Bryan B. Rasmussen
Lately, I’ve put summers in the service of natural history, something I didn’t get much of as a kid. As much as I protest to friends and family that I do not have summers “off,” academic life frees my summers from the usual workaday constraints. Last summer it was collecting butterflies: easier on the joints than the prior summer’s three-week trek through the Sierra Nevada, but disadvantaged by some unfortunate optics: I’m in my forties, and as Vladimir Nabokov, another forty-something would-be lepidopterist, once noted, “the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand.” On one afternoon collecting “expedition” to a city park not far from where I live, I found myself under a dense canopy of riparian willows, in a spot well off the path, damp, and full of litter. I’m in the North Atwater Bioswale, a densely vegetated ditch or gully bordering the Los Angeles River. My dog Amelia, a reluctant assistant, stands close in the somewhat wild place, on lookout for dangers known only to her, while I peer from beneath the boughs for evidence of my quarry, the elusive Western Tiger Swallowtail.
This huge, four- to five-inch “splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot above each chrome-rimmed black tail,” is a marvel of invertebrate life. And it is appropriately smug about it, rarely mucking about with us terrestrials. Its massive wingspan allows it to sail at high altitudes for an eternity. Though I’ve spotted a dozen of them, to my consternation I’ve never been able to net one. But patient observation reveals that they do occasionally descend to sublunar levels. Like planes over a landing strip, they drop through the middle and lowest part of the swale that forms a treeless alleyway of dense coyote brush and California gold bush where there are no paths. This alleyway terminates at its southern end in the arboreal grotto where I’m standing, and where the swallowtails go for reasons I have yet to divine.
Positioned in hope of netting one just as it enters, right out of the air, I hear on the path above me two teenagers talking animatedly. They can’t see me but I see them pretty clearly. So there I am, not just a forty-something man with too much unstructured time and a butterfly net, but a forty-something creeper, barely out of view of a pair of teenagers, ducking self-consciously under dank vegetal cover, with a butterfly net, wondering if I could get arrested for this.
It is soon apparent they are arguing about Pokémon Go. They’re in my swale because their phones told them of an invisible, imaginary animal here somewhere, a Pokémon, and they are out to collect it. Overnight, my swale has become host to digital fauna in addition to the analog ones I’m staking out. Suddenly it makes sense why I’ve seen more mothers out with their kids today than in all my previous visits combined. They, like those teens arguing about Jigglypuff or Wartortle or whatever, are looking to net Pokémon. Who knows how many Pokémon are all around me that I can’t see. The place is probably an ark of Pokémon, an illuminated eBestiary of “augmented” nature. And it is clear these players do not pursue their quarry with the same self-conscious shame with which I pursue mine.
The juxtaposition struck me as odd: Me, with net and jangly bag of killing jars, copy of Heath’s Butterflies of Southern California, field notebook, scratched up from clamoring off the path to this spot known mostly to swallowtails and secret pot smokers, sweaty, covered in the ants that rain down from the willows above, and worrying that Amelia might step on god knows what—a used needle? They, inside-kids clearly unused to being outdoors (you can just tell), clutching their Androids, indifferent to the actual fauna all around them, hunting an image superimposed on a digital camera reproduction of a real landscape.
In my moment of discomfort and shame, a host of ungenerous, but not entirely unmerited, arguments came to mind: arguments about the inherent merits of analog over virtual or “augmented” nature; about people not spending enough or the right kind of time outdoors; about being outside not really being the point; about the daily battle for kids’ (and adults’) time, attention, and money. After all, those teenagers that have turned my swale into a GPS data point are little more than the sweaty consumer endpoints of algorithms created by computer programmers (themselves inside-kids, I’d wager) breathing the cool recycled air pumped into their glass and steel San Francisco campus at Niantic, Inc., the corporate origin of digital species. They’re merely extensions of the artificial worlds in which we have largely confined ourselves and, to a greater degree, our nature-deprived children who now suffer from something called “nature-deficit disorder”—journalist Richard Louv’s diagnosis for the disease that plagues our technology-addled modern youth.
Later, though, like the Lake poet William Wordsworth,
…when on my couch I lie
In vacant or pensive mood
I found myself suspicious of the ease with which such snarky criticisms came to mind—easy, perhaps because of the enticing moral boilerplate that drives much of our talk about “nature” and what it means to be “in” it. Such notions about nature are as much morally as physically prescriptive: going out in nature is good for you and therefore good. These ideas are old. Louv’s nature-deficit disorder, for example, dresses up American Transcendentalist philosophy in clinical language. It’s a version of Emerson’s prescription that “a nobler want of man is served by nature,” which he borrowed from the Romantics who insisted that “nature be your teacher.” Nature ideals have always contained normative assumptions: about the boundaries between the natural and artificial worlds (nature is “essences untouched by man,” so I guess leaves and things); about what counts as valuable outside time (walking, preferably aimlessly, roughly westward, and definitely not to work); about the right way to be outside (alone, in awe).
