Culture

Marcus Rosten Is Helping Others Reconnect with Nature

Meet the environmental educator who wants to create change by sharing knowledge of the beauty waiting to be discovered in our own backyards.

Last updated: April 28, 2021
My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

"My Back Garden" is a series about everyday athletes finding connection and balance in the natural world.

It's not easy to appreciate organisms that muck up the natural ecosystem, but someone has to. "I'm an invasive species nerd", says Marcus Rosten, an aquatic ecology high school teacher in upstate New York. 

It's early afternoon on Ellicott Creek, a tributary to the Niagara River, north of Buffalo, N.Y., as Marcus paddles his 17-foot sea kayak gently along a relaxed 11-mile loop while hobby kayakers splash by. 

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

Marcus scans the shoreline and logs wildlife, as he always does when he's on this loop. Most of the animals are familiar to him, but today there's a surprise. He spots a type of turtle he can't identify. When he returns home and uploads a photo to iNaturalist, a citizen science social network, he discovers it's a non-native yellow-bellied slider, a popular pet store breed that was likely cast off by its owners. He's the first on the app to document the turtle in the waters of western New York—a unique and rare achievement on the expansive and popular platform. 

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

Spotting unexpected creatures is just one piece of the puzzle for the 27-year-old who studied at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The bigger picture, according to Marcus, is that people are more detached than ever from their life-giving waterways. He's working to reverse that. "I definitely have an affinity for those most severely disconnected, for those suffering from environmental injustices", he says.

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

"We are the ones that cause most of these environmental problems", says Marcus, who believes that change can come from teaching people about their surroundings. "Education is what opens people's minds. You have all this beauty, all this wonder around you, but you just don't know it's there".

The lessons Marcus teaches others are ones he learnt himself at an early age, when living in an apartment with his siblings and single mother often meant space was limited. "Being outside … was the place to go to escape, explore", recalls Marcus. "I would literally spend any waking hour I could outside just in my neighbourhood. I was the type of kid that would be outside until I heard my mother screaming that it was time to come back and eat".

His mother encouraged his love of nature, taking Marcus and his siblings on camping trips each summer to a state park nearby. "Any state park is still my favourite place in the world", he says. On one of those childhood trips, he joined a nature tour that ended up influencing his pursuit of biological sciences in his studies and career. "That was the first time that somebody took me off trail into the middle of the woods", he says. "[The tour guide] blew my mind because suddenly she was able to put a name and a history to all the plants and animals around me".

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You
My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

"We are the ones that cause most of these environmental problems", says Marcus, who believes that change can come from teaching people about their surroundings. "Education is what opens people's minds. You have all this beauty, all this wonder around you, but you just don't know it's there".

The lessons Marcus teaches others are ones he learnt himself at an early age, when living in an apartment with his siblings and single mother often meant space was limited. "Being outside … was the place to go to escape, explore", recalls Marcus. "I would literally spend any waking hour I could outside just in my neighbourhood. I was the type of kid that would be outside until I heard my mother screaming that it was time to come back and eat".

His mother encouraged his love of nature, taking Marcus and his siblings on camping trips each summer to a state park nearby. "Any state park is still my favourite place in the world", he says. On one of those childhood trips, he joined a nature tour that ended up influencing his pursuit of biological sciences in his studies and career. "That was the first time that somebody took me off trail into the middle of the woods", he says. "[The tour guide] blew my mind because suddenly she was able to put a name and a history to all the plants and animals around me".

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

In work and life, Marcus's engagement with the outdoors is a year-round affair. Once the weather turns, he stores his kayak and spends autumn days foraging for mushrooms—which he admires and collects for identification but won't be adding to his dinner plate. "I still can't force myself to eat mushrooms, no matter how much I try and want to like them", he says.

When snow arrives, he skis cross-country through local woods looking for fox, rabbit and raccoon tracks. Along the frigid Niagara River shoreline, he photographs birds that overwinter in the area, like the red-breasted merganser, a duck with blood-red eyes and an unruly green mohawk. Come spring, he starts to log as many of the birds travelling through the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory path, as possible. In 2020 alone, he documented more than 185 species.

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

For Marcus, it isn't so much about the physicality—moving just to move—although he notes the exercise can be a great by-product. "That's why I never go on a hike. I always ended up going on a bird walk, cause I'm out here looking at birds or I'm looking for creatures". 

Kayaking, though, brings the best of both worlds: connecting with the power of his body and nature. "There's something refreshing about knowing that you're in a location, thanks to your body alone. And, of course, the winds and the waves", says Marcus. "But that self-propulsion and being completely self-contained? I don't need to rely on an engine. I don't need to rely on fossil fuels. It's just me, my own muscles. I can get out there, I can go wherever I want on completely renewable energy and leave less of an impact too".

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You
My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You
My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

"You only need to walk to the nearest park to find the wonder of nature".

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You
My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You
My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

When it comes to encouraging others to get outdoors—whatever their purpose and whatever their takeaway—Marcus just wants people to know being outside doesn't have to mean the sweeping vistas of a national park or the crystal-clear waters of a photo on social media. He enjoys highlighting the natural history and diversity in his own backyard. "You only need to walk to the nearest park to find the wonder of nature", says Marcus, who hopes this knowledge will encourage people to protect those spaces. 

Gratwick Waterfront Park, just down the street from Marcus's home, was once a landfill. In the years since it was transformed into a park, it has become a popular area to enjoy the Niagara River waterfront. That's the kind of change he wants to inspire. "We create these natural spaces, we focus on this access, suddenly it helps the community flourish", he says. "My goal is to do what I can to make this place better".

My Back Garden: Learning to Love the Nature Around You

Words: Colleen Stinchcombe
Photography: Jasmine Rose

Reported: September 2020

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