For the Love of Nature: April Writing Contest — Congrats, Curtis F.

Scripted writers share their unforgettable moments with Mother Nature in our April writing contest.

A gust of fresh air, the view of a mountain top or the sand beneath your feet — the environment we’re surrounded by can have a heavy influence on any moment in time. An influence that’s sure to make a memory last a lifetime. In honor of Earth Day, we asked writers to share a personal moment they’ve experienced with nature. Make sure to vote for your favorite one, the winner will be announced on April 22.

Update: The winner has been announced! Congrats to Curtis who shared a personal experience with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. You can read his essay “We’re Falling into Deeper Waters” here.

  1. Enjoying the Majesty of the U.S. Landscape – Jennifer M.
  2. How a Tree Saved My Life – Ed G.
  3. Sledding During A Blizzard – Frank J.
  4. Save the Animal Homes – Aurelio L.
  5. Landlocked Southwest – Joseph S.
  6. Earthly Tasks – Paul L.
  7. A Close Encounter of the Bear Kind – Michael N.
  8. We’re Falling into Deeper Waters – Curtis F.
  9. Stories as a Teenager – April K.
  10. A Message From a Dear Departed Loved One – Malcolm C.

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Enjoying the Majesty of the U.S. Landscape

By Jennifer M.

You can’t call me an environmental nut, not by any stretch of the imagination. I throw soda cans in the recycling bin — if it’s nearby. I take reusable bags to the grocery store — if I remember them. I conserve gas by grouping my errands — unless I need to take a long drive just to think and ponder life. The theme being, I don’t go out of my way to conserve energy or protect Mother Earth. Some might call this life view selfish or irresponsible and I’m okay with that. I try to own my beliefs, values and personality. I am who I am, as Popeye might say.

But a recent trip changed my perspective ever so slightly. I recently moved from the North Carolina coast to the Southern California coast. I loaded up my SUV (a small one!), filled up my gas tank and started driving. I stopped for a few days in Houston to rest and visit with my brother, but other than that break, it was just day after day of me and the landscape. I loved every minute of it not only for the needed solitude it gave me but also for the chance to see how awesome the landscape is and how it changes, sometimes so gradually that you don’t even notice and at other times so dramatically you can practically draw a line at the mile marker.

I left North Carolina on a cold sleeting morning with my Tucson covered in snow. Bundled up, I bought a coffee at the gas station, and I’m not a coffee drinker. As I drove through South Carolina and headed towards Atlanta, I tried to burn into memory the landscape I grew up surrounded by — gentle rolling hills, beautiful Longleaf Pines (my favorite!) and snow, which is far from my favorite — since I am convinced that this is my last major move. The gradual change out my window through my first leg of the trip was familiar to me. I lived in New Orleans for two years, so when the solid ground started giving way to bayous and swamps, the difference was a sight I didn’t realize I had missed until I was driving through it once again.

It wasn’t until I drove through San Antonio that I started to see areas I hadn’t experienced before. I’ve visited all the parts of this country except the Southwest, so seeing the dramatic rock cliffs rise up on either side of the road was an awakening of sorts for me. Sure, I’ve seen photos of the seemingly endless stretch of sandy desert dotted with cacti, but I’d never seen them in “real life.” Watching a tumbleweed drift across the interstate was at once both eerie and awe-inspiring. While I may never be a composting, hybrid-driving eco-chic gal, my five days of driving have given me a new appreciation of the beauty and variety found within America from coast to coast. Hopefully, the next time I have the opportunity to choose a reusable glass container over a plastic bottle of water, I’ll do it so many more generations have the chance to appreciate the beauty I have all too often taken for granted.


How a Tree Saved My Life

Ed G.

“Come on, let’s hug that tree,” said my girlfriend’s sister as we walked through parkland. “What?” I thought, “I’m not the sort of guy who hugs trees.” However, she and my girlfriend bounded over to a particularly impressive specimen and enthusiastically threw their arms around its trunk. I — much more timidly — followed.

Let me explain, I’m no hippy and the idea of hugging a tree just makes me feel kind of awkward. Her suggestion made me feel self-conscious, a bit like telling a joke to a stranger, so I wasn’t sure I would join in. The park we were walking through was well known to me – just down the road from where I live, in England. It is ancient and older than anything else nearby — even older than the fields which must date back to mediaeval times. However, the planes overhead taking off from the nearby airport certainly meant I was in no doubt that I was living in the modern world. “Where, exactly, did tree hugging fit in with it?” I wondered to myself.

I reached the others at the base of the tree. If I joined in, the three of us could just about reach all of the way around the circumference. If I didn’t, I certainly wouldn’t be spoiling anyone’s fun, but I might also be missing out. So, I threw my arms around the tree too, the side of my face pressing up against it bark.

And that is when I felt it. Barely detectable at first but something was there – a kind of low level vibration — something like a weak magnet or a warm glow. My girlfriend’s sister was in no doubt – it was energy, chi or mojo, call it what you will. Had I, the skeptical and rational one in the group, really felt the tree’s chi — energy from a tree rooted in the ground for over a century? Could I even say such a thing without feeling utterly foolish? I didn’t know, but I knew that I had detected something and so energy seemed to me to be as good as name to use as any other.

