The Unknown Nearby
Klean Ambassador Cayte Bosler shares her experiences and explorations during the COVID pandemic. Even if travel plans may change dramatically, we can still find solace in nature and the outdoors, and positives in our own unknown backyard. Cayte is a graduate student at Columbia University where she trains to tackle complex environmental challenges. Her forthcoming book What is the Wilderness Worth? explores bold initiatives to protect the earth's remaining wilds.
When the pandemic changed our lives, I was finishing graduate school at Columbia University, planning for a summer of fieldwork in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge.
I am not meant for the indoors. Every class, every meeting, I had imagined my eventual arrival into the refuge, where I was to spend the summer days researching wild species who face precarious futures as their habitats dwindle, like us all. Without this promise of vast wilderness on my horizon, I choked up. I’ve long depended on immersion in the outdoors for my mental health. The word refuge, the outline on the map, was somewhere to wrap my fervent imagination around like a thirsty vine curling around a willing tree.
Instead, with all of us scrambling for safety, all of us pausing any travel plans, a friend took me in along the coast of Massachusetts. I began to roam the edges of shores unknown to me. Paying attention to their contents and rhythms became my antidote to the anxiety of feeling trapped by daunting circumstances none of us can fully control.
Little by little, I waded from the marshes dotted with muted swans to the tendrils of wetlands snaking their grasses and crustaceans into bays. From there to the woods shielding a reservoir, tadpoles darting in the edges, as small as eyelashes, and just as fragile, wishful. I basked in the harsh calls of the geese, the whir of the breeze through beeches. The desire to be lost in the natural world comes over me like a pleasant fog.
I wielded my attention as if it were a powerful tool, a portal to wonderment. I played with the pugnacious hermit crabs. I tossed the carnivorous moon snails back into the ocean waves lest they become dinner for a crafty seagull. I knelt down countless times to chuckle at the scurrying piping plovers, a colony I rooted for vigorously as I know their populations are endangered. I swooned at the curved beak of the osprey. Marveled at the intelligence of the playful long-finned squid coming close to inspect my bubbling scuba gear before propelling itself into the pretty, perilous dark. Oh! And the whales that clenched my heart. Fin. Minke. Their improbably big bodies glancing the ocean’s surface, kissing the air then plunging to depths we know so little about. Each observation, each creature, an invitation to unravel an evolution, anatomy, uncapturable beauty.
Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?" wrote poet Mary Oliver
In ecology, one studies the interconnections between species and their habitats. Ecology is derived from the Greek word oikos meaning “home” or “place to live.” If we zoom out enough, we all share the same home. A home that is now suffering, and us for it. The climate crisis, and the pandemic, have illuminated these interconnections, and the critical repair work that must be done to support life, if it is to persist.
Meandering on the bank of a nearby reservoir, I noticed how a puddle ripple can turn a life upside down. For hours, I peered on hands and knees as a commotion of tiny frogs felt out their new world. Swimming, tumbling, springing, clinging to survive. Some would make it. Many would not. I think about this precarious scene when I think about conservation. Less careful steps and I may not have spotted their plight, I could have crushed them as I strode in some daze. Our lives are so disconnected from the drama of the wild and its trove of lessons. How do we take lighter steps? How do we become empathetic to the rest of life? Just because we don’t always see the creatures underfoot, it doesn’t mean our steps aren’t crushing them. Nonhuman life is not only instrumental to us; I believe it is sacred, full of secrets told in “a language older than words.” It’s getting quieter and lonelier each day.
How then can we let life live? Environmental author Derrick Jensen writes:
I want to live in a world where nonhumans—animals, plants, fungi, rivers, stones, mountains, forests, lakes, oceans, ice caps—aren’t perceived as resources, backdrops, impediments, or pests, but rather as other beings, ones whose lives are as valuable to them as yours is to you and mine is to me. A healthy, vibrant, fecund world existed once, not even so very long ago. It still can, where this culture isn’t killing it. Which means it is possible for it to exist. Which means it might be able to exist again.
I mourn for the opportunities I lost when our lives became hemmed in. I’ve learned to take some solace though in this great pause. This chance to instead reimagine our lives as a series of deeply connected gestures, small kindnesses, attention paid to our closet surroundings, not just the horizon of what is to come, but instead what is here now.
Solitude, mystery, discipline, discovery, belonging, I am beginning to find all of these in nature nearby. In the forest, where the sunlight filters through hundred feet tall trees in misty dusk, dwell creatures in the wetness of the curling green under gray with dappled light. Hearing footsteps, living things retreat to burrows, birds disappear to hidden branches. The understory is a story of the coming and going of elements, of fierce aliveness and recycled death, a place of shifting meaning where perhaps if we walk carefully enough we may know something of what the forest brings, something of this shifting pattern of life embraced by its inhabitants. When I’m riddled by anxiety about what my days will bring, I make my world small, even if only to trace the veins on the back of a leaf. And I think about how to seek more questions.