found by simply searching for “Nature”.


Those pictures are amazing. They’re beautiful. They ARE nature. But is that the only definition of nature? As Emma Marris questions in her amazing talk, is this nature too? 


Does that count as nature? The little bushes along the sidewalk? The lone tree in the median? Even in a smaller city or the suburbs, does your 1/4 acre backyard count as nature?

As environmental scientists, we tend to think in terms of natural systems, what nature once was. How the system should be. This is important. We need to understand how natural systems work and function in order to understand sustainability and how to protect our ecosystems.

But, in our human dominated planet, we also need to think about what we have. How can we use what is available to us for the betterment of all?

For the first time in human history, the majority of humans now live in urban areas. And more and more, our mega-cities, and even our suburbs, are becoming more and more man-made and less and less nature. Those beautiful images of Nature above are amazing. We should all strive to protect and love those places. But most of humanity does not visit those places. Even those that strive to get out in nature don’t generally live there. We live in cities. And too much, we don’t think that nature can be in cities.

The beauty of Emma Marris’ talk is that she shows how Nature IS there. There is nature everywhere. All around us. From the bushes in the park, to the abandoned lot next door. It may not be the natural ecosystem that ecologists yearn for, but it is still nature.

What is most important, Marris argues (and I agree!) is that this is the nature that everyone has access too, everyday! We need to encourage everyone, especially our children to go play with nature, investigate nature, love nature.

Because you can find nature just outside your front door, no matter where your front door is.


My favorite line from Emma Marris’ TED talk is this:

“We have to let children touch nature, because that which is untouched is unloved”.

~Emma Marris, TEDSummit 2016

If future generation don’t KNOW nature, why would they chose to protect it?

The Watershed in Winter! Teaching Outdoors

Snow Lab!

Welcome to our ‘Watershed in Winter’ lab, it’s a lot of fun! One of the most beloved labs in our department, in this lab students explore the winter landscape, looking at how snow falls on landscape, and conducting some simple calculations to estimate water inputs to the watershed.


The watershed in winter, down by a stream.

Heading out on a beautiful sunny day, our class trekked into the local woods once again to explore ‘the watershed in winter’.

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Teaching Outdoors! Field Laboratories

This semester I volunteered to be a Teaching Assistant for a 400 level course in the Natural Resource Ecology and Management department, my home department here at Iowa State University. I absolutely love teaching, and it had been too many semesters since I had had the opportunity to TA. I am fully funded as a research associate and thus do not NEED to teach, but I WANT to, so I volunteered!

What I find really exciting about my home department is that many of our labs are OUTDOORS! Given that we study the environment, ecosystem management, animal ecology, and the interconnections between these disciplines, our laboratory is the outdoors. The best way for our students to learn is to actually go outside and see first hand the ecological and environmental concepts they are learning about in the classroom.

Not only does this really enhance student learning, but it’s a lot of fun!

The course is called Watershed Management and it focuses on managing human impacts on the hydrologic cycle. Throughout the course students learn about the hydrologic cycle in its natural form, and how human development affects water quality, quantity, and timing, as well as how those alterations impact surrounding ecosystems.

For this first outdoor lab we went to a lovely little woods nearby campus that has a walking trail known as Peggy’s Trial. This forested landscape features gently rolling hills, some degrading small creeks, a stream with a lovely terrace structure, and some very straightforward examples of human landscape alterations.

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