I sat tucked beneath the juniper tree, my head resting on the pillow of her fibrous bark. I was absently twisting and wrapping the aromatic leaves of a sagebrush around my fingers, each crush igniting fragrant oils into the air. My eyes gazed out across the vast stark white lakebed of the Alvord Desert. The air had begun to cool as the sun migrated closer to the mountain’s edge, preparing for the freezing starlit night. It was here on my very first solo camping trip that I began to contemplate what it means to ‘belong’ and to question why I felt so inextricably disconnected and foreign sitting upon the Earth.
I abruptly got up and faltered, my body reminding me I had been sitting in one position for the better part of an hour. I looked around me to the company I kept in that moment: the sagebrush community. Silver grey shrubs littered the landscape, punctuated by the brilliant purple of the various lupines blooming in the late April evening. These plants, this community, belongs to one another and they need each other to maintain the delicate balance of life in this harsh ecosystem. I stood there as witness, a European transplant high on my existential crisis in a land where the ancient Burns Paiute people lived (and the Burns Paiute Tribe continue to live today). They were an integral part of this ecosystem. I did not feel integral. I felt alien, removed, invasive, caustic. I wanted to cry and scream, throw my hands in the air, and give up.
It was in that moment that I became aware of a sound, a screeching and calling. I stopped moving, instincts telling me to pay attention and look. My ears perked and noted the location of the calling birds. I crouched down, all my senses alert, my feelings of despair forgotten. Pay attention!
The calling came from two black and white birds to the south: long tailed and clearly agitated. The magpies were extremely unhappy, and I was bound to find out why. I watched as they took turns flying up into a willow shrub, then swooping down over sagebrush on the eastern side of the hill. Over and over they repeated the process and each time that they flew over the sagebrush, they moved further and further, as if following something. I quietly stalked closer, heart beating but breathing steady, moving at a pace that wouldn’t alert the alarmed birds to my presence.
Suddenly, my peripheral vision caught movement, I focused in and noticed tan, brown, and white moving quickly along the hill. As the creature came into view it showed itself as a large tailless mammal. A bobcat! She slinked quickly away from the birds, no longer able to hunt now that the magpies had alerted everyone in the surrounding area about her presence.
I stood in awe. Gratitude welled up inside of me as I began to feel less separate, less of an invader. An epiphany began to take shape and as my tension released into an awakening; I understood how I belonged and how I and others could make a positive difference.
The solution was so obvious it was nearly invisible. To become awakened simply means to come into awareness and it is in those moments of revealment that we are forever changed. The magpies had alerted me to my awakening.
I view awareness as a form of love. Author John Muir Laws defines love as: “sustained compassionate attention”. My relationship with plants is one path that I use to connect to the Earth in a sustained and compassionate way. However, I never would have taken that path if I had not had an initial awakening that led me to an awareness of something outside myself. My awakening to the plant world further led me to continuous awakenings of the natural world. I began to see plants, animals, rocks, bugs, the sky, all in a new way: in a way one might look upon a loved one.
How does becoming more aware develop a deeper sense of belonging? And how does belonging not only gives us purpose but a reason to care?
Over the past decade I have dedicated myself to the study and teaching of plants and nature connectedness. My intention has been to guide children and adults to finding their own connection to the natural world and a sense of belonging through the wonders of plants. I have felt anger and frustration living in a society where we are collectively and routinely separated from our environment because we live in a time that is fast paced, virtual, isolated, and insulated from the natural processes and forces.
In my own experience and hearing the countless experiences of my students over the years, I have found that the more I allow myself to be aware of my environment, the more I feel a sense of belonging. And the more I belong, the more investment I have in protecting, loving, interacting with, and being sustained by the natural world.
What awe-inspiring moments have awakened you to your own journey to connection and belonging?
Interested in more narratives about nature connection?
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