Natural Habitat Houses
A Conversation with Karen Skowron
I first met Karen Skowron through the Internet after she had heard I was starting Living Gently
Quarterly. Our conversations led to several articles and poems by Karen published in past issues.
Karen has many wonderful ideas on how to live a gently lifestyle. She is a homemaker, artist,
lifestyle consultant with a background in psychology, and a superb writer. Her book of essays on
life Adventures of a Homebody (written under the name Karen Parker) gave me many hours of
enjoyment. In addition to writing, Karen, the originator of the term Natural Habitat Houses, has
turned several urban properties back to a more natural state and advises others on changing
I first visited her Victoria habitat house when delivering some copies of the premier Living
Gently Quarterly issue. We chatted over tea as she prepared some delicious cookies and we both
enjoyed the birds visiting her yard on that dreary early-winter afternoon. We have spoken many
times since and I feel that Karen has many ideas which might be as invaluable to our readers as
they are to me. So I asked her to do one for the record.
LGQ: Karen, thank you for taking the time to talk with us on the record. You have been living a
gentler life for several years now and continue to refine your lifestyle. Tell us why you made the
decision to change initially.
Karen: It seems as if I have been on a lifelong quest for warmth and simplicity and whether or
not these are part of the same journey I don't yet know. The urge to change came from living in
places too cold (my beloved southern Ontario kept insisting on having winter!) and situations too
complicated for my nature. The motivation was at first some glimmer for which I am forever
grateful (karma? angels?) and is now the continuing unfolding of self-awareness (the last
frontier!) which lets me realize I have choices and that I can make them.
The major physical change to simplify came eight years ago when I moved to Victoria with two
of my sons. It was an on purpose "shedding" of both a lifestyle and a climate. I came with the
boys, my writing and paintings, some kitcheny things, a few antiques. Myself.
LGQ: How did you feel when you initially made the change?
Karen: I think I put feelings and thoughts mostly on hold and just did it. The thinking and
feeling had all happened much earlier and led to the change. It was a real catharsis and having
done it once I knew I could do it and have done so again. It's also given me a powerful
tool when others consult with me on simplifying. Oh, that sounds so formal and businesslike --
what I mean is, when we get together over a cup of tea and cookies in my sunny kitchen and
discuss how they can also simplify!
LGQ: Like we did that first time we met face to face. You said then that living gently is an
evolving process rather than following a specific set of rules. In what way?
Karen: Living simply does snowball because it makes sense. For a "deceptively simple"
example, we can only wear one pair of shoes at a time. When we find a pair that fits perfectly,
that suits our style, that makes us feel good both physically and mentally, then we totally benefit.
However, we often have a wardrobe of shoes that aren't quite right or don't quite suit us, but
they are too good to replace with one or more that do....Well, you see what I mean?
LGQ: We hang on to these other shoes because we have them, not because we need or like
Karen: When we allow ourselves that "perfect pair of shoes," we feel so darned good and in
control that we start to wonder what else would benefit from such a change. And it goes deeper
than the mere physical....
LGQ: I understand that one of the first questions you like to ask someone coming to you for
advice on changing their lifestyle is: "What do you want to do?" Why do you feel that this is a
good way to start?
Karen: I always ask people "What do YOU want to do?" about simplifying because they already
know. They just need affirming or encouragement or some practical ideas.
LGQ: I have found that many folks who want to simplify their lives want to start by decluttering
themselves of things, but they are looking for the permission to throw stuff out. What tips do you
give them for this?
Karen: I've had great success advising people who want to get rid of "things" to put the items in
a box and stash it in a closet. Anything that may cause regret at "being given away" will likely
be retrieved within the first three months. After that, look over the stuff again and then toss it!
LGQ: Doesn't it always seem that folks often are afraid of throwing something out that they
think they really need.
Karen: There really isn't much in life that can't be replaced. And most people find it such a
relief and release to lighten their load. It seems only then do we let ourselves get something
better, something more suitable. And then we wonder why on earth we didn't go for it far
LGQ: That is why changing our lives, as you said, snowballs. And further answers evolve out of
the new circumstances.
Karen: Yes. Evolution is not just to do with species. Each of us is moving toward our best. If we
can trust that process. And allow it to happen.
LGQ: Let us shift directions now. You have transformed one or more of your past houses into
habitat homes. What moved you to do this?
Karen: Ah, the habitats. This is how I have always gardened sort of letting nature onto "my
land" (I use the quotes because I truly feel I am a steward rather than the owner of the land) and
into my home. It brings such joy: to me, to my family, to those who cross my path. And now
living in Victoria I can indulge even further in lessening that barrier between indoors and
outdoors with a climate that allows for much "open windows."
LGQ: How did you first begin? I understand that this was more than just a personal project.
Karen: Creating a habitat home and garden inadvertently and unexpectedly led to the birth of an
international grass roots organization Urban Wilderness Gardeners back in Toronto thirteen
years ago. My home Hill Cottage was the headquarters and "viewable." Local schools toured it,
people from Europe and the States, city officials it was quite an experience. I learned so
much and saw the impact of an idea take root and spread people responded to our mandate
which was "to offer alternatives to manicured lawns."
LGQ: What did you tell them to do?
Karen: Again I would ask, when people wanted to know how they could become an urban
wilderness gardener, what THEY wanted. Usually there was a period of rather shocked silence. I
mean, how often in life are we asked what WE want? We get so used to being TOLD. Well,
making a natural habitat garden is as individual as each person, and it led to some fascinating
discoveries and gardens!
LGQ: Such as?
Karen: Our group spearheaded the first naturalizing of a schoolyard in Toronto and this has
spread across the city, across the country. We lobbied for natural areas in city parks. But mostly
and most importantly, I feel we created urban wilderness gardens of our own. And people
responded to these examples and went on to make their own. The whys and wherefores are great
in as far as theory goes but the how-to-do and have-dones are EFFECTIVE!
LGQ: What happened to the properties you have left?
Karen: Hill Cottage just keeps "growing" into the habitat. The one I did in Victoria, Cottage
Unique, has been taken over by Charles Hilton, the sculptor, and he is shaping it to his vision
his pieces enhance, and are enhanced by, the setting. Habitats tend to breed habitats. They make
people feel good. They let people realize you don't have to leave the city to experience the joys
of nature. It's a fascinating endeavour and an adventure.
LGQ: Have your concepts evolved here as well?
Karen: In Victoria I changed urban wilderness to natural habitat and realized the extent to
which I include the house in the scenario. I am presently creating habitat on decks in containers
a new experience for me and this is a lovely challenge. And I wait on the next instance of
stewarding land and the next natural habitat house and garden...
LGQ: What extra perks are there to having a habitat home beyond the obvious movement
from chemical, imported landscaping to natural?
Karen: What are the "perks" to simplifying? The exquisite joy that comes from more and more
"touching the moment" and all that this means. Hugging a tree without the self-consciousness so
that I can truly feel it hugging me back. This morning I did the Mountain Pose at the Lookout at
Government House [the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia] and
as I faced those magnificent Olympic Mountains to the south me in my human mountain
stance I had the notion to give THOSE mountains a playful shoulder nudge...and I got one
back. And so on. Chuckling occurred...from both "combatants."
Natural Habitat Houses:
A Conversation with Karen Skowron by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2001, 2006 All Rights Reserved.
Living Gently Quarterly is published by Keith C. Heidorn ©2006, All Rights Reserved.. Correspondence may be sent to: email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have recently added many of my lifetime collection of photographs and art works to an on-line shop where you can purchase notecards, posters, and greeting cards, etc. of my best images.