When I was 18 years old, I felt directionless. I wasn’t really interested in anything; I just did what society said I was supposed to do, and it left me feeling empty inside.
By what felt like fate, I found myself living in Hawaii. I have always been a water child. My mom would tease me and say I wouldn't come out of the womb because the water was too nice. Here I found myself surrounded by the largest body of water in the world and still couldn't find my identity. Swimming, snorkeling and diving brought me joy but my eyes were still shut. I didn't know what or who I was looking at. I didn't know its value yet. I saw an ecotourism company on the Northshore of Oahu that had been having incredible luck with Humpback whales joining their dives. I have always been fascinated with all whales and immediately signed up hoping to meet one in person.
The boat was speeding out of the harbor when the safety diver began to brief us on how to dive with sharks. I was a bit confused when she explained that they only do shark diving and humpback whales were just something that sometimes happened but illegal to seek out. I was a little shocked that I accidently signed up for an open water shark dive. I realized I didn't really have a choice but to do it. Like most people, I thought this was going to be the end of me. When my eyes fell beneath the surface the entire universe came rushing in. Here I was face to face with the most feared creature on the planet and it was just as cautious and curious as I was. There were 45 sandbar sharks that day and I never felt the least bit threatened (sharks can still be dangerous and should be treated with respect). I felt completely in the moment and so humbly in the hands of mother nature. Riding the boat back I sat in silence and began to realize just then who I was and who I wanted to be.
Nature had awakened me and now I needed to understand it in its entirety. Nothing was off limits to me. I wanted to learn about everything from the microscopic to the grand universe. Past, present and future. I decided I wanted to go back to school. Which had its own set of difficulties since no one in my family had ever been to college. I ended up in Washington state studying Marine Ecology. I struggled through every hard science class but I thought learning science was going to unlock nature for me. Once I graduated I reflected on everything I learned and felt a sense of disappointment. That day with the sharks showed me the magic of nature. Science gave the ability to understand the complexity of this universe. I learned how life builds itself, what it requires to live and the energy that flows through us is the same energy that flows through every living being. It taught me what I was looking at but not how to look at it. I still felt like something was missing.
Through a friend's recommendation I picked up Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. I read it slowly, like drinking a hot chocolate on a snowy day. It wasn't a book full of quantitative data about plants but a poetic ensemble of qualitative Native wisdom. The way in which she described nature was the magic piece I was looking for. It wasn’t what she taught about nature but the way she saw nature. It made me realize that the missing piece was not something that could be gained in a classroom but by observation. Watching, listening and immersing oneself entirely into the natural world was the key.
2020 forced us all to isolate ourselves and I was fortunate to live in the forest. I had two distinct trail systems less than a mile away from my house. When I couldn't go to the gym or socialize with people I took to walking in the forest. I brought my camera and field guide books and began learning who my woodland neighbors were. The more I learned the more I began to feel a deep sense of empathy for each living organism. I saw their long evolutionary journey was no less than mine. I began to think of nature as family and treated them with the respect they deserve and in return they showed me their secret world. A world that was beyond anything I could ever imagine. It has its own language and rhythm. It is love and it is home.
I remembered that as a child, I spent every second I could analyzing rolly pollies, digging holes, running in fields, and climbing trees. The only knowledge I had was just what my own eyes could gather and what Animal Planet could teach me.
Humans have created a grand illusion that we are separate from nature and I grew up learning just that. Nature is to be feared and kept at distance. Anyone who enjoyed nature was considered mad or worse, a hippie. All the wonder and joy I felt for nature was squashed out of me by the society that raised me. Finding that connection again felt like homecoming; I felt whole again.
Nature is not something limited to just a few of us. It will gladly accept each and every one of us if we just take the time to get to know it. It can heal us physically, mentally, and spiritually but we must also care for it. Humans are not separate from the natural world. We are products of the same evolutionary forces. We breathe the oxygen from the plants allowing them to become a part of us. We drink the water from streams and eat food from the earth. We are completely entangled with the natural world and our fates are bound together. What happens to them also happens to us. It is only when we begin to watch and listen can we really learn the secrets of nature and the secrets of ourselves.
Story and photos by Hannah Gabrielson
This is a fantastic article! Everything about it hit so close to home. Hannah’s writing about nature is so vivid and beautiful. I want to go run through the forest now…