When I was first invited to join Nightingale to share my perspective on the intersection between health and the environment, I was both honored and excited, feeling a slight twinge of intimidation. I have had many of my own experiences, personally and professionally, around both of these subject matters and have worked to hold the delicate truths that I’ve learned in balance with each other.
It is certain that almost anyone can recognize the value of fresh air, clean water, and the beautiful greenery a healthy forest can offer a person. And it isn’t a stretch to imagine that all of these outside factors influence how we feel physically and mentally on more levels than we may realize. In the coming weeks and months, I plan to delve deeper into these arenas, ask and explore tough questions around environmental issues and how they inherently affect us on the individual level and how they affect us as women.
Two months after I moved to Oregon in 2009, I was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by a stranger on a bus ride home from downtown Portland. I was 26 years old and living alone in a new city.
For this first piece, however, I wanted to take a step back from the statistics and hard science and start from a beginning. I thought I would start by sharing how the environment and health have intersected in my own life.
Two months after I moved to Oregon in 2009, I was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by a stranger on a bus ride home from downtown Portland. I was 26 years old and living alone in a new city. As most attacks on a person do, I was left feeling scared, hurt, worried, and overall physically and mentally unwell. I stayed in this space for some time, withdrawing, questioning most things, and climbing a seemingly endless steep hill up and out of this emotional space in an effort to regain confidence.
I didn’t know it then but a summer in Southeast Alaska would change everything for me. After making the decision to go back to school in the fall, I accepted a summer job in a small Alaskan town on the northern most tip of the Lynn Canal. For several months of the year cruise ships stop in the port for sightseeing, but otherwise the town’s population hovers around 800. There is a small National Park office in the town to monumentalize the area’s cultural and social significance during the Yukon Gold Rush.
I had never been to Alaska; I had never known truly wild places where you can hike a few miles off trail and feel like no other human has stood on that piece of land before. Just on the edge of town were a system of trails that led to ocean views, to the tops of mountains, along streams teeming with wild salmon, and to spongy tundra terrain. I made it a mission to hike each of those trails, many times alone.
I did not, and have never felt that being a woman was a liability in the wilderness—that is something that comes with society.
The wilderness there is large, awe-inspiring, humbling and oftentimes a little frightening. But my experience of fear there was very different than the fear I’d experienced during and after my attack. The awareness of dangers in crossing glacial streams or traversing up steep slopes made me want to find my own strength. The challenges I faced lifted me out of a feeling of helplessness and weakness. I did not, and have never felt that being a woman was a liability in the wilderness—that is something that comes with society.
With every new hike, every view of a glacier from the top of the highest hill, I began to feel awake and stronger. Every new experience inspired a feeling of awe and curiosity that allowed me to feel fully present. I call this time in my life the ‘fog lifting.’
That summer I volunteered for the National Park doing amphibian surveys, which is just a fancy way of saying “counting frogs.” With each frog species that I picked up and recorded, I learned something unique to that species. The different ways that different species had evolved to survive, the different subtle coloring, sizes, sounds and how those differences connected to everything around them. Those differences connected to the birds that liked to eat them, and when those birds would nest. Every extra moment that I spent sitting I observed a hundred things I innately knew to be beautiful and true.
As I woman I want to live my life in places where I am as equal as any other being, where my value is not defined by how others perceive me, but what I can do for and by myself.
Being inspired by nature and recognizing that I am at my core a part of it, lifted me up.
I learned during these months that I wanted to make protecting wild places my life’s work. I want to preserve places where wilderness is free. Where anyone—man, woman, or child—can shed the societal limitations placed on them. As I woman I want to live my life in places where I am as equal as any other being, where my value is not defined by how others perceive me, but what I can do for and by myself.
This is my definition of and motivation for environmentalism. The world is remarkable and filled with beauty, and we are at our core a part of that world. The more we connect to the natural world the more connected we are to ourselves.
Director of Stewardship