By Will Wright
This spring break, I went further away from the Midwest than I had ever gone before. I found myself standing at the base of a towering coastal redwood tree in California. I was hit with a flood of awe—so hard it almost made me dizzy. I reached out and (as corny as it may sound) pressed my palm into its bark, closing my eyes for a moment before I brought myself back into reality.
My encounter with the redwood forests of California had been a long time coming. When I was younger, my bedroom walls were plastered in drawings, posters, and photographs. My proudest displays were always from National Geographic magazines. One of my favorite posters from them, no doubt, was a long pull-out feature of a 300 foot, 1,500-year-old redwood tree. Ever since that October 2009 issue arrived in my family’s mailbox, I proudly displayed that poster in my bedroom and became determined to immerse myself in the towering trunks at least once in my life. While the redwoods I saw at Muir Woods National Monument weren’t quite as massive nor archaic as the one featured on my poster, the sense of humility I experienced amongst them was nonetheless indescribable.
There’s something ineffable about the awe and exhilaration of immersing yourself in the natural world. It resets you in ways other things cannot, putting you into your place as a cluster of collected atoms and carbon existing in space with similar collections—some big, some small, some humble, and some remarkably grandiose. The notion of how complex our planet is despite our existence being like a cosmic fluke begins to set in, and suddenly you realize how small yet remarkable you and everything else on Earth is.
We all too easily forget what’s around us. Every day, we step into our own worlds and cut off everything that doesn’t exist beyond the borders of our day-to-day rituals and our cellphones. So much exists outside of our homes and cities and we are so rarely mindful of this and the roles that we play on our planet.
Compare us, humanity, to the forest I was in. Each tree and every living thing in it—from bacteria and fungi to the deer and ground squirrels—depends on one another for balance and life, yielding a community of organisms that are resilient and adaptable. Each living thing depends on every living thing in its ecosystem, and this happens at a global scale, too. Earth, itself, is one big, breathing organism.
And then there’s us: the great disruptors of it all.
Towards the end of my trip, I sat on the edge of our continent at Grey Whale Cove State Beach. Before my sit-down, my little brother handed me a rock which was a chunk of what made up the cliffs and shore of the beach we were on. I held it and noticed it was crumbling in my own hands from minimal contact. Out of curiosity, I squeezed it and the entire rock crumbled into hundreds of tiny pieces.
I was shocked by how soft it was and how easily something as small as my hand was able to create so much change. Walking further up the beach, I climbed onto a huge rock and sat down, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Great, white waves crashed up against the shore, sending a salty mist in all directions. I stared at them for a good, long while, and once again, just like in Muir Woods, I seemed to slip out of reality.
Waves crashed and crashed while I thought about how the entire coastline was carved out by them over the course of millions of years. Slow, gradual, natural change. I recalled, then, the rock that I just crumbled in my hand. Quick, sudden, unnatural change. I felt guilty for it, creating a small act of unnecessary destruction—and it was just a rock.
The thought of how much unnatural, needless, and irreversible change humankind has brought unto our planet’s landscape flooded my mind like the water crashing at my feet. While I was plagued with my own personal guilt of ending the existence of a small rock, entire ecosystems were being wiped out of existence at the same time. The natural processes of our planet are being disrupted at a scale that my mind will never be able to comprehend. We are like a virus, almost, injecting our DNA into that of the planet’s and attempting to restructure how it works in our favor regardless of our host’s wellbeing. We don’t like it when we get sick ourselves, so how can we so thoughtlessly continue to hurt our mother?
All of us, including myself and every environmental scientist and advocate, are guilty of hurting this planet. No matter how hard we try, we all create waste that will ruin landscapes and contribute to processes and corporations that act in our disinterest. All of our tiny acts of destruction add up, and, as they do, it feels as though hope begins to run out more and more each day, each year.
We all play a role in our universal home. While we, ourselves, may not be able to clean every waterway, save every animal species, and restore every prairie alone, we can, at the very least, be mindful of our actions and of our roles as parts of the planet’s natural processes. Humanity and the natural world are all one, tied to one another through basic, biological need. It is an intricate yet resilient system, but one day too much will truly be too much. It’s up to us and only us to prevent this day from arriving at our doorsteps.
John Muir, who my “little” patch of coastal redwoods was named after by his friends William and Elizabeth Kent, left us many, many years with this piece of wisdom that I proudly held up on a sign at the 2017 Chicago March for Science: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
It’s a beautiful and miraculous thing that we are all one with our entire planet—never forget it.
Special thanks to Shelby Muschler for her mind and sharp eyes and to Luke Kleekamp for his philosophical and environmental ponderings.