. John Tallmadge | Exploring Nature, Culture, and the Human Journey
Life is our dictionary.  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walden Workshops and Seminars on Nature and Human Values

Learning from Nature in the City

Recently offered at: Union Institute, Cincinnati OH (5-day seminar)

Convenor: John Tallmadge, Ph.D.

Location: Cincinnati, OH. Sponsored by the Union Institute

Thoreau, in a joyous moment, once exclaimed, "I had no idea there was so much going on in Heywood's meadow!" But how did he know? A self-taught naturalist, social critic, and contrarian thinker, he had cultivated habits of observation and critical thinking that turned the pastoral landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, into a laboratory for moral and social inquiry. Nature gave him a standard of value against which to judge individuals, institutions, and the dominant culture. "I wish to speak a word for Nature," he proclaimed, "for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil."

Modern environmentalism has largely embraced this prophetic, inspiring view, equating the wild with the natural and the good, and locating beauty and truth in remote, "unspoiled" places such as national parks and designated wilderness preserves. But in fact most of us live an urban life, either residing in cities or dependent on urban culture for food, fuel, transportation, entertainment, and other "necessaries of life." And the landscapes in which we spend most of our lives have been affected, sometimes dramatically, by human activity. What happens when we begin to look at such landscapes with a naturalist's eye? Surprisingly, we find that there is a lot going on. And such observations lead us to reexamine cherished notions of wildness, naturalness, beauty, truth, and justice that have governed environmental thought for more than a century.

This seminar will explore the "invisible" world of nature in the city, a world teeming with life and meaning that mainstream environmentalism has largely neglected. This is a world we must come to understand if we are to build honorable and sustainable relations with the rest of life in the next millennium. We will explore such topics as personal versus impersonal ecology, modalities of invisible landscape, the history of the concept of nature, the circulation of wildness, alien species, human and biological diversity, and urban nature as the "commons" actually shared by all of us, not just the privileged or well-equipped.

Our readings and discussions will develop an interdisciplinary view of urban nature that draws upon the perspectives of geography, history, aesthetics, biology, environmental studies, and the history of ideas. Cincinnati is an old industrial city with an astonishing diversity of habitats and landscapes that offer excellent opportunities for field study; therefore, the seminar will combine classroom activities with writing exercises and outdoor excursions to local neighborhoods, parks, and preserves.






  • Cronon, William (ed.). Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York NY: Norton, 1996 (selections)
  • Dixon, Terrell F. (ed.). City Wilds: Essays and Stories about Urban Nature. Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002 (selections)
  • Hedeen, Stanley. The Mill Creek: An Unnatural History of an Urban Stream. Cincinnati OH: Blue Heron Press, 1994
  • Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener's Education. New York NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991 (selections)
  • Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco CA: North Point Press, 1990 (selections); selected poems
  • Tallmadge, John. The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City (selections, xeroxed)