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 Island, one 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.