An essential part of having a smartphone is hating yourself for it. The self-awareness that smartphones are bad for us, and that tech companies are evil for addicting us to their apps, is proof of sanity. In recent years, the predictable masochism we feel while scrolling has found an equally predictable remedy: nature. Nature is the opposite of smartphones—it is as good for us as smartphones are bad. And the call of the wild has never been stronger. Going on an unplugged yoga retreat in Costa Rica, renting a cabin without Wi-Fi upstate, trying out the ancient Japanese practice of forest bathing—these are celebrated forms of digital detox, even if they’re undertaken with the vague shame of knowing that returning from the woods means returning to your phone, when you will almost certainly post photos of the nature you saw while detoxing.
I’ve found myself in the same situation, locked in a constant battle between unplugging and plugging back in. When I recently checked my iPhone Screen Time data, it reported an average of 4.5 hours per day. Should I be embarrassed? I wondered. What number was respectable? My boyfriend’s total gave me the frame of reference I was looking for: 1.5 hours.
A strange thing I noticed, though: Many of those phone hours were spent transporting myself to the rugged peaks of the Canadian Rockies and Gatorade-blue glacial lakes of Patagonia via the many outdoor adventure Instagram accounts I’ve followed in recent years. My feed is my off-the-grid pipe dream, yet I don’t seem to care much about the wilderness available right outside my own metro area. Last summer, my boyfriend and I took a day trip out to Walden Pond, just a short drive out of Boston. Did I sit on the shores of the iconic body of water that inspired Henry David Thoreau’s most famous work about the beauty of nature, scrolling through my feed of other blue lakes, other trails through pines, and offers for 15% off at Backcountry.com if I use the code CHOOSEMOUNTAINS15? Probably.
It was my social media-less friend Kristen (she doesn’t even brag about it) who first mentioned iNaturalist to me. After she deleted her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts permanently, she was looking for a collaborative way to learn more about the native plants in Los Angeles, where she had recently relocated. iNaturalist describes itself as “an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature.” The open-data project allows users to log their observations into a map, as well as contribute to others’ observations. (For example, if someone identified the genus of a plant, and you know the species, you can add to the observation.) iNaturalist has a partner app called Seek for people like me, who don’t even know the names of the house plants they own, despite having traveled to a store, intentionally picked them out, and then paid money for them. Seek assists citizen scientists in the making by using image recognition technology to identify a species when you hold your camera up to it. It has been described by various news outlets as “Shazam for nature.”
If my problem was that my phone made me feel uninvested, or incorrectly invested, in the world around me, maybe learning about the nature outside my door was the solution I needed. Sure, solving my phone use issue with an app might seem counterintuitive, but iNaturalist sounded so beautifully earnest. I wanted to bathe myself in the slow-living energy of lovely middle-aged people who only use biodegradable shower products because the pipes of their century-old Victorian home are extremely sensitive, and come out the other side cleansed of my inclination to browse Instagram ads for direct-to-consumer couches when I already have a perfectly fine couch.
After downloading the app, I clicked on the “Explore” tab and the map of my current location appeared, dotted with recently identified living species, including photos and descriptions. In my neighborhood in Cambridge, I could see that a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) was recently spotted down the street. Right outside my apartment door, a tree with red berries known as the common yew (Taxus baccata) was identified. That’s funny, I thought. I’ve never noticed a red-berried tree before. I opened my front door, ready to discredit the entire app and project, but there it was, a tree with red berries, less than 10 feet away. I’d walked past that tree at least twice a day for six months and had never seen it.
Barbara Kurland is the director of education at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She first became interested in plants on a field trip to a botanic garden in the fourth grade. “I never, ever forgot the way that greenhouse smelled,” she told me. In that vein, she and the team of teachers have made a concerted effort to make learning about plants hands-on, incorporating both horticulture and botany in their curriculum. “People learn by planting,” she says.
In the last six years they’ve also started teaching the lesser-known subject called phenology, which is the observation of the life cycles of living things. Phenological events include phenomena like birds returning in the spring, or buds first appearing on a tree, all of which can give us a history of our living world, and tell us about how the climate is shifting. Similar to iNaturalist, phenology organizations empower citizen scientists to record data on nature near their homes—even if it just means observing one tree every day—so that we can develop a larger picture. Kurland sees apps as a great way to not only organize the data that’s being collected but also galvanize regular people to participate. “One of the things that iNaturalist does is get you up close with the tree outside your window,” she says. “You take interest, and you start watching it, and noticing more.”
Kurland landed her dream job at the the Botanic Garden more than 30 years ago, so she’s been observing the public’s interest in plants during an era in which our digital worlds have exploded and climate change has become a pressing concern. Today, continuing education classes for adults are the garden’s most popular offering. Could it be that our interest in plants is a reaction to the increasingly fractured, disembodied way many Americans live? Possibly, but Kurland thinks our attraction to nature is intrinsic and operates on an almost subconscious level. “Our lives are busy,” she says. “Our lives are not necessarily that in touch with nature and with the real world around us, and people crave it. I don’t think they’re even aware of it.”