And they contain assumptions about privilege and access to nature: not just, are you really outside when you’re playing Pokémon Go?—but should you really be outside? Different people experience the answer to this last question differently. In fact, few would even put that question to a white professional like me, even a silly-looking one with a butterfly net. But those teenagers playing Pokémon Go were Hispanic, as were those mothers with their kids. The issue with Pokémon Go isn’t just the human-computer intersection that challenges what it means to really be outside, it’s the politics of being outside at all. It reminds us how fraught “going outside” actually is.
Lying on my proverbial poet’s couch, I found myself confronting not just the queer, quaint privilege of the scholar-naturalist, but what it means to practice natural history while white. If he’s not careful, the cranky naturalist, lurking beneath damp willows, waving around a butterfly net and some hackneyed nature ideal to justify his disapproval of some teenagers’ digitally augmented outdoor experience, can find himself also policing access to nature—an act historically underpinned by race and privilege. An afternoon’s jaunt to my local park in pursuit of natural history had turned out to be anything but quaint.
Is Pokémon Go Natural History?
Pokémon Go actually sells itself as a kind of virtual natural history. When you first play, you’re greeted by Professor Willow, a stylishly outfitted naturalist-cum-urban explorer who asks for your help in his global research project to collect Pokémon (or “pocket monsters,” in the original Japanese game concept from 1995), mystery animals that seem like the composite creatures in a medieval bestiary, with names—besides Jigglypuff or Wartortle—like Rhyhorn, Horsea, and the coveted Charizard. Like all such franchised worlds, it has a hugely complex and sprawling mythology and detailed rules. But the gist of it is this: Your device shows you a map of your area, which you use to locate a wild Pokémon. When you’re close enough to one, you can select it by tapping it on your screen, and then it actually appears in “real” life—that is, superimposed on the camera image displayed by your smartphone. To catch it, you throw the equivalent of a net, a “Poké Ball,” over the creature. If you’re successful, its information enters your Pokédex, an encyclopedia with detailed information on your Pokémon’s habitat and ethology. Meanwhile, the creature remains inside the Poké Ball while you feed it, or you can train your Pokémon for battle against others at a local “gym,” like a Balinese cock or a Shanghai fighting cricket.
Scientists have been among the first to recognize and exploit the parallels between Pokémon Go and natural history. They suggest that the game might reinvigorate interest in the venerable practices of observing, identifying, and classifying organisms in the form of citizen science. As legions of players armed with high-resolution digital cameras wander out of doors looking for digital fauna, “they are spotting other wildlife, too,” useful data to scientists that study biodiversity. The potential of these players to advance understanding of biodiversity is huge, especially in an era of declining attention to field study in schools and colleges. So-called “digital collectors”—anyone with a cell phone camera—“are fast outnumbering specimen collectors.” Moreover, with “new conservation rules [that make] it harder to collect and transport real species samples,” scientists would do well, they argue, to mobilize the popularity of Pokémon Go.
Ecologist Andrew Thaler says the game has the potential to inspire interest in natural history because it promotes “active, creative, exploratory play that encourages players to interact with their environment.”  Morgan Jackson, a fly-researcher, says playing the Pokémon games as a kid helped spark his interest in biology. “Catching [flies], ID’ing them and figuring out how they’re all related” is, he says, essentially doing “Pokémon in real life.” Maybe “it’s not a cure for Nature-Deficit Disorder,” says Thaler, “but it’s definitely a potential treatment.”
There are some obvious ironies to Pokémon Go’s thin pretense to natural history. For example, the game’s gladiatorial feature runs counter to any recognizable conservation philosophy. While it’s true that natural history has historically relied on violence to secure specimens, scientists are among the most likely to regard capturing and killing specimens as an unfortunate feature of their discipline, to be practiced with great constraint, not celebrated. In many branches of biology, the practice has wended away from capture and kill and toward observe and record. Furthermore, natural history is just a side-effect of game play, certainly not the point. To call Pokémon Go players “digital collectors” is a stretch. Rather than, say, educating them about the importance of biodiversity survey, or schooling them in good field practice, or even deploying them for the higher purposes of data collection, the game instead instrumentalizes and monetizes its users. Citizen science it is not.
While promoting going outside might seem like the cure for what ails us as a culture detached from the things of the earth, there is a certain cruel spectacle to sending a lot of people outside who are ill-equipped to be there. Nature-lovers’ naive optimism about the benefits of going outside were largely overwhelmed last summer by the media rollout of (let’s face it, much more entertaining) stories about the public nuisance that going outside actually creates. In summer of 2016, within just days of the game’s introduction, the Los Angeles Times reported that two men from San Diego “fell off a bluff” while playing, obviously because they were outside only in the physical sense—their minds were elsewhere. One of them fell 75 to 100 feet (he lived). An Oregon man was stabbed while playing the game after midnight (he kept playing); a New York man crashed his car while driving to a PokéStop. Two English teens got stranded underground in some caves. Three San Diego women stumbled on a dead body in a park. Some others tracked their Pokémon into the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum. Reports like these raise the issue that while the game encourages its players to go outside, it doesn’t provide the tools to thrive—or even survive—there.
