I’d like to say it happened while overlooking a lush Montana riverbank plump with wildflowers, an image I claim as my first memory, but I was two and a half years old then, and too young to make declarations. Years later, when I was sixteen, I glimpsed the Continental Divide stretching across the Colorado horizon and felt something come loose in me, an awe that lacked edges. But that was not the first time that feeling came, even if before I hadn’t had the language to describe it.
I could pick from memories on Lake Superior or in the Badlands or on the Mississippi, but the moment I keep coming back to is a simple one, cushioned in no impressive names, that took place in my Minnesota small town front yard. My family had just moved, and everything about our new life seemed strange and overwhelming. How does one make new friends at ten? How does one navigate the avenues of grief for a life that we’d left behind as easily as if it were a common tree?
And that’s when it hit me.
I was already awake with the birds, with the August humidity, so I left my bed for our shaded front stoop, and eventually the wide trunk of our lawn’s familiar maple. Without hesitation, I clutched onto the lowest branch and propelled myself up, and then over, and then up again, until I was nearly fifteen feet from the ground.
I found a sturdy spot to sit and let my legs dangle, and only then did I lean back against this quiet living thing and look without fear at the spot I’d landed. The leaves draped down in a green canopy, and the light filtered through them in delicate waves. The young bark under my palms was smooth, as I knew it would be, besides bits of sap. And after I was still for a while, the birds returned, and I smiled, recognized the black-capped chickadee, the red-winged blackbird, the robin, even a squirrel, all chirping despite the heat. I was in a new place, but I realized that if I could just find a tree, or a trickling stream, or a patch of blue sky, I would know where I was: with friends.
I am not an antisocial person, and as the weeks passed and school began, I exchanged smiles with other ten-year-olds, and we eventually traded bright bracelets and whispered secrets and the rest of our childhood memories. But I have since moved again. And lost track of them. And if I’m honest, only a few brought me the peace I felt on the bough of that tree.
Wherever I might go, I’ve found, the natural world goes with me, and it is this consistent relationship that I love most. I anticipate it now, look for it out the nearest window or door. And if I’m tense from the day’s stresses, from a new neighborhood to navigate or a new deadline to make or a new feeling I can’t quite name, I walk outside. I find a tree, if possible an entire grove. Then I let myself go loose and say hello.
This post was originally published at Nature-Talk.
How about you? When did you know you loved the natural world?