Nature: So Close, Yet So Far? Thoughts From Our 2020 Environmentalist in Residence

October 13, 2020 | Diana L.

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What do you think of when you read the word "nature"? It is a rather large and liquid concept. Every reader might have a different image pop into mind. A forest, mountain range, lake, and ocean are large-scale forces of nature that many of us might think of.

A sea bird flies above a powerful wave of water with mountains in the background.

But, you might also envision a trail you have walked many times or bodies of water you have swum. And what about cities? Are they nature? City parks? A backyard? Our own bodies?

Trees with fall colours surrounding a view of the Toronto skyline in the distance

I grew up with a big yard in Santa Ana, Costa Rica. Nature to me was everything and everywhere. From geckos on bathroom walls to coral snakes in rocks to monkeys in trees, I experienced it all. I assumed this was the same "nature" everyone had.

Two hands holding seven baby turtles.

Which of these images above do you relate to the most?

The following is a conversation with a colleague who has a very different experience of nature than me.


Conversation with Junaid Shahzad Khan

Junaid Shahzad Khan

Junaid holds a Masters in Environmental Studies, is a published science author, an Ontario Graduate Scholar and Canadian Graduate Scholar.


Tell us a bit about yourself, Junaid.

Salaam, Aaniin, hello. My name is Junaid Shahzad Khan. I am an ecologist by education, an educator by profession, and a land worker by heart. I do whatever each of those roles places in front of me.


How long have you been working in the environmental field?

14 years. I started by cleaning up garbage I saw in a creek close to our apartment in North York. Since then, I have volunteered with conservation organizations, environmental not-for-profits, and charities. I have also worked on projects with universities, community groups, and the federal and provincial governments.

Tall green grass with green trees and shrubs in the background.
Photo credit: Junaid Khan.

Fourteen years! You must have a pretty good understanding of what ‘nature’ is. What do you think of when you think of the word "nature"?

A lot. How much time do you have?


Haha, ok, can you tell me in a nut-shell?

I grew up in Karachi, a city of fourteen million people. Constant civil and political unrest meant that I was not to go out of the house without my grandfather with me. Nature at that point was what I saw on TV or read in books. Our satellite would pick up two hours of North American programming a day, which included National Geographic. Wherever all this nature was, it wasn’t in Pakistan, nobody ever came around to film there. Nature to me was Australia!


Wow, Australia?!

It seemed like the most exciting place to be; sharks, crocodiles, whales, marsupials, snakes and so on.

A snake pops its head above the water with its tongue out.

These images made me think of Australia. [Note from Andrés: These images were all captured in Costa Rica.]

An aerial view of several crocodiles laying out on muddy shores and floating near the surface in muddy waters.

Have you been to Australia?

No. My conception and connection with nature has changed since then.


What changed?

I immigrated to Canada with my mother. The brochures were so exciting! Crisp mountains, clean rivers, beautiful swimmable and drinkable lakes. We arrived in Toronto. It seemed different from Karachi, but not extremely so. Though less densely populated, I still noticed a distinct lack of new animals crossing my path every day or experiencing those beautiful rivers. The river I lived next to had shopping carts in it and I could barely see through the water!

A river winds around tall grass with trees in the background.
Photo credit: Junaid Khan

People recommended I go to British Columbia to experience "real nature". It was absolutely worth going. Though I ran out of money and returned with a heavy heart.


A Brief Pause

Junaid's responses touched on three crucial things that I would like to parse out.

  • The idea of nature being geographically elsewhere. Our initial conceptions of nature are founded by imagery we consumed as children. Junaid’s images of nature were not of his home country, but of far-away places. If you do not know what exists in your own surroundings, it is hard to feel connected to them. This also reflects the idea of the traditional dichotomy between "nature" and "human".


  • Degrees of importance in natural spaces. Junaid wanted to go to Australia for its ecological importance. Conversely, I had 5% of the world’s biodiversity to discover, and couldn’t imagine going elsewhere. Cataloging like this is innate to traditional environmental practice, dating back to European colonizers traveling to "New Worlds," and noting the flora, fauna and people they encountered. Places around the world gained or lost reputation based on their descriptions. These roots remain in conservation practice, although there is an effort by some to change this narrative.


