I grew up in a subdivision—a built-quick neighborhood full of cookie-cutter duplexes with vinyl siding and shutters that didn’t close and no trees in the yards except skinny saplings tied to supporting sticks. Given the simulated flavors and manufactured materials, suburban life could feel light years from nature, but when I cracked open the window, nature was right there. My family’s house was on the subdivision’s edge. To the right was a swath of spruce and maple, and a small lake bordered my backyard.
When I was twelve, my friend Rose and I used to go “surviving.” This entailed packing our knapsacks with sleeping bags and a book called Edible Wild Plants of Nova Scotia, and hoofing it until we were on the other side of the lake, where we made camp. Rose and I never survived for more than twenty-four hours at a stretch because we didn’t bring food or a tent, so we depended on the light fare of sweet-fern leaves and bunchberries, and we were at the mercy of cold Atlantic raindrops.
I learned so much from “surviving” that back in suburbia nothing ever looked the same. The hunger pangs and the small, jewel-like miracle of finding blackberries made me question—for the first time in my life—the origins of what was inside the fridge. I realized on a gut level that the lettuce in the crisper had begun as a seed; it once had roots in the earth; then someone picked it and wrapped it with plastic. Likewise, building a shelter of twigs made me contemplate my family’s house—its skeleton of trees. I didn’t know the term that Thich Nhat Hanh has so famously coined: “interbeing.” But I sensed it.
“We’re all in this together,” says Rebecca Fletcher, one of the young environmentalists profiled in this issue by Margot Sammurtok in “Walking the Talk.” “Each life creates ripples outward, and we are all dependent upon the land and communities that sustain us.”
According to David Abram, human beings naturally have the view that the earth itself and everything on it is alive, but by the twenty-first century, those few groups still informed by the experience of an animate, wakeful landscape have had to stifle this understanding in order to survive. Nevertheless, Abram writes in “The Living Language,” “the older belief in a world all alive, awake, and aware simply cannot be eradicated… the felt awareness of a living, expressive terrain may have been buried for some forty or fifty generations, yet it has never been vanquished: even at that depth it moves and stirs, exerting its influence upon our bodies and our dreams, waiting patiently for the moment when… we breathe of it once again.”
In other words, we inter-are with the world, even when our conscious mind is unaware of it. But why continue in unawareness when awareness is so fresh and enjoyable? It feels good to be connected to the world and it’s that sense of pleasure that has often been missing in environmentalism. Until recently, says Barry Boyce in “The Joy of Living Green,” the ecology movement has used shame and fear to motivate us, and, though it has made strides in limiting pollution and protecting species, it’s done little to change the lifestyle of the average person. Now, he says, a new breed of ecologists is helping people live green—and love it.
Mary Pipher in “The Green Boat” talks about her struggle to preserve the Nebraskan landscape in the face of the proposed XL Pipeline. When she was little, she would carry home animals that needed nursing. Now, as an adult, she says her activism “is the adult version of rescuing baby field mice.” She does it for fun, but it takes energy and her energy comes from being present for the land—“from lying on a prairie and being nourished by the sight of the clouds skittering overhead.”
Pipher, it seems, has never lost her connection to nature. I did, though. In the autumn when I was twelve, my mother decided that surviving was too dangerous for young girls on their own and she put her foot very firmly down. I got out of the habit of exploring the forest and over the years my passion for ecology dimmed. Then, in 2009, I took up birding. This has brought me back into nature and I’ve fallen in love with it again—the ferns uncurling, the maple leaves falling. Pipher says we humans take care of what we love, and it must be true. In love again, I want to take care of the earth.
Stream, wild orchid, velvet green moss—may every person find something natural to love.