Constance Taylor Wants All to Know Their Natural Neighbors

The founder of Wild Oakland, Constance Taylor and some friends started California Center for Natural History, a nonprofit naturalist collective, to teach the public urban ecology.


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Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda

Constance Taylor has been a steady presence in the Oakland environmental scene for nearly a decade. Though most of her work has been in humble service to the people of Oakland and their connection to the flora and fauna around them, Taylor deserves recognition for being an innovative factor in a new wave of nature conservancy and advocacy. 

“I’ve been doing environmental education in the Bay Area since 2011,” she said. “When I moved to Oakland in 2010, I was fascinated by Lake Merritt … What was this mysterious body of water in the middle of the city? Where did it come from, and who lived in it? I’d always been curious about the urban plants and nonhuman animals, but I’d never really taken the time to discover their stories and learn about their lives. Like so many people, I thought nature was ‘out there,’ not the very elements and environments we’re in every day. But Lake Merritt changed all that, especially when I learned there were bat rays, leopard sharks, and jellyfish that live in the lake.”

While doing a series of steady jobs (including regular shifts at Oakland’s Walden Pond Books), and going to school part time, Taylor also began to develop a program for adults getting involved with nature called Wild Oakland.

“As a total tour junkie, I started looking around for a group or individual who might offer a walking program about the history and ecology of Lake Merritt. To my surprise, I couldn’t find anything that gave a broad overview of the topics I was interested in,” Taylor said. “At the same time, I was docenting at many environmental education organizations around the bay, mostly teaching grades K-5. The more groups of kids I encountered and the more chaperones I interacted with, I realized something shocking: These elementary school kids knew much, much more about the environments they lived in than their parents and chaperones did. So, to satisfy my curiosity about Lake Merritt and also to do something to help educate adults about the ecology we live within, I started a nonprofit called Wild Oakland with the help of Lila Talcott Travis from Yggdrasil Urban Wildlife Rescue who acted as the fiscal sponsor. The mission of Wild Oakland was to provide adult-focused environmental education that was hands-on, fun, and a way to meet other like-minded folks.

“Through Wild Oakland, I organized monthly ecology tours around Oakland from 2012 to 2015. There was a blog written after every walk, which ended up being a pretty cool repository of information about Oakland nature. By 2015 I was feeling pretty done with steering the ship myself and really wanted to be working more closely with people to build something even better. That year, myself and some naturalist buddies started California Center for Natural History, a nonprofit naturalist collective. We still provide loads of adult-focused programs, but we’re able to do much more through our combined expertise and resources. Damon Tighe, a CCNH naturalist, is working on a DNA barcoding project to document the organisms in Lake Merritt, especially the ones that are really hard to identify by anatomy alone, like worms and other invertebrates.”

CCNH has been around for a little under four years, but it has gained a reputation for being the most cohesive and focused nature collective in Oakland, providing programs that connect urban-dwellers to the natural beauty that surrounds them in the city, as well as introducing a broader understanding of the environment beyond city limits.

“When we learn about urban ecology, we realize how international the plants and other animals are and that they tell a story not only of their past, but also the story of human migration and influence through history,” Taylor said. “The more we learn about the species around us, the more there is to marvel at. Paying attention to the plants and animals who we see on a daily basis can reveal fascinating things to us, both culturally and scientifically. It’s also a way to grow a very strong sense of place. Generally, we feel more comfortable in our surroundings when we know people in the area and are part of a community. This is the same principle, just including more than humans. If I can walk down a street and say hello to each plant by name, there’s a sense of belonging that’s not only comforting, but crucial. It’s essential that we understand that these birds, insects, mammals, plants, and everyone else have a role in the world. They aren’t just here for decoration or our pleasure, we rely on the actions of photosynthesis, pollination, decomposition, and every other daily job of the organisms we live with, even if we can’t always see it happening through the concrete.”

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