Blaine Sergew

From Ethiopia to Georgia: Reclaiming Nature’s Lullaby

By Blaine Sergew

I grew up in Ethiopia during one of the worst political upheavals in the country’s history.

A bloody coup that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie was followed by protracted civil war led by a ruthless military junta. As a little girl, I didn’t quite understand what was happening politically, but the underlying melancholy and broken spirits of adults defined a good part of my childhood.  

Through such turmoil, I found extraordinary solace in nature. Gigantic eucalyptus trees lined the edge of my school’s field, and I would lie on tufts of grass that were both sharp and soft and wait until erratic gusts of wind made the trees dance to a rhythm I imagined was only for me.

And if I listened carefully, their fragrant leaves would sing me lullabies.

I would spend hours pretending the trees were green curtains which, when they parted, would reveal the majestic mountains that surround Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. Those were my mountains.

To me they were a reminder that even in the midst of horrifying ugliness, there was beauty in nature.

Several years later and thousands of miles away, I find myself a newly-minted American with a fresh love for the great outdoors. I moved to Georgia, where, if you saddle up to her northern side, you’ll find yourself lost in lush mountains. Their peaks pierce the clouds with enviable insouciance. Their leaves turn startling shades of belligerent reds and oranges in the fall. They are stunning and breathtaking. Yet I do not hear their lullabies.

I had resigned myself to never feeling a visceral connection to nature again until everything changed on one extraordinary day.

I work with The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program. LEAF is a four-week, intensive, paid internship for students from urban environmental high schools across the nation.

Each summer, LEAF interns work, live and play on Conservancy preserves across the country. They work with our scientists to care for these lands and learn about ecology. They also tackle life skills such as cooking and budgeting. On weekends, they enjoy outdoor recreational activities not readily available in cities—fly fishing, kayaking, and horseback riding.  

Part of my job involves on-location check-ins with our interns, so in the summer of 2012 I caught up with the team dispatched to south Georgia. We met on Sapelo Islandone of Georgia’s spectacular, sparsely populated barrier islands. Its 16,500 acres are mostly protected land with only 50 or so families who are permanent residents. Most of them belong to the Gullah/GeeChee community, a tight-knit African-American community that can trace its roots back to freed slaves who worked on plantations.  

From the moment I saw Sapelo Island I could feel its hypnotizing pull. Proud marshes dot the periphery. It’s where the mighty Altamaha River gracefully empties out into the Atlantic Ocean, where the beaches have managed to remain eerily pristine.     

Sapelo Island’s beauty, like Ethiopia’s, is barbed. Its winds carry with them the sad cadences of a brutal past steeped in slavery.

When I signed up to work on the LEAF program, I knew it would change the lives of our interns. What I had not banked on was how it would change mine.

Over two summers, I’ve seen first-hand what happens when our interns truly connect with nature. Suddenly, they no longer see woods as ominous; water is not as intimidating; and plants and animals become allies. In Georgia, we recruit from Arabia Mountain High School, an environmental high school in the Atlanta suburbs. The students are predominantly African-American and shatter the misconception that people of color don’t feel the same visceral urgency to protect nature.

On Sapelo Island, we woke up at daybreak on an oppressive July morning to work on a living shoreline project. We ambled into an open truck for a bumpy ride to our worksite. Soon, our interns were knee-deep in mud, expertly measuring oysters with calipers and attentively recording data.  

When the tide became too high, we climbed back onto the truck to head back to the dorms. The students chatted excitedly about the day’s events as the truck navigated around merciless dirt roads. We ducked low branches of the stately oak trees drowning in soft Spanish moss. The roads were dusty despite the wet, heavy air. As we approached Reynolds Mansion, a restored, once-thriving plantation, an unprompted silence fell upon us.

I looked at the faces of the young men. The road we were on was probably the same one our forefathers walked on bare feet, carrying loads heavier than the sacks on their backs. They, too, had loved the land and labored to keep it beautiful. A few hundred years later, their children were travelling the same dusty roads. This time, we had come to heal land that was not kind to our ancestors.

And at that very moment, on land that was flat and foreign, I found my mountains. And for the first time in a long time, I swayed to music played by leaves.    

Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.

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  1. Blaine, thank you for this beautiful piece and for all you do for LEAF. All of us at TNC value and appreciate your leadership, and your writing is beautiful.

  2. Blaine, WOW what a beautiful article!!!! Your passion for nature goes deep and it is definitely expressed in this article!!! I LOVE the photo…..YOU ROCK!!!!

  3. The writing is evocative and just plain beautiful. I find myself connecting at so many levels and particularly the lovely ways in which you tell us, you claim this country yours. Thank you Blaine for your gentleness and for reminding us why immigration and immigrants make this land so extraordinary.

  4. Blaine, What an incredibly beautiful, evocative piece — in turns, personal and universal, heart-breaking and hopeful. You weave together and illuminate two stories of people, politics, history and nature in such seemingly disparate places. But through your work with LEAF, Ethiopia and Georgia come together in that visceral connection to nature you describe. Today, I will take a moment, close my eyes and listen for the lullabies in leaves. Thank you, Blaine

  5. I can almost feel the warm breeze Blaine. Beautiful imagery, thank you.

  6. What a wonderful piece by Blaine Sergew, showing the universal pull of nature on folks that have the opportunity to be exposed to it and the perception to relate. The TNC program she helps lead is making a needed, vital effort to connect urban/suburban young people with nature. In western North Carolina the Muddy Sneakers organization is making a similar effort with younger students oblivious to the great nature around them. Blaine’s opinions on history you identify as hers; they are good to be expressed. We as a citizenry have different concepts of history, different views of the past coming out of different experiences that are all valid and need to be respected. And we all need the nature experiences!

  7. Blaine,
    Your words are as beautiful as you are, both on the inside and outside. Amha should be very proud you are his mother. My friend, thank you for bringing your passion, warmth and committment to TNC and all the children and people you impact on a daily basis.

  8. That was beautiful! Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication to the program, the young adults and nature. May Mother Nature always sing you the sweetest of songs!

  9. What beautiful writing, Blaine. I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to be part of the LEAF family, and look forward with great anticipation to following the journey and success of the program!

  10. Blaine,
    Your words are as beautiful as you are, both on the inside and outside. Amha should be very proud you are his mother. My friend, thank you for bringing your passion, warmth and commitment to TNC and all the children and people you impact on a daily basis.

  11. Blaine, the work and the purpose of LEAF is a very rewarding and positive experience for its participants. Thank you for sharing your story. I am even more appreciative of you and your leadership. Peace and love to you.

  12. It is so inspiring to hear how LEAF brought your mountains back. Nature transcends all cultural boundaries, and maybe investing in it together can help people do the same. Thank you Blaine!

  13. Blaine –

    Your article was beautiful. Jordan said he had a great time. It was truly a learning experience for him and myself as well. Thank you for including Jordan in LEAF. Take care!

  14. Blaine, this is an inspiring and moving piece. Thank you for sharing your story.

  15. Blaine, this was such a beautiful piece! I loved the imagery that you evoked. So glad you are part of the LEAF team!

  16. True food for the soul…thank you for sharing this moving experience

  17. So glad to be apart of that experience with you Blaine. It was a great summer indeed and transformative on so many levels for both the interns and of course the mentors as well. Looking forward to a great future together now as colleagues at TNC!

  18. This is a very touching article. It links the challenges of the past to the future – and nature all within. It is always there, even if we don’t think it is. It is always in our minds!

  19. I knew one day I would be reading an article written by you. You are amazing, keep up the good work.

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