Moreover, it’s hard to reconcile Pokémon Go’s promise of exploratory play in the environment with the disproportionate risks of, and uneven access to, that play. Just ask the two Florida teens playing Pokémon Go that were shot at, evidently mistaken for thieves, or the Iowa State football player mistaken for a bank robber. As it has been for naturalists for hundreds of years, being outside entails risk. Naturalists have had to “share the field” with all manner of folks: “hunters, fishers, poachers, trappers, surveyors, tramps, madmen, shamans, loggers, prospectors, bird watchers, bandits, vacationers, herbalists, cowboys, students, con men, true and false prophets, and green terrorists.” So along with similar practices, it only makes sense (and it’s only fair) that Pokémon Go’s “digital collectors” should experience similar dangers.
But Faith Ekakitie, the Iowa State student mistaken for a criminal, is Black. Police justified stopping him on the street because he fit “the exact description of a bank robbery suspect police believed was in the vicinity.” Exact? In the context of the incidents of shootings of unarmed Black teenagers and men, and in particular with the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s impossible not to read such statements as anything but the outcome of racial profiling of Black men who have the audacity to simply be outside.
The danger that Ekakitie faced was categorically different than the average Pokémon Go player. He wasn’t just exposed to the greater risks of being outdoors: he was risk itself, and therefore subject to risk containment in the form of police attention that could easily have turned fatal. This highlights the potential for uneven distribution of risk among Pokémon Go players, or playing Pokémon Go while Black. It also highlights the matter of uneven free access to the outdoors. Writer Omar Akil puts it this way: “The premise of Pokémon Go asks me to put my life in danger if I choose to play it as it is intended.”  More directly: “I might die if I keep playing.”
In light of incidents like this, the real question facing Pokémon Go players may not be, are you doing natural history, but, do you belong in the landscape? The question of what to do with people is one with which natural historians have long struggled, often confusing the study of the natural world with the policing of social norms.
Natural History and the Politics of Being Outside
The politics of being outside—in my case, the comparatively low-risk shame of being a working-age male wandering, to any reasonable observer, aimlessly during daylight hours—is in part what drove me to make my natural history hobby conventionally scientific rather than merely quaint. I like to imagine that the pretense of scientific purpose, manifest in the totem of my butterfly net, protects me from the charge of privilege (even as much as being white reveals that privilege).
I chose the North Atwater Bioswale to make a systematic survey of butterfly diversity, accounting for number and kinds of species according to season. I was inspired by an exhibit at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum where I learned that of the 236 butterfly species in Los Angeles County, forty-five make their home at Griffith Park. The North Atwater Bioswale is just across the 5 Freeway and the Los Angeles River from Griffith Park, which is the easternmost edge of the Santa Monica Mountain Range: Can my swale still be considered part of the mountains? What is the ecological relationship between Griffith and North Atwater Parks? What kind of biogeographical barriers do rivers and freeways make? Do butterflies cross freeways?
However, if I’m being honest, quaintness does motivate me. I am inspired as much by modern ecology as by my favorite English naturalist Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century country parson who spent his life documenting the flora and fauna of his native county of Selborne in the south of England. White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789), the best-selling book in England after the Bible for 200 years, made local or “backyard” natural history fashionable and inspired generations of naturalists, including Charles Darwin. It provides a prescient model for what we now would call citizen science, that practice of experts outsourcing observations in nature to local amateur field agents (though the expert/amateur distinction did not technically exist in the eighteenth century). White’s book is a collection of his letters to his naturalist friends Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington on local flora and fauna and is famous for its quaint charm, and for the persona of the humble, interested observer, characterized by expressions like this: “My remarks are the result of many years of observation; and are, I trust, true in the whole: though I do not pretend that they are perfectly void of mistake, or that a more nice [i.e., expert] observer might not make many additions, since subjects of this kind are inexhaustible.” His field study might be regarded as among the first to attempt a biological survey, richly documenting the biodiversity of his native county and exemplifying his dictum that “all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.”
I am so enchanted by White’s example of deep natural history that I set out to do my own Natural History of North Atwater Park. I focused my attention on this bioswale on the western edge of the park about a hundred meters wide and running a quarter mile along the Los Angeles River. Devoting myself to an entire county is daunting, but a three-acre urban watershed management park within a dog-walk from my house seems manageable. The swale is teeming with native flora, and is really accessible, crisscrossed with compacted dirt paths and adorned with informative signage explaining what kinds of plants can be found there and what a bioswale even is.
The swale also provides rich faunal habitat. Since I started paying attention, I have observed a bestiary of Los Angeles invertebrates: the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera); the less common Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus); hoverflies, like the tiny Margined Calligrapher (Toxomerus marginatus); huge Gray Bird Grasshoppers (Schistocerca nitens) and giant rust-colored Flame Skimmer Dragonflies (Libellula saturate), as big as small birds; and California Mantis (Stagmomantis californica), whose oothecae festoon the willow branches and on which I keep a close eye for signs of activity. And my main interest, the lepidoptera. In just a couple of months, I’ve documented or captured ten species on my rounds: Marine Blues, Gulf Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, Cabbage Whites, Mourning Cloaks, West Coast Ladies, Fiery Skippers, Funereal Duskywing Skippers, Umber Skippers, and, of course, Western Tiger Swallowtails.
