It was edging near 2pm and the sun was bright and strong overhead. We were all tired and hungry from not having had lunch yet. Because our original plans were destroyed by an impassable road, our new route had us out in the middle of nowhere, with no end and no restaurants in site. The water we had left was like bath water, cooking in the sun on the passenger seat all morning. The car came to a halt. Slowly, we peeled ourselves out and with heavy feet followed a drainage pipe into a patch of forest. Suddenly, I heard Eder express surprise and followed his pointed finger to literally the largest tree I have ever seen. Its buttress roots extended like slithering snakes for meters and its trunk was so large you would have needed 20 people in order to hug around its entirety. All at once, our tiredness vanished and for the next 15 minutes Eder and I jumped around the tree, taking silly pictures, and acting like children on Christmas. There was something so wonderful about seeing such a large and presumably old tree (though tropical trees don’t typically have tree rings due to the consistency of seasons). It’s a rare and unforgettable moment. Finally, after taking many pictures, Eder and I stood a distance away, quietly taking it all in. Eder sighed and turned to me and said in Spanish, “Back to work.”
Maybe it’s the exhaustion of last week’s fieldwork still catching up with me, but I’ve started this blog now about 50 different ways. I’m searching for some sort of meaningful words about passion. You know, that thing that keeps you up at night and gets you going each morning. The thing that is so personal to who you are that it becomes a part of your identity. For some it’s music, or literature, or sports; for me, it’s the tropics. I was 20 years old, the first time I ever ventured into a tropical rainforest, and I can tell you, the impression it made on me has never left. I was overwhelmed by the sense of wildness, the sense that these hundreds of insects biting at me are all different species (maybe some that could be unknown to science still). I was overcome with a sense of adventure – that I was not merely living, I was thriving. Since that initial hike into La Selva Research Station in Costa Rica, I have been always trying to get back to these big, beautiful forests.
The past 4 weeks in Peru have been indescribably fun. Day after day I get to scramble through these forests. I am covered with mosquito and ant bites that range from red to swollen to itchy to painful. I trip and fall on a daily basis, covering my pale legs in really awful looking bruises and always giving Eder a good laugh (he no longer tries to catch me, but has taken to videotaping each and every tumble). My hair is matted in knots from a combination of sweat and dust. I’ve given up even thinking about makeup and wear the same dirty clothes day in and day out. Yes, I kind of smell. And yet, as uncomfortable or sore or itchy as I get, I feel as though I am living to my full potential. That in this moment, right here, right now, this is the work I’ve always dreamed of doing.
I’ve often thought of environmental work as more than just a career, but as a vocation. It demands an optimistic spirit in the midst of a truly depressing outlook. It needs strength, but also compassion. And more than anything, it requires a steadfast commitment to leaving this world a little better off than when you first got here. And I am lucky to be naïve enough to believe that we as a people, as a planet, can and will slowly begin to make the progress towards this goal. I think the first step is to get outside and find that thing in nature that speaks to you, that renews your energy and gives you hope. It doesn’t have to be your passion, your vocation, or a career, but for everyone there is something out there that sparks something special. It’s one of the many wonderful things about nature. For me, it’s the wild and tangled mess of a tropical forest. What’s yours?