In the beginning:
I am nine years old and on a bus with my 4th grade class to the Okefenokee swamp in South Georgia. As the bus rolls in to the wetlands, our teacher points out the trees, how thin they are and how they only branch towards the top of the tree, compared to the trees back home, which are dense and have leafy branches throughout.
When we arrive and exit our air-conditioned bus, we feel a burst of hot, moist air on our faces; we smell the swamp and smoke from a distant wildfire; we hear the calls of birds and the hum of insects.
Soon after, we meet our guide, Frank, who has been giving tours of the swamp for years, who shows us the local flora and fauna. We see and touch and hear and smell everything. Frank tells us to pay attention to everything because we could miss something tiny but important to the ecosystem.
Over the next week we actually experience everything we had learned in our textbooks. And we all collectively feel a sense of belonging and understanding to a place we had never been before. It’s like we finally got to see the world, and we see ourselves as part of it.
When we go home, we tell our parents that we love nature. We ask for binoculars for our birthdays. We remind our siblings to turn off the lights when they leave a room. We hike in our native deciduous forest. We really love nature.
The years go by, and the rat race takes over. Like a broken record, I hear myself say: “I need to get good grades in high school to get into a good college, and I need to get good grades in college to get a good job, and I need a good job to get money, and I need money to get things, and I need things to be happy.” I can’t remember the last time I went out into my native deciduous forest or any forest, or when I ever had a desire to.
In the now:
I’m in Costa Rica on a study abroad. I’m reading an essay on “Biophilia” (a concept that suggests that humans are wired for a love of nature) for class. I feel as though the author is directly calling me out. Even though I have touted reusable bags, taken short showers, and recycled almost all my life, I am still biophobic (the idea that some humans abhor or are phobic about nature). I love the abstract idea of nature, but, if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve never connected with it. This changed in Costa Rica.
One of our first hikes was silent, which was refreshing because it challenged the senses. We remembered how to experience nature without distractions— no phones, books, or conversation. We were allowed to explore. See, touch, and smell anything we wanted.
Curiosity roamed free.
I began to ask myself the “why” question. I was loving this hike, so why didn’t I do it before? I can spend hours on my phone in my home, studying in the library, talking with a friend in a coffee shop. Why did I never unplug for an hour or two and spend some one-on-one time with nature?
Why am I just now realizing the enormous disconnected life I’ve lived between myself and my environment? I realize that for a while now I have felt as though nature is us vs. them. There are those who live with it and those without, and I was without. Even though I felt a duty to protect the earth through small gestures like recycling and energy conservation, there has never been a direct connection.
There was never a place I connected my conservation efforts to. There was just nature, an abstract idea. On this hike, I regained a sense of place. I began believing that I, along with everyone else, belong among the other living things.
I had come full circle – back to my nine-year-old self.