Lizards, birds, and mammals, too, frequent the swale—and people. There is the odd dog-walker, but mostly vagrants, drug dealers, and weed-smokers, probably because of the good cover the dense vegetation provides. I know this because of the colorful weed cannisters that adorn the underbrush, and the Toonerville gang’s (Toonerville Rifa 13) tagging of the educational placards. I generally steer clear of people on my afternoon expeditions, partly out of my sense of shame, and partly for fear that people take a dim view of collecting. But people and cultures have always been features of natural history, albeit perhaps the most problematic ones. The shared nature of “the field” puts into relief the social conflicts incurred simply by being outdoors.
White, for example, wrote a lot about the people of Selborne and their habits. Among them, he took special note of the “gangs or hordes of gypsies” that came through his county a few times a year. Like many of the birds that White describes, Gypsies are not native to Selborne, having migrated “from Egypt and the East, two or three centuries ago.” However, despite their long habitation in England, White insists on calling them “vagrants.” Their “family name,” the Curleople, which, though “a little corrupted” from its Greek origins, betrays their origins in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. So does their language, which he characterizes, under cover of academic inquiry, as the “mutilated remains” of their native Greek and, even less academically, as “harsh gibberish” and “cant.”
White marks the Gypsies as “other” not just in their name and language, but in their habits, too: they prefer, he says, to live “sub dio”—that is, under the sun, or outside—eschewing even the “barns, stables, and cow-houses” preferred by other, presumably English, beggars. In delineating between dwellings suitable for animals and living sub dio, White uses the Gypsies to police what it means to be “outside.” Living sub dio makes them neither animal nor beggar, but something closer to pests: they “infest the south and west of England;” they can’t be contained. “Europe itself, it seems, cannot set bounds to the rovings of these vagabonds,” as reports of them have been returned as far as “the confines of Tartary,” where they “were endeavoring to… try their fortune in China.”
White’s natural history description bleeds into normative racial and ethnic identity politics. For him, natural history patrols the boundaries around Englishness, regulating who is belongs and who does not. Furthermore, in his examination of their language and habits, he marks the Gypsies as rootless, homeless wanderers, severing their ties to their homeland in the Middle East even as he links them to it. They’re left with no legitimate claim to place. In the end, White includes Gypsies as features of The Natural History of Selborne only to exclude them. They represent a kind of “unnatural” history: after all, birds pass through the country during migration, too, but birds don’t carry the same baggage of belonging or nativity that humans do. Humans’ role in nature has historically had more contested significance than the nonhuman.
Romantic Nature’s Racist Legacy
For White, nature is not only a floral and faunal landscape, but a moral one as well. And natural history is not just a set of practices to study birds and whatnot, but an instrument to assess how different people figure differently in that landscape. It is this idea of nature and the study of nature as a moral enterprise that allows us to draw a straight line between White’s not-so-subtle exclusionary racism and the normative nature/non-nature, inside/outside boundaries made evident by Pokémon Go.
White’s natural history belongs to the late eighteenth-century zeal for nature experience and study that we associate with the likes of Romantics like Wordsworth, who aimed to reveal nature’s “spontaneous wisdom” through poetry. For the Romantics, nature taught important moral lessons. Writers like Emerson imported the Romantics and their European-style nature-worship to America as Transcendentalism, signaling a major shift in modern nature philosophy. Before the Romantics, “nature” in America was mostly a lot of wasteland in between colonial towns on the east coast where wild animals and “savages” could murder you. Majestic American mountain landscapes were then just blights on God’s otherwise harmonious vistas. Nature-worship was viewed as a form of paganism by settlers that were less likely to regard the indigenous people as humans than as (at worst) Satan’s howling demons or as (at best) fauna fit to be the objects of natural history, but not its practitioners. Nature from this moral vantage point ought not be preserved but tamed, along with the natives, to make room for Manifest Destiny: the God-ordained annexation of free land for white settlement and industrial development.
Romantic nature philosophy arrived on the scene at a time when Americans were beginning to contend with new and disturbing realities. First, God-ordained industrial and technological mastery provided the frightening ability to domesticate the fearsomeness of nature by eradicating entire landscapes and the people who lived on them in the pursuit of resources and profit. The real devils were now land surveyors and private landowners and, by extension, civilized town life more generally. Second, our religio-capitalist land-rape didn’t exactly deliver on its promise of moral health and happiness. In fact, to nature sages like Thoreau and Muir, land-rape and moral health seemed at odds. After a century or more of nature exploitation, under the auspices of “improvement,” had driven us more and more indoors, those historical “wastelands”—now safely delivered of their scary megafauna and original inhabitants—suddenly started to look spiritually rejuvenating. So, we drew lines around some big parks, kicked out the rest of the savages, and called the areas “nature.” This is more or less the story of how the wastelands of yore were resurrected as unpeopled wilderness preserves for the spiritual benefit of temporary sojourners in need of respite from the stresses of civilized life. Other less majestic places were left to fend for themselves. Joshua Tree versus the Salton Sea is a pretty striking local example of the consequences of such a binary land ethic, but perhaps more striking is the classic and widespread division between nature and city, which expresses the ultimate in normative nature ideas, that nature is anywhere humans are not.
