She came from the forest, from springtime adventures in Vermont.
Donning her black Timberland hiking boots, as long ago she would don her little red rain boots,
the young woman opened the storm door, stepped off the porch in front of her childhood home,
and ventured into a lost, yet so familiar, world of wonder and beauty. The sun shone on her
mousy brown hair, pulled into a ponytail instead of the two untidy braided pigtails she wore
as a child, and she walked into the small forest patch in her backyard.
She looked up at the tall, majestic conifer trees that dominated the patch. Hemlock trees,
she knew now, as she had been studying them at college and intended to pursue further research
on them. She moved her fingers gently along the bark and looked up at the healthy green foliage,
thankful that the hemlock pathogen that motivates her research on the role of this tree in
the forest has not yet invaded the forest in which she would play for hours as a child.
She then looked at the forest floor beneath her, remembering the days when she would have
endless joy picking up handfuls of the soil and running it between her fingers, comparing the
sandy texture of the dirt in her driveway to the silky smooth clay of the soil by the brook
and to everything in between. She remembered trying to make mud pies, trying to make various
sculptures of sorts with the dirt, coming back every day to see how they had changed. How funny
it was that she had forgotten her childhood fascination with, well, dirt, until she had dug
some soil pits of her own for her research, the fresh smell of the forest floor triggering
long lost memories as she dug into the earth to obtain samples and observe the stratification.
Turning around, she left the forest and walked down the hill behind her house to the brook
at the bottom. She looked at the berry bushes, which were not yet ripe, and thought of summer
days. She remembered when she would trail behind her older sister, removing the berries as
soon as her sister placed them in the basket and then eating them. Her sister was like that,
paving the way and embarking on journeys first, making the way easier for the young woman.
Though she prided herself on her independence and self-motivation, she recognized that her
sister did pave the way for her, or at least paved a way so that the young woman would know
how to pave her own way as the time came.
Reaching the brook, she stared down at the water rushing past. Though the brook had become
deeper with erosion, the banks steeper, the riparian vegetation more dense, the steady flow
of clear water running through it remained constant. She looked down and saw a small pocket
of still water, where water striders, or “water bugs” as she used to call them,
performed a Jesus-like feat by moving across water. She used to be fascinated by these bugs
as a child, poking the water around them with twigs to see what would happen when the water
was no longer still. She would watch them scurry about, desperately seeking stillness once
more. When the child tired of this game, she would watch as the bugs returned to their still
pocket of water as if the disturbance she created had mattered very little to them.
If her observations from this outdoor paradise had taught her anything, it was that nature
has a tendency to try to return to a former state. Sure snow would fall every winter, when
the brook would freeze and the grass would die, but eventually it would all return again in
the spring. When a tree is cut or falls, other plants grow in its place. When a child disturbs
a water strider’s habitat, the bug will react but then find its way back to its pocket
of water once the waters have stilled. Staring down at the bugs floating on the water, the
young woman thought her life, how she had not initially intended to study forest ecology in
college. Ten years ago, if you had asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would
say, “An author, of course!” She had, over the years, spent less and less time
outside exploring, admiring, and questioning, and more time with a pen to paper and fingers
to the keyboard crafting fictional stories, creating new worlds. In high school she began to
accept the fact that she was no longer enjoying English but always looked forward to her biology
classes. It wasn’t until her first year of college, one day in particular during an introductory
ecology lecture, that she realized her love for ecology. She loved looking for patterns and
studying these complex interactions between different aspects of nature. She loved trying to
figure out the story of the forest, to hear the figurative voices of the trees, the insects,
the dirt, to ask how it had been hurt, and to learn about what it was doing to respond. Several
experiences in research and in science education made her realize that she wanted to continue
learning the stories of the forest through her research and then tell them. As nature seemingly
attempts to returns to a former state after change, so the young woman changed from a young
explorer to an aspiring novelist, but now was noticing the return of the explorer.
The young woman sat on the bank of the brook, on the mosaic patches of light and dark green
moss, and stared at the trees in front of her on the opposite bank. As she felt the wind brush
past her shoulders, she thought to herself, “This is what matters.” She wasn’t
working hard in school because others required it of her. She wasn’t doing a thesis because
she felt obligated to, or felt that doing so would validate her as a science major. She wasn’t
planning to go into academia because someone had told her that she should, or because she couldn’t
think of anything else to, or to gain prestige or fame or money, or any of that (though having
a published research paper would be nice). She just loved the forest.
When she was ready to walk up the hill and return to her home and eventually to her college,
she knew she would be confronted by an assortment of criticisms. “Why do you have your
life planned out already?” “You study dirt? Really?” “Don’t be such
an overachiever.” “It’s okay to not know what you want to do; don’t
feel pressured to decide now.” This young woman had not felt pressured to decide, and
in fact, she wondered if someday her interests would shift again, just had they had shifted
to writing novels long ago before returning to the environment. Uncertainty, though admittedly
uncomfortable, was not an insurmountable fear for the young woman; her ideal career was based
on asking questions, after all. She had just rediscovered that what she loved was the forest,
her source for inspiration and wonder for as long as she could remember, and though maybe the
future held something different for her, for now she just wanted to learn more about it.
Smiling, thinking of the future, she whispered to the forest across the brook, “I’m back.”