Maybe my innate craving for nature is what led me to download iNaturalist and Seek. It was unfortunate timing—January in Boston—but I was determined to get in touch with nature. The first plant I tried Seek on was a low-to-the-ground vine covering that my dog, Harriet, had just peed on a few seconds prior. Seek told me the urine-covered plant was common ivy (Hedera helix). Later that day, during my afternoon jaunt with Harriet, she peed on another ground cover. I looked closely at it and snapped a photo to confirm my hunch: another crop of common ivy. While it was possible that Harriet has developed a highbrow taste for peeing on vines, it’s also true that once I noticed the common ivy, I began to see that it was everywhere in Cambridge.
In fact, many of the plants in my neighborhood that I first observed with Seek began to pop up frequently: European holly, great rhododendron, Chinese silver grass, Fortune’s spindle. Learning the shapes and names of plants reminded me of what it felt like to learn to read—once I had the power to decode writing, suddenly I saw words everywhere I looked. Once I recognized the plants in my neighborhood, the barren winter landscape transformed. It felt as if I was making new local friends, and putting names to faces. Kurland says the desire to be able to identify and know the name of a plant is a very human instinct. “Usually one of the first things people ask is, ‘What is that?’”
Humans gravitate toward plants often without realizing it. Consider brewing a cup of herbal tea, Kurland said—just one example of the ways that plants “work their way into our lives.” Until that moment, I had never connected the tea bags in my cabinet to the plants they were made of. Tea was nature. “It’s so simple,” Kurland notes. “It’s all around you.”
Each year, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden hosts a cherry blossom festival, timed for a weekend in the spring that the staff estimates will be the bloomiest. Leading up to the festival, staff members maintain a section of their website called “Cherrywatch,” which features an illustrated map of the garden that shows whether the trees are pre-bloom, first bloom, peak bloom, or post-peak bloom. “People ask if we have little sensors on the trees,” Elizabeth Reina-Longoria, the garden’s director of marketing and communications, told me. Nope: To update Cherrywatch, a staff member goes out into the garden every day and observes the cherry trees, noting any changes in their blooms. Then, they transfer that data to the website.
It’s not a complex scientific process—all they’re doing is paying attention and noticing little changes each day. But paying attention is a skill many of us not only think we lack, we believe we are unable to regain it. I started this project assuming the natural world was far too vast and intricate a system for a soft urbanite like me to understand. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial: After just two weeks of using iNaturalist, I really was able to notice more. One of the more beautiful plants recurring throughout my neighborhood is a green and white ground cover called the Japanese spindle tree. After first identifying the spindle with Seek, I found a crop of it whose leaves had turned a bright pink color.
Worried the plant had been sprayed with chemicals, or that road salt was seeping into its soil, I researched the strange coloring. As it turns out, a certain subset of the Japanese spindle, which was originally cultivated in nearby Gloucester, Massachusetts, naturally turns bright pink during the colder months. What I was witnessing was the spindle’s typical life cycle and accompanying color show. As an added bonus, I learned I wasn’t witnessing human destruction. Kurland says many students initially want to learn more about nature because they’re justifiably concerned about climate change, but she also wants to show them that “nature is resilient.”
A few days ago I was walking to a meeting on the other side of Cambridge, intently tracking my route on Google Maps even though I probably knew the way, when I saw out of the corner of my eye a small girl, maybe 4 years old, in a hot pink jacket and matching snow pants. She was carrying a small stack of brown leaves and a few sticks she had collected, two adults following behind her. “Let’s sit on this bench and see how many natures we have,” she said to them, hoisting herself up onto the metal seat.
“Honey, those are just a bunch of dead leaves,” the old me might have told her. The new me—the me who knows the name of several plants in her neighborhood—is really trying to get on board with seeing the beauty in this leaf and stick situation. After all, the whole point of the iNaturalist mission was to learn how to be amazed by nature in my backyard. Maybe it was a stretch to be equally as impressed by January in Boston as the influencers conquering the Swiss Alps on Instagram, but I was trying. There are, as the little girl intuited, many natures, after all.
Kurland had told me that children are great observers, in part because “they’re literally closer to the ground.” Maybe the other part is that they’re easily amazed. A brown leaf isn’t garbage to them, it’s just one of many beautiful natures. Inspired, I promised myself to carry on this little girl’s spirit of unhurried curiosity. On the walk back, I won’t take my phone out once, I pledged. I was turning over a new old leaf—observing it, carefully appreciating its beauty, puzzling over the world’s—and my—very fact of existence.
A week later a push notification betrays me. “Your screen time was up 11% last week, for an average of 4 hours, 52 minutes a day.”
For a moment I felt like a failure: It was only a matter of time before my phone ruined my best feature, my 20/20 vision, and sealed my fate as a 30-something with a stooped neck. But then I realized that since using iNaturalist and Seek, my phone was no longer just an escape portal into various feeds—these apps had offered me a gateway into the world around me. My moments with plants felt like phone time well spent, a quality that Screen Time can’t distinguish. Anyway, a stooped neck will be better for smelling flowers.