The air is chilly. Again. The birds I heard yesterday morning — at least four different kinds — have retreated to their nests to avoid the wind. The sky that was so blue as to almost hurt my eyes has faded to gray. Spring is such a tease.
Lifting my eyes to look across the porch, across the yard, across the road, then across the field, I see the woods. Loblolly pines, thick and bristly, tower over oaks which are just filling out their branches with leaves. Trees I can’t identify from this distance — tall skinny ones with irregular branches, short fat ones with indistinguishable foliage, willowy ones along the edge bending gracefully in the breeze — have burst into every shade, tint and hue of green on the Sherwin-Williams paint wheel.
For a moment I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I am the one who gets to see this, that I am the one who gets to absorb the exquisite loveliness of all the lines and angles, the light and shadow. That I alone, out of all the people on earth, am standing right here right now.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to a group of people who are involved in conservation in coastal Georgia. The topic of my presentation was, “How to Make an Environmentalist.” I shared with them how I came to love the outdoors, the land, the water, the things that made me open to that love. I started with a memory.
I am 4 or 5 years old. My arms are curled tightly around my father's neck. His arms are wrapped around my waist. We are standing in the Ogeechee River, wide and dark, brown as coffee. The trees that grow along its banks are tall, heavy with branches that hang over the river, dripping Spanish moss.
On the sandbar just a few yards away, my family — aunts and uncles and cousins, grandparents, my mother, my brother — move around in a cone of sunshine, a spotlight cutting through the canopy of cypress and pine and scrub oak. They are laughing and talking. The children are running back and forth, splashing at the edge of the water.
It is bright and noisy where they are. But where we are — my father and I — it is dim and quiet. It is peaceful. It is a different place. This is my first, my oldest memory of not just being outside, but being in the world.
In that memory I found a template. In that memory I located the source. In that memory I figured out the combination of gifts that would, many years later, end up with me on my front porch in a state of marvel.
I was young enough that my family was still my entire world. Where they went, I went. What they liked, I liked. What they honored, protected, appreciated, I would learn to honor, protect and appreciate.
I was safe, held securely in the arms of someone I trusted implicitly. I was so completely comfortable that I could absorb the sensory elements of that experience, absorb and retain them for the rest of my life.
And I was in an ordinary place. The river whose proper name was never used by the people who made their way there to fish and swim. The river that was just down the road from home. The river that belonged to us.
Those ingredients — innocence, safety and familiarity — made me a plowed field, prepared for the seeds of curiosity of wonder, seeds that grew into a craving to know the names of trees and identify the songs of birds, seeds that blow across the landscape of every single day. And sometime between that summer day and this spring morning, somewhere between that river and this porch, I fell in love with the world.