The Romantic nature ideal allowed for the preservation of unparalleled swaths of pristine national parkland against industrial development and exploitation, but at the same time it left a legacy of uneven access to that same ideal. While the “nature experience” has long been held up as a foundation of American identity, it has also been confined to specific places accessible mostly to whites. For along with eliminating permanent inhabitants from national parks, it helped turn those parks into temporary enclaves of middle-class white leisure-time activity—as places to travel to on family holidays, or as destinations of adventure requiring not only time but resources, such as three weeks during the summer and a few thousand dollars worth of gear to hike the John Muir Trail.
This legacy is today evident in the radically uneven usership of national parks. For example, studies show that whites make up a disproportionately high percentage of visitors, while Black and Hispanic attendance lags far behind. A 2008-2009 study by the Park Service on “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors” found that of National Park visitors nation wide just 9% identified as Hispanic, and just 7% identified as African American. In total, non-Whites were just 20% of all visitors. This despite that minorities account for almost 40% of the U.S. population. An NPR piece from 2016 examined Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, as exemplary of the demographic challenges facing the parks today and found that “The type of people who visit the park don’t reflect the type of people living in the community. Tucson is about 44 percent Hispanic or Latino. Of the park’s roughly 650,000 annual visitors, less than 2 percent self-identify as Hispanic.”
Hispanic minorities cite the high cost of travel to parks, entry fees, lack of signage in Spanish, lack of shade (too sub dio, I guess), and the overwhelming whiteness of park employees as reasons not to visit. But they also cite cultural differences in the kind of experiences that they expect from nature: Whereas the ideal nature experience promoted by parks frequently borrows on “the solitude and quiet of a John Muir photo,” Hispanics “might want to have a different experience in the outdoors.” Hispanics enjoy nature, not as solitary wanderers above a sea of fog, but as whole families: “I’m going to bring my whole family,” said Oscar Medina, a teacher at a nearby high school: “we’re going to be loud, we’re going to explore.” But “that’s not what’s promoted” in parks that function a lot like museums. The result is the feeling that “this is not our space.” One park ranger observed, “If we’re not being relevant to almost half of the population, then 30, 40, 50 years from now, the park isn’t going to matter to them.”
Instead of pristine wilderness, minorities have had to content themselves with whatever nature experience cities might offer, a form of compromised nature far from the traditional nature of curated parklands. We tend not to revere urban nature with the same degree of ethical care as national parks, despite the fact that from an ecological point of view biodiversity skews higher in urban areas than elsewhere. Scientists regard Los Angeles, for example, as a biodiversity “hot spot.” It “lies within the California Floristic Province, which is globally recognized as one of just thirty-five biodiversity hotspots in the world—and the only one in the continental United States.” According to Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, “There’s often a misconception that Los Angeles is a concrete jungle, when in reality the city is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.” But when we imagine ourselves “out in nature,” taking in the landscape from the aerie vantage of mountaintops, we tend not to imagine a landscape crisscrossed by freeways and concrete flood control channels. The reality is that Los Angeles suffers less from a “nature” problem than a perception problem.
But this distinction may be moot, because even in such “compromised” spaces as urban parklands, non-whites suffer the same problems of accessibility as they do in national parks. Urban minorities are more likely to be “park poor,” or to live farther away from public parks. A public health study in Los Angeles from 2016 found that “African Americans and Latinos were more likely than Asians and Whites to live in cities and communities with less park space per capita.” As a result, they were also far more likely to suffer “significant public health implications.” This is evidenced by a ten-year study of more than 3,000 children living in southern California, which found that “those living near parks and recreational programs had lower rates of obesity at 18 years of age than comparable children who lived further away.”
Compromised nature leads to compromised quality of life. Given the higher rates of white children with access to “nature” in whatever form, non-white children are statistically more likely to experience Louv’s nature-deficit disorder. They’re also more likely to live closer to urban environmental hazards, like waste facilities or Superfund sites and so are perhaps less likely to participate in the national myth that our common American heritage resides in our relationship to “places untouched by man.” The ethnic demographics of visitors to national parks, the traditionally park-poor communities of urban centers like Los Angeles, and the “unequal vulnerability” of minority populations to environmental degradation, illustrate that access to nature, in the traditional Romantic sense, is not a right but a privilege of race and class. The reality is that minorities in urban centers are more likely to be the victims of a nature ideal secured by violence, not its beneficiaries.
