Earlier this summer I was fortunate to join friends on a small expedition ship to explore southeast Alaska’s coastal wilderness. The trip was a gift, an expression of their care for me as a friend, and as a traveling companion to their 18-year-old daughter. For eight days we plied the waters of the inside passage and wondered at the forests, glaciers and mountains cradling the bays and sounds. It felt like having a window into the creation story in Genesis 1: on the first day, spouting humpback whales; on the second day, calving glaciers with harbor seals floating on their icebergs; on the third day, graceful Sitka black-tailed deer grazing in a temperate rain forest. And on through pods of orcas, soaring eagles, brown bears fishing at the shoreline, playful sea otters, a swimming moose.
And it was good.
Good in so many ways. Good to be reminded of the beauty and to learn about that world from the naturalists aboard, who shared their knowledge of how whales migrate the long ocean miles from Hawaii to Alaskan waters each year in the dance of breeding, calving and feeding: of how small invertebrates in the rich cold waters create the food chain from spawning salmon to bears to humans, of how glaciers formed the landscape and what is happening as they recede with the warming of the globe, of how indigenous Tlingit peoples told the stories of their ancestors honoring the land.
The week left me in wonder, recommitted to see and honor the natural world and reenergized to work to preserve it in ways that I can. To care for it.
Yet my motivation to care for the environment, always a value, has changed. Rather than caring primarily out of guilt or duty or fear, I care because of the care I have received from the natural world. Experiencing the natural world opens the doorway to beauty, awe and wonder — even to holiness. The natural world offers the gift of silence, where the noises of engines give way to birdsong and waves washing along the shore. And the gift of healing. Studies show that patients in hospital rooms with windows looking out to sky and tree and those who are visited by service dogs or cats show marked improvement in their physical health. These things we need to live well. They are gifts that help our spirits, and our immune systems, that relieve our stress and deepen our love for what is more than human. As naturalist John Muir wrote, “Going out is really going in.”
I believe that a powerful personal connection with nature is a much better motivation for conservation than guilt or duty. In the connection, we experience care and love, the deepest motivator there is.
You don’t have to go to Alaska. We can experience this connection daily — in our backyards, in state and county parks, in a window box flower or on a walk through the woods. We can decide to learn something new about the natural world every day. This spring I have learned how the horseshoe crabs climb out of the Delaware Bay each May at the full moon high tide to spawn, how members at church I had never spoken to share my love of birdwatching and how a doe and her fawns will come to drink from a bucket of water I place at the edge of my yard when the temperature soars.
In “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy … and I must return the gift.”
We saw the tiny forget-me-nots in the temperate rain forest near Petersburg. The small plant with blue petals is Alaska’s state flower, and it is easy to overlook among the giant hemlocks. Forget me not: honor me, remember me, care for me. So the natural world does for us. So we must do for the world.