  • The sense of belonging in natural spaces. Pakistan was not being filmed or featured in documentaries Junaid saw as a child. On the flip side, Costa Rica was heavily featured in all sorts of nature documentaries! But the presenters were always foreigners who relied on enthusiasts like me to bring them to the animals. Though seemingly opposite, both our experiences cast us as inadequate to speak about nature.


Wrapping Up with Junaid

What do you perceive as nature now?

Happy Nature on Instagram.


Aha! Would you elaborate on what Happy Nature is about?

When we met, you were a new father, immigrant, student, and in a new country. We both struggled mightily with mental health, and connected over the land. Rain, snow, sun, sleet, wind. We did a lot. All the while focusing on internal struggles, trying to work through them by connecting with the space around us. We figured that if the nature around us was "happy", perhaps we would be too.

I had grown up with a constant stream of other people showing me what nature was all about. Now we were discovering it for ourselves, in a new way, with our perspectives and experiences centered in it. We started to share our journey with others on Instagram, and here we are.

Now we are both getting to know nature right in front of us, above us, beside us, and below us. Nature is not elsewhere, nature is everywhere. Nature creates and moulds us, and we mould it right back – not always helpfully, mind you.


Thank you, Junaid!


Related TPL Resources


Accidental Wilderness

Accidental Wilderness: The Origins and Ecology of Toronto's Tommy Thompson Park

Online event coming soon! Check back on the Our Fragile Planet program series page!

Be a Nature Detective

Be a City Nature Detective

Nature Hikes

Nature Hikes: Near-Toronto Trails and Adventures

The Spirit Trackers

The Spirit Trackers

Bees of Toronto

Toronto Biodiversity Series. Browse all of the City of Toronto's booklets on local wildlife.


Environmentalist in Residences Programming: Upcoming Events and Video Replays

Andrew Nisker, Tom Goreau and Andres - Coral Ghost Program

Coral Ghosts: 60 Years of Photos To Inspire You to Save The Reefs

Replay available.

In oceans around the planet, coral reefs are in crisis, but just how bad is the state of these underwater landscapes? Coral Ghosts is a documentary directed by Andrew Nisker that combines six decades of underwater photography archived by Dr. Tom Goreau, a marine biologist with a family history of reef protection.

Andrés will be in conversation with Andrew Nisker and Dr. Tom Goreau to discuss reef research and conservation, what it means if this marine ecosystem collapses, and what we can do even if we are not near the ocean. Tune in live to get a sneak preview to Coral Ghosts, scheduled for the world premiere at the 2020 Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival.


Jerry Berrier, Freya McGregor, Virginia Rose and Andres - Accessible Birding Program

Accessible Birding: Connecting with Nature Beyond Disabilities

Friday, October 16th, 2020 - 6 to 7 pm

While it's possible to take part in birding anywhere in the world, many people find it challenging to spot birds they want to see. But that is not the only challenge especially for people with disabilities. In this program, we will explore the barriers and options to enjoy birds for people with disabilities. 

Featured guests: 

  • Virginia Rose, an avid birder for over 15 years and creator of Birdability,  a program designed to help people with mobility challenges get outside 
  • Freya McGregor, an occupational therapist working with nature-based therapy 
  • Jerry Berrier,  a self-taught birder and accessibility consultant for technology users who are blind. 

Join in on this panel discussion moderated by Andrés to learn about breaking down birding barriers particularly for people with mobility impairments and how everyone can help make nature and the outdoors accessible for all.


Visit the Our Fragile Planet program series page for more programming geared towards our local environment!


The Environmentalist in Residence (EnvIR) program supports the Our Fragile Planet program series and will serve as an industry expert in conservation and sustainability.

This residency and the Our Fragile Planet program series is generously supported by the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.

TD Friends of the Environment Foundation logo


Written by: Andrés Jiménez, TPL's Environmentalist in Residence (EnvIR) from August 31 to November 6, 2020. Presented as part of the Our Fragile Planet program series. Andrés shares his expertise and insights in this first blog post. All photos were shot by Andrés unless otherwise indicated.