At the same time, while Hispanics are underrepresented in national parks, they “are slightly overrepresented among Pokémon Go players.” Hispanics makes up 17% of the U.S. population, and only 9% of national park visitors, but they represent 19% of Pokémon Go players. This representation may correlate with the rural/urban divide in Pokémon Go usership: rates of play are much higher in cities than in the country. The game’s appeal to a diverse urban usership is particularly evident in the rates of new players. In one study, “while 34% of all respondents said they never had played a Pokémon game before,” that number was much higher for Black and Latino players (49% and 40% respectively). One interpretation of these figures is that white and non-white players experience the game’s offer of outdoor activity differently. Non-white players may express in their attraction to Pokémon Go a desire for the kinds of outdoor activities that are denied them. Perhaps these figures even reveal a criticism of the uneven opportunities to engage in outdoor activity that confront urban minorities daily as features of their built environment.
However, despite these statistics, some have argued that Pokémon Go simply reproduces the uneven access to and experience of nature that we find in city and national parks. Almost as soon as the game hit its high-water mark of popularity in the summer of 2016, critics revealed that different groups experienced the game differently. For example, Los Angeles-based environmental journalist Aura Bogado points out the striking disproportion of PokéStops and “gyms” in white versus minority communities. Using a Twitter campaign #mypokehood to gather user-generated evidence of the disproportion, Bogado found that there were far more PokéStops in Long Beach, which is about fifty percent white, than in her own majority-minority neighborhood in South LA. She found the same to be true for Chicago, Miami, New York, and Washington D.C. “As the share of the white population increases, PokéStops and gyms become more plentiful,” writes Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini of the Urban Institute, which corroborated Bogado’s findings. In fact, in majority white neighborhoods they found an average of 55 PokéStops, compared to only 19 in majority Black neighborhoods. Furthermore, they argue that racialized public space is built into the game’s design, and in the gaming industry more generally. It turns out that Pokémon Go game designers simply borrowed the mapping algorithm of an earlier game called Ingress, also put out by Niantic. This, argues Bogado, is how environmental racism becomes structural, passed down uncritically from one design to another until the experience of inequity goes from bug to feature.
Some have referred to this “redlining”, a term more typically used to describe minority communities’ limited access to “essential services,” such as access to affordable housing. Is access to nature an “essential service?” What about augmented nature? Pokémon Go promises access to the outdoors, but at the same time reinforces the unevenness of that promise.
How can we resolve this apparent contradiction between the game’s promise, on one hand, of access to the nature experience through the practice of natural history and, on the other, its complicity in the long history of exclusionary environmental racism in this country? One avenue presents itself: the creator of the original Pokemon franchise, Satoshi Tajiri. I was surprised to learn Tajiri attributed his inspiration to a childhood spent collecting insects in the rural countryside around his hometown of Machida, a suburb of Tokyo—a place “full of nature,” a phrase that makes me imagine my bioswale, only much bigger. Bugs fascinated Tajiri—or Dr. Bug, as he was known to his friends. He recalled in a 1999 Time interview being a keen observer of bug life: he possessed intimate knowledge of their variety, habitats, and behaviors. He knew beetles liked to sleep under rocks so he placed rocks under trees at night and would check on them in the morning in order to collect the sleepy beasts. “Every time I found a new insect,” he relates, “it was mysterious to me.”
However, as rural landscape gave way to commercial development, “all the insects were driven away.” Tajiri saw a decrease in insects year over year as trees came down and buildings went up: “A fishing pond would become an arcade center,” which was a particularly ironic reflection given his own professional destiny as a video game designer. When asked if insects gave him the idea for Pokémon, Tajiri said yes: but not just the insects—the loss of insects and insect habitat, along with the accompanying shifts in childhood behavior, from an outside culture to an inside one.
Tajiri built this environmental consciousness into the game, intending it, writes Anne Allison, as a “play-form… to both capture and transmit to present-day kids” his “childhood experiences in a town where nature had not yet been overtaken by industrialization.” Tajiri understood that as a result of these shifts, “people spend more time alone, forming intimacies less with one another than with the goods they consume and the technologies they rely upon.” Most of the games kids turn to demand that users master a degree of complexity that draws them further into the game world and away from the real world, leaving them without the connections to people and environment that can be sources of community, comfort, and health. For Tajiri, going outside meant connecting not just to nature, but also to one another. Natural history-style gameplay becomes a social experience that alleviates the stresses of living under industrial capitalism.
Given that Pokémon was originally imagined as a response to urban alienation, it is fitting that it is more likely to be played in urban locations by the people most impacted by poor access to natural resources. These are the same communities for whom the traditional distinction between nature and non-nature, real and augmented, probably makes less sense as a defining contrast. Historically compromised access to nature may mean that the desire for outdoor experience is not driven by nostalgia for a lost, pre-industrial nature ideal, as it was for the Romantics and Transcendentalists. And so by a curious historical and transnational confluence, urban minority Pokémon Go players in American cities come to resemble more closely the experience not of nature per se, but of the augmented nature captured in Tajiri’s design. Plugging into the smartphone game app, Pokémon Go players become students of a different nature than those in the Romantic school. They become living embodiments of Tajiri’s environmental consciousness, and, to borrow from Gilbert White, some “progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.” The “information” I’m referring to is not White’s natural history: I maintain that Pokémon Go players are not learning much natural history. Rather, I’m talking about progress toward conceptualizing our actual, augmented relationship to nature, rather than the imaginary Romantic one we tend to wield, sometimes (charmingly) like a butterfly net, but sometimes (problematically) like police baton. The compromises and contradictions embedded in Pokémon Go players’ experience of the world, I think, better characterize this actual relationship to nature. They remind us that there is no nature without people, and that an untouched nature exists only as an exclusionary ideal.
