Destinations and Apps to Experience the Natural World

Raptor flying in large cage

Americans spend a huge portion of our time indoors and miss the majesty and mystery of the natural world. Places throughout the country, and apps available anywhere, are trying to fix this problem.

By Mark Harris

Spring break, which used to be called Easter vacation, provides a few days away from school, and often work. Nancy, Sarah, and I went to visit old friends, the Creason family, this year. The biggest highlight of any such journey is building relationships, but two destinations stood out. Since Americans spend over 90% of their time indoors, and since I love the outdoors, we made sure to visit both on our trip.[1] Since then, we have travelled many other natural places, and technology helped improve our experience.

Two Destinations in Memphis

The first destination, the Memphis Botanic Gardens, includes 96 acres of fantastic flora and 30 specialty gardens.  Special sections include the Woodland, Japanese Gardens, Urban Home Gardens, Shade Gardens, and Big Backyard for families. Spring was a marvelous time, with red buds, tulips, hyacinth, azaleas, dogwoods, Irises, and Yoshino cherry trees. The weather was warm and humid, like Memphis usually is, but shade abounded. Visually, the gardens in spring were spectacular, and well kept. Expert horticulturalists provided information to amateurs on improving their personal wild spaces.

The second destination is the Memphis Zoo. Memphis is one of my favorites, as I served as a volunteer there many years ago. The zoo has over 3,500 animals from all over the globe, and also a small aquarium. The penguin exhibit was my young son’s favorite. The Zambezi River hippo exhibit was another “can’t miss.” Volunteers and docents are engaged and knowledgeable for questions from 5-year-olds to 95-year-olds. Additionally, staff are heavily invested in conservation programs, including those for rhinos, wolves, raptors, tigers, penguins, elephants, and apes. Contrary to the fears (or prejudices) of some, in my experience the animals were well treated and had safe and comfortable habitats.

One Destination in North Carolina

Rather than having a smattering of animals from several regions in the world, the North Carolina Zoo allows a deep dive into two regions…North America and Africa…and a little Asia. The zoo boasts over 1,700 animals, over 2,000 plant species, and a butterfly garden.  Hikers can enjoy several miles of hiking trails and adventurers can face the challenge of an Air Hike ropes course. My daughter and son-in-law lived in Charlotte and so we enjoyed a family adventure last fall. A highlight for us was a picnic in the Zoo’s Park.

One Destination in West Virginia

The third destination that I wish to highlight is the Three Rivers Avian Center near Hinton, WV. Staff care for scores of raptors and other birds, typically ones which have been injured from vehicle collisions or power lines. When possible, they rehabilitate and release birds back into the wild. Occasionally, a bird would not survive on its own and so becomes a permanent resident of the center. Staff give public tours on the first Saturday of every month from May to October. They take some of their birds on the road for public events at state parks such as Little Beaver. Key staff members include Rodney Davis, Bev Delidow, Mike Forman, Debbie Keener, and Lizzie Watts.

Two Naturalist Applications for the Smart Phone

I find two apps to be especially useful during forays into nature. The first is Merlin. Developed by the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Merlin identifies birds by location, pictures, and sounds. Best of all, it is free. Merlin can turn a novice birder into a much better one. Further, it helps professionals like those at Cornell track bird locations, populations, and a host of other facts useful to protect and promote bird life throughout the world.

A second useful app is Pl@ntNet. Anywhere cell service is available, novice botanists can use Pl@ntNet to identify thousands of plants simply by snapping a photo. Walking through a forest, jungle, desert, or garden is no longer an exercise in seeing hundreds of plants that you wish you could identify. And once you identify it, the app provides interesting information. Pl@ntNet is developed by a research team working in conjunction with over 25 global scientific organizations.

Both apps are available on Apple and Google.


Americans used to spend their days in the sunshine, and now we spend them under artificial light. We used to experience nature in person, but now we do it on our phones. This article will hopefully encourage people to find nature around them, experience it, and seek out places that make it easy.

[1] NEIL E KLEPEIS et al., “The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants,” Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology 11, no. 3 (July 2001): 231–52,

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