Weaving through the bog, we drew several line transects over the frozen ground, mapping the presence of white-tailed deer and moose in the area. Lime-green moss dotted the wooded landscape, and crystallized pools of water shined translucent, glimmering in the mid-morning sunlight. The light peeked through naked trees, still silent and leafless from the short winter. In the distance, an otter and mink scurried across a frozen pond. My lab partner and I lingered on the trails long after completing the fieldwork, enjoying the scene.
Our Harvard College conservation biology class was on an outing to the forest, putting survey techniques we had learned in the classroom to practical use. We returned to campus late that night exhausted, yet energized, chatting happily about the animals we spotted, the beauty of the forest, and the satisfaction of fieldwork. Despite the late hour, we eagerly extended the day to share dinner together. It was one of the most memorable events of the semester, and the new friendships we forged continue to run strong. The trip gave me a fresh look into our experiences in the outdoors and how those experiences allow us to connect not only with the natural world, but on a personal level as well.
It is a connection that at first seems counterintuitive. Nature often evokes pictures of solitary self-reliance, the lone hiker lost in thoughtful reflection. Images of Ansel Adams in Yosemite or Henry D. Thoreau at Walden Pond abound in our national consciousness. However, through forming connections with the natural world, we also form deeper connections with each other.
What is it about nature that establishes these deeper ties among humans? Perhaps leaving the normal bustle of our increasingly urban lives allows us to concentrate on the here and now, in terms of both the natural world and the people around us. It compels us to appreciate the people around us in a way we don’t, or can’t, while in the middle of our daily routines. Or perhaps it is a shared journey of discovery, an interactive experience of observing nature and wildlife, that provides a common platform for communication and bonding. There is something powerfully intimate about gazing silently at wildlife wandering across the landscape. There is something wonderful about our delighted surprise when hundreds upon hundreds of American Avocets take off into flight, weaving figure-eights above our heads.
In nature, we see ourselves as part of a whole, part of a larger environment. We become aware of our human vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities unveil our dependence not only on nature, but also on our fellow humans. In other words, getting back to nature makes us realize how we are all connected at a basic human level and that we need each other to transition effectively to a sustainable society.
In this context, our national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas serve as particularly essential places. As sites for ecosystem preservation, environmental education, habitat restoration, and research, protected lands allow us to find a new rhythm outside of our daily routines and redefine our understanding of each other and our roles in the broader environment.
Cultivating unforgettable experiences in nature is one of my goals with the National Junior Refuge Rangers, a program I started as a high school student in Northern California. The program embraces an interactive approach to environmental education by getting youth out into our nation’s national wildlife refuges. These formative interactions in and with nature build fulfilling and lasting connections that ensure the youth of today will become leaders and stewards of our environment throughout their lives.
That winter day in the forest was a potent reminder of the transformative impact that nature has on developing lasting and meaningful friendships. It is an impact that strengthens our collective effort to protect the environment and create a sustainable future.
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