Understood in the course of natural history, Pokémon Go gives us the means to re-imagine the nature ideal as an inclusive rather than exclusive one. This represents the value of “augmented” nature. Its natural historian, Tajiri, is a postcolonial Gilbert White: rather than using natural history to police boundaries, to deny access and connection, Tajiri designed his game with the intent to dissolve boundaries, to grant access and connection. In doing so, he re-designed “nature” itself. To modify Wordsworth,
“let augmented nature be your teacher.”
My beloved bioswale has been a good classroom for the lessons taught by augment nature: it’s as full of contradictions as it is of native flora and fauna. Its “nature” is propped up by a host of human contrivances. Completed in 2014, it’s a $4 million city planning component of the LA River Revitalization Master Plan to install environmentally sensitive urban design and improve water quality along a 51-mile watershed river that connects thirteen cities and many more municipalities in one of the most densely populated regions on the continent. It employs the latest in watershed design, like native plant biofiltration and permeable paving stones. It’s the result of huge collaboration among multiple city departments. And it lies along the LA River: a concrete flood control channel that was once a naturally occurring seasonal meandering waterway, but which has become perhaps one of the world’s best exhibits of the contradictions of the human-nonhuman confluence. The LA River only looks like an “actual” river (at least where I live in the “Glendale Narrows” portion) because treated wastewater gets dumped into it daily from the Los Angeles-Glendale Water Treatment Plant. This is water that sustains the habitat that provides a home for human and nonhuman animals alike. Anything “natural” about North Atwater Park—in that cranky sense that nature is anything where humans are not—is a total fiction. The park is a work of human art and nature, which, when I think about it, makes me love it more rather than less.
Catching butterflies at this park was never really about living “the nature ideal” as it was a project that combined my need to get outside with my academic interest in the history and practices of science. By disposition, I’m probably a lot like those kids I see with their smartphones: I’m not a born naturalist, like Tajiri, and I’ve never been one to experience nature for its Romantic appeal. I’m frequently detached from the outside, and I use technology as a carrot to lure me there. Alongside my collecting net and notebook and killing jar I have a citizen science app called iNaturalist to photograph species and outsource identifications to local experts. iNaturalist geo-tags my observations and plots them on a Google Earth map for others to see. I sometimes use it like a geocaching tool, revisiting places where others have recorded an interesting butterfly in hopes of seeing one, too.
Like those Pokémon Go players, I need some alluring mission, like documenting how nonhuman animals make use of a three-acre marvel of environmental engineering. More meaningful to me than the question of whether the park is natural or artificial is that it needs a natural history because, to modify White, “that district possesses the greatest value which is the most examined.” Doing natural history in places historically relegated to “non-nature” is a step on the way to accommodating them in our nature philosophy. Perhaps only then might we improve both their quality and the access to them. As a White middle-class male, the question of my access to this park is not much contested. But a complete natural history of the North Atwater Bioswale ought not be limited to its fauna, Poké or otherwise: It ought to treat the experience of the humans who hunt them—the experience of privilege and exclusion alike. After all, these are features of the landscape, as well as its bugs.
- All photographs taken by Matt Gush.
 Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (orig. 1966, reprint, Vintage, 1989), 131.
 Ibid., 120.
 Sean Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals while searching for digital ones,” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-pokemon-go-real-animals-20160711-20160711-snap-story.html.
 William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Longman, 1807).
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (Boston: James Munro, 1836), 19.
 Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.” Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (London: 1798).
 “Gotta name them all: how Pokémon can transform taxonomy,” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, 19 July 2016, http://www.nature.com/news/gotta-name-them-all-how-pok%C3%A9mon-can-transform-taxonomy-1.20275.
 See, for example: Robert E. Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); John T. Anderson, Deep Things Out of Darkness: A History of Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 250-56.
 “Gotta name them all.”
 Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals.”
