University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Seeing Nature Everywhere

Alumna and author Julia Corbett believes acknowledging “everyday” nature can help us focus on issues like climate change.

Photo Credit: Nikki Smith

When a two-inch beetle flew against her sleeve in her Salt Lake City yard a few years ago, Julia Corbett (M.A. ’90, Ph.D. '94) quickly brushed it away. Yet despite her reflexive revulsion, she knew it was a pine sawyer, an insect that cleans up dead trees and does humans no harm—which made her feel guilty about her reaction.

In 2014, Corbett, a professor who specializes in environmental communications and climate change issues at the University of Utah, decided to change her relationship with the nature in her yard. With the help of a biology professor friend, the former reporter, naturalist, and park ranger began cultivating and promoting an appreciation of “everyday nature,” she says.

“We have a tendency to put nature into boxes—thinking wild nature is in the Wasatch Mountains that surround my home—or in the Boundary Waters, when living in Minnesota,” she says. At the same time, she says people discount the fact that nature surrounds us at every moment, or that our lives interact with and affect nature at every point. “My habit of brushing aside insects (figuratively and literally) meant missing out on the world’s smallest large force in the animal kingdom,” wrote Corbett in her book Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday (University of Nevada, 2018). 

In her book, which she calls “ruminations on the practical and existential challenges of living an environmentally aware life,” Corbett started asking people to reimagine those two types of nature—the “wild” and the everyday—as the same thing, without boundaries. By doing that, she reasons, we’ll be more likely to act to protect our immediate surroundings because we recognize nature isn’t just “over there” but everywhere. This is especially critical since studies about loons and other birds and insect numbers declining precipitously make it clear that “our natural world is very much in trouble,” she says.

Corbett adds that writing Out of the Woods taught her that “how we treat everyday nature is foundational to how we value and treat all nature.” The old adage of looking in your own backyard and inside your own house is an important place to start thinking about how we value and treat elements of the earth, she says.

Having previously written the book Seven Summers: A Naturalist Homesteads in the Modern West (University of Utah Press, 2013) about fleeing city life each summer to the cabin she built at around 8,000 feet elevation in northern Wyoming, Corbett argues that individuals can help fight climate change by noting the false distinctions we make between our surroundings and wild nature. “It is impossible to separate the breath I just took from the air that jets and bees fly through,” she says.

Out of the Woods won the Reading the West Book Award for Nonfiction in 2018. It includes essays about recycling and reuse, a mall that incorporates a creek, and a cultural fear of untamed places that made the phrase “out of the woods” synonymous with a return to a steady course. While assembling her essays, Corbett realized it was sometimes a challenge “to see nature in the city, and to pay attention in a way that most people don’t think of as nature writing,” she says. Traditionally, most nature writing has been “about less-peopled nature.”

And appreciating all nature should be innate to us, she adds, noting that the renowned biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson called biophilia “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”

Corbett hopes to reawaken that urge through her work. “All people feel love for the living world to a degree—whether it’s a sunset, a baby animal, the smell of wind in spring that lets us know spring is coming,” she says. “I want to remind people of that love and have them think ‘Cool, how cool is that?’”

Meet the Author

Corbett has two talks in the Twin Cities in March. The second one is about her in-progress book, Communicating the Climate Crisis.

Reading and signing for Out of the Woods

Sunday, March 29, 2 p.m., Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Ave, St. Paul

Communicating “Health” in a  Climate-Changed World

Tuesday, March 31, 4-5:30 p.m., 100 Murphy Hall, 206 Church St. SE, Minneapolis. To reserve free tickets, click here.

Catherine Arnold is a writer in Salt Lake City.

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