Written By: Derek Martin
Published: April 22, 2020
This year we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s pretty remarkable how this simple day, a celebration of the natural world, has changed our society in such profound ways. The acknowledgement of the power and wonder of nature has led to a greater awareness of our environmental impacts and our continued reliance on nature for our livelihoods, no matter our profession or socio-economic status.
My family was big on camping, so I grew up with a big appreciation for nature. We’d spend weeks on at a time in the woods cooking by fire, hiking, and watching the sunset and the stars come out. The shifting sounds of nature fascinated me. Laying in my tent at night I could hear the quick rustle of leaves as an unidentified animal scampered by, usually a raccoon, the hooting of an owl, or the wind moving through the trees. As the sun rose, the birds began to chirp but all else felt so still. That is, until my father woke up and found the remains of the raccoon’s midnight hijinks. My favorite place to camp was at Lake George at the southeast base of the Adirondack Mountains in New York. There we would rent a boat and camp on isolated little islands. Our campsite on the calm, cool water with nothing in sight but the rolling mountains made us feel like we were explorers on foreign, yet to be discovered, lands.
The view from my family’s campsite on Lake George, NY.
While I loved being in nature, I hadn’t realized its transformative powers until I was in my twenties. In 2014, I was consumed with what I refer to as my quarter-life crisis. In high school I had decided that I was going to become an accountant. After one semester in a high school accounting class, I decided I was to become a CPA, then eventually the CFO of some company. At the age of 17, I had my whole life figured out! I was dense enough to believe that for too many years. Accounting was comforting to me; I was good at it and it was a stable, well-paying profession. I’ve realized that by clinging to the first career I viewed as feasible (sadly, astronaut was not in my cards), I avoided the anxiety of facing an uncertain future: the hallmark of adolescence.
My quarter-life crisis came roaring into consciousness on a run. I don’t remember how the question popped into my head, but I asked myself, could I continue working as an accountant for the next 30 years? I felt sick to my stomach thinking about that question. I was good at accounting, having worked at the University of Michigan as an accountant for four years and already been promoted twice. There was something missing though, my enthusiasm and passion weren’t there. For those of you reading this who are or think about becoming an accountant, it can be a great career, so don’t let me talk you out of it, but I realized I couldn’t spend the majority of my adult life creating financial reports.
That conclusion was the easiest part of my journey. The next question, “what do I want to do instead” was immensely harder. I hadn’t given this question any real thought since I was in my early teenage years. I felt more lost than ever. I felt like I had failed. I went to college, spent so much time, energy, not to mention money, on a career that I was turning my back on.
At this time, I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There are countless amazing things about Ann Arbor, but one of its gems is the greenway along the Huron River in the heart of the city. A combination of the Nichols Arboretum, Furstenberg Nature Area, and Fuller Park creates an oasis inside a bustling city of 200,000. By taking walks through this greenway, I began to work through my crisis. Hearing the birds and the rushing waters of the Huron River, feasting upon the greenery, and breathing in the clean fresh air, my mind began to calm and I was able to think more clearly about my situation. I realized I had the luxury of time. I had a job, while I didn’t love it, it was supporting me and I could continue doing until I figured out what to do next. On one of my walks, feeling quite at ease and peaceful, I decided that I needed to start exploring different career possibilities. I would come to Nicholas Arboretum and read quite regularly, so why not read about different professions, fields of study, and areas of society? On summer evenings or on weekends, I would bring a blanket out to the arboretum, with some snacks of course, to lounge and read.
I tried and failed to read about economics, learning about the healthcare industry was traumatizing, and political science was interesting but didn’t keep me engaged once getting more into the details. Finally I read a book about biomimicry, which I thought was the most fascinating thing under the sun. Biomimicry analyzes the best ideas of nature and applies them to the human world. It seemed so simple, plants and animals have evolved over millennia to solve the same problems we’re facing so what lessons can we learn from them? Excited that I finally found something I felt a deep passion for, I researched biomimicry careers but came away disappointed. Extensive science or engineering knowledge was needed, not to mention biomimicry isn’t a well-defined career path.
Open field at Nichols Arboretum, the site of many of my picnics.
Again, I felt like I had failed myself, this time because I hadn’t studied science or engineering in college, I turned to food. My little picnics while reading were becoming more and more elaborate (I’m a sucker for charcuterie). Food has always been something I enjoyed thinking about, cooking, and of course eating! I had read about food already and was interested in the health impacts of it (I spent a year and a half as a vegan because of previous research). This time though, I started reading about the environmental impacts of food. This then led to reading about general environmental impacts of our society, and I was hooked. The severity of the environmental crises became clear to me, and I felt like I could no longer enjoy my experiences in nature without looking at it as an endangered experience. I knew I had to change, but I also knew that the world had to change if we were to ever solve the biggest set of crises we’ve ever faced as a species. Sustainability became the idea that not only interested me but gave me purpose. Sustainability opened my eyes to how we can rebuild society in a way to create a healthy and just planet for all humans and all living things.
Those walks in the woods, sitting on the edge of the Huron River, and the picnics in the grasses of the arboretum transformed me. It gave respite to sooth my stressed out mind. It provided me a place to lose myself. It offered inspiration and a new path, both literally and figuratively. It gave me space to explore and discover.
The Huron River at the Nichols Arboretum. It’s so easy to forget you’re in the middle of a city, until you look up. The U of M hospital system is just outside the arboretum.
Nature provided all of this without asking for anything in return. No entrance fee, no hourly rate, and no expectations. This generosity is being threatened every day by anthropogenic forces that expect so much. This is where I now spend my days, thinking about how we can protect this generosity so others can experience it as well. That, in my opinion, is the power of Earth Day. It provides all of us the space to acknowledge the gifts we’ve received from nature and allows us to talk about the ways in which nature has transformed each of our lives.