 Veronica Rocha, “2 California men fall off edge of ocean bluff while playing ‘Pokemon Go,’” Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-pokemon-go-players-stabbed-fall-off-cliff-20160714-snap-story.html. “Man Stabbed While Playing ‘Pokemon Go,’ But Continues Playing,” ABC7 News, 15 July 2016. http://abc7.com/news/pokemon-go-player-stabbed-keeps-playing/1428184/. Feliks Garcia, “Pokemon Go Gamer Crashes Car Into Tree in New York,” Independent 14 July 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/pokemon-go-car-crash-new-york-a7137261.html.; “Pokemon Go teens stuck in caves 100ft underground,” BBC News 15 July 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-36805615. Last accessed: July 17, 2016; Veronica Rocha, “‘Pokemon Go’ players find corpse in San Diego Park,” Los Angeles Times 15 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-san-diego-dead-body-pokemon-go-20160715-snap-story.html; Andrea Peterson, “Holocaust Museum to Visitors: Please Stop Catching Pokemon Here,” Washington Post 12 July 2016,. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/07/12/holocaust-museum-to-visitors-please-stop-catching-pokemon-here/.
 The following gives handy list of such incidents involving the game: http://www.syracuse.com/us-news/index.ssf/2016/07/pokemon_go_dangerous_every_crime_accident_death_shooting_linked_to_game.html#0.
 Adam Hamze, “Police body camera shows Pokemon Go player mistaken for bank robber.” Vice News, 26 July 2016; https://news.vice.com/article/police-body-camera-shows-pokemon-go-player-mistaken-for-bank-robber; “Florida teens, mistaken for thieves, shot at playing Pokemon Go,” BBC News, 17 July 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36818384.
 Kohler, Landscapes 6-7.
 Omar Akil, “Warning: Pokémon GO Could Be A Death Sentence If You Are A Black Man,” Huffington Post, 12 July 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omari-akil/warning-pokemon-go-is-death-sentence-black-man_b_10946826.html.
 This figure is down from fifty-five in the 1920s. Over ninety or so years, Griffith Park lost nearly 20 percent of its native butterfly diversity—I’m guessing due to habitat loss associated with human development. I would actually have expected a greater reduction, but Griffith Park remains a surprisingly unimpacted landscape in the middle of this metropolis.
 Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (1789), reprinted (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 133.
 Ibid., 45.
 Turns out “bioswale” is environmental-design speak for a biofiltration system that uses plants, rocks, and soil to capture trash, particulates, and toxins from flood water and break them down before they enter the aquifer or are expelled into the river through an outflow pipe. This water management strategy lies behind the design of the many “pocket parks” along the LA River intended to enhance aesthetics and improve water quality.
 White, 158-59.
 In fact, bird migration was a major source of controversy: some theories said birds migrate for winter, others that they hide (Introduction, White, xxii).
 Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.”
 See, for example, Baird Callicott and Priscilla Ybarra, “Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement,” Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History, National Humanities Center and TeacherServe (2009): http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/puritan.htm. See also Evan Berry, Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), esp. 102-147.
 See, for example, William Cronon’s now-canonical essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Kind of Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90.
 National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008–2009: Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/SSD/NRR—2011/432
 Rott, “Don’t Care About National Parks? The Park Service Needs You To,” All Things Considered, 9 March 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/09/463851006/dont-care-about-national-parks-the-park-service-needs-you-to.
 See for example these 2014 statistics on children living in rural versus urban settings, according to race and ethnicity in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Child Health USA 2014 (Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014), https://mchb.hrsa.gov/chusa14/population-characteristics/rural-urban-children.html.
 Damon Nagami, “Los Angeles Launches #BioDiversifyLA to Protect Region’s Rare Biodiversity.” 25 April 2015, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/damon-nagami/los-angeles-launches-biodiversifyla-protect-regions-rare-biodiversity.
 Rory Carroll, “LA, a surprise nature hotspot, is home to one of the biggest biodiversity studies,” The Guardian, 14 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/14/los-angeles-biodiversity-nature-study-natural-history-museum.
 County of Los Angeles Public Health, “Parks and Public Health in Los Angeles County,” May 2016, http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/chronic/docs/Parks%20Report%202016-rev_051816.pdf.
 Emerson, “Nature.” See for example the Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks.
 Jedediah Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker, 13 August 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history.
 Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini, “Pokémon GO is changing how cities use public space, but could it be more inclusive?” Urban Institute, 5 August 2016, http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/pokemon-go-changing-how-cities-use-public-space-could-it-be-more-inclusive.
 Allana Akhtar, “Is Pokémon Go racist? How the app may be redlining communities of color,” USA Today, 9 August 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/08/09/pokemon-go-racist-app-redlining-communities-color-racist-pokestops-gyms/87732734/.
 “The Ultimate Game Freak,” Time, 22 November 1999, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html.
 Anne Allison, “Portable monsters and commodity cuteness: Pokémon as Japan’s new global power,” Postcolonial Studies 6 (2003): 388.
 White, 24.
 This includes the DPW, the Bureau of Engineering, Rec and Parks, and the Bureau of Sanitation. It’s funded by California’s Proposition 50 River Parkways Grant Program, and by Supplemental Environmental Project funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bryan B. Rasmussen is Chair of English at California Lutheran University, where he teaches and writes about environmental literature, science and literature, and natural history. He sometimes blogs about these topics at http://www.oxbornbee.org. This summer he’s getting certified to be a California Naturalist and can be found leading nature walks for the Friends of the LA River.
Copyright: © 2017 Bryan B. Rasmussen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/