Memories of the Nature Company

From the depths of Berkeley came The Nature Company, a maelstrom of commerce and social consciousness that swept across America in the 1980s. Its life began with a handful of retail stores in the Bay Area, followed by an expansion into mail-order sales. At its peak, The Nature Company boasted 300 stores– which were then acquired by The Discovery Channel in 1996. The years that followed saw these stores spindled, folded, and mutilated into a grotesque shadow of their former glory. In 2007, the last of these stores was (mercifully) laid to rest. That is, in short, the history of The Nature Company.

My own memories of The Nature Company begin not in California, nor in a shopping mall, but on a coffee table.

The year was 1989, and my family was still settling into our new home in Alabama, my father having recently taken a lucrative job there. Like any child of the ’80s, I was raised on books, films, and TV shows that promoted environmental awareness (read: guilt). At nine years of age, I was still inclined to believe what I’d seen in those books: that somewhere out there, beyond the roads and the buildings, I would eventually discover nature. Real nature was not in the wetlands I’d known back in Louisiana, or the endless trees of Alabama. Real nature was in the mountains, the rainforests, the oceans, and other such mythical places. Having never visited a rainforest, I imagined them as vibrant places, teeming with life and color– whereas the television painted rainforests with a pitiful brush: a dying entity, eternally perched on the business end of a bulldozer.

One day, I returned from school to find my parents excitedly unpacking a new stereo system. Not only could this play cassettes, but it could play CDs as well! We had never owned a CD player before. I’d never even heard a CD– I wasn’t actually sure I had ever seen one. Into the stereo went Kenny G’s “Songbird”, an accursed song that my parents would use to benchmark every stereo they purchased from that day forward. The results were apparently more than satisfactory, as more CDs began to appear on the nearby coffee table over the coming weeks: Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and something called “Distant Thunder”. I knew the first two, but “Distant Thunder”? I soon learned that it was a kind of environmental lullaby: a high-quality recording of a rainstorm, complete with the titular rumblings. In all likelihood, the CD was a recording of skilled Foley artists at work– but my younger self found it convincing enough to spend evenings listening to it, imagining where the rainstorm could be, and in what nearby cave I might be taking shelter.

Months later, my parents took us to the Riverchase Galleria in Birmingham– nearly two hours’ drive from our house– and aside from the overwhelming vastness of the place, the main thing I remember about the Galleria is my first visit to The Nature Company. Its storefront was made of granite, its interiors paneled with wood, with some sort of pond in the interior lobby and science toys / books / videos stacked from floor to ceiling. It was an amazing place, and remained my favorite reason to visit the Galleria for several years afterward.

Oddly enough: Despite my love for the store, the only Nature Company products that ever went on my Christmas wish list were the environmental audio CDs. Some of them were befuddling (“Whales and Dolphins”), some were annoying (“Mountain Brook”, which only ever served to inspire trips to the bathroom); but there were a few that served as kindling for my imagination in the same way that “Distant Thunder” originally had. What’s happening in this rainforest? What nearby ocean is this? The answers to these questions eventually took the form of short stories that I wrote, and anything that can inspire me to write will always have my gratitude. It’s a shame that The Nature Company couldn’t profit from inspiration alone.

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