Well, it took me a long time to get to grips with what I had felt and I’m not sure that I entirely have even now, two years later. Nevertheless, since then I have taken up Reiki, a spiritual practice developed by a Japanese Buddhist named Mikao Usui in 1922. It can be used for healing and aligning one’s thoughts and emotions. This, I should point out, is an entirely new experience for me. I have never had any form of spiritual journey before. As I place my hands close to one another, mindfully, I can feel that same warm energy between them that I felt from the tall tree in the park.

I had worked for some time in renewable energy and many of my colleagues were environmentalists, some were dedicated campaigners. I never saw what the fuss was about. However, that morning when I hugged a tree has opened my eyes. Not only have I developed spiritually as a result, I now understand how interconnected every living being is on this planet. We cannot necessarily save the world overnight, but we can treat it with the respect it deserves. And if someone asks you to hug a tree, consider giving it a go. Who knows where it might lead you.

Sledding During a Blizzard

By Frank J.

Shortly after Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida, my family and I moved to the mountains of western North Carolina just in time for the storm of the century. Growing up in Florida, and being an 11-years-old, I had never seen snow before, but the blizzard offered a fun introduction to winter weather.

Endless School Closings

The first day I got to stay home from school due to snow was a great surprise. It turns out that very little snow finds its way to Asheville, or most of the Appalachian Mountains for that matter. Northern cities are equipped to deal with this winter weather because it lasts for much of the year. Here, in Asheville, everything closes for a couple days while the snow melts and life returns to normal.

The storm in 1993 was different. We were out of school for what seemed like forever and I spent my time playing in the snow!

Snow Forts

Building a snow fort is easy. Just stack snow from around your yard into a pile and hollow it out.

My mom required me to enter and exit the house through the basement because of all the snow and ice I would bring in. Taking off my coat, shoes, extra pairs of socks, and multiple layers of sweaters took far too long. Instead, the neighborhood kids and I built outdoor shelters and warmed up in our snow forts when we got too cold.

Innovations in Sledding

Since we were spending so much time out in the snow, we grew tired of the typical winter activities – snowball fights, sledding, building snow forts, and more snowball fights. Our imaginations ran wild and we began to innovate on these themes. One of the best ideas we came up with was to go sledding in a canoe!

As we scouted the area, we found that one of the streets leading into the development offered a steep hill followed by a straightaway. Since this was normally space used for vehicle traffic, there were no fences or other obstacles in the way. It was the perfect sledding hill for a canoe filled with a dozen kids from the neighborhood. We created a 0.1 mile sledding run along the length of Teakwood Street and had a great time racing down the road in our canoe turned sled.

I’ll never see snow the same way again. Looking back to the Blizzard of ’93, now an adult, I can’t imagine the financial repercussions and loss of life that comes with such a severe storm. However, as a child I was oblivious to these problems and entirely focused on having fun while sledding during the blizzard.

Save the Animal Homes

By Aurelio L.

The yards in the front and back of our single-family house would do any homeowner in the Northeast proud. Great expanses of lawn punctuated by flowering bushes and annuals planted for color. A row of five-story-tall cypresses in the front marks our property line.

This suburban picture suffers from only one problem. Our home sits in Southern California where the natural environment is typically dry and rocky. Most of the growth consists of shrubs with deep roots for collecting what little moisture there is, and tough branches and plants above-ground. The scientific designation for this landscape is scrub desert or chaparral.

So this beautiful Northeast-type garden requires a lot of water: a wasteful luxury given our region’s continuing drought. We’d contemplated turning the whole shebang into a chaparral garden. This would conserve our precious liquid but would hardly be in keeping with the neighborhood or our two-story raised ranch-style home, with wooden siding and 60s-style rock accent walls.

Our back yard has a concrete-block wall that separates it from the neighbor’s. Because of the property slope, the wall rises about 8 feet above street level, although it’s only 3 inches wide on top. It behaves as any fence should except sometimes orange peels and seeds would mysteriously appear at its top. The nearest orange trees are several blocks away and our resident crows and doves didn’t seem capable of carrying a whole orange up there.

About a week ago, the source materialized. A gray squirrel, no bigger than two adult fists held side-by-side, darted across the wall with an orange between its front paws. There, undisturbed by neighborhood cats and dogs, and annoyed homeowners, it feasted on the golden orb. I’d like to say that it peeled the skin with its little fingers. But actually it chomped through skin with its incisors to dig into the pulp.

When it consumed its picnic, the little guy clambered up a nearby phone pole, scurried across a phone cable and into the cypress trees. The foliage is home to a whole host of animals like squirrels, bluejays, and sparrows. What would happen to all these animals if we removed these trees, along with all our other plants, during our water conservation efforts? Our garden must support a whole eco-system of wildlife.

A compromise was in order that could reduce our water consumption and preserve the animal homes. We’d eliminate the thirsty lawn, flowering bushes, and annuals in favor of low-water native plants and lots of decorative rocks. However, we’d keep the well-established plants, such as cypress, that required no sprinkler-watering to survive. We’d be saving water but Mr. Squirrel and his foliage friends could keep their homes.

Landlocked Southwest

By Joseph S.

As a boy growing up in the landlocked southwest, one of my escapist fantasies was to experience the ocean. I regarded the sparseness of vegetation, lack of rainfall and general economic scarcity as a generalized plague of poverty affecting all aspects of the region. Part of the fallout was an elusive sense of personal lowness and unexplained sadness. I vowed that one day I would shed the chains of destitution and despondency by going to live by the ocean where affluence flourished, moisture and grass were aplenty and people were happy. My identity as a struggling young man awash in a quagmire of dysfunction and anger would be rinsed away by the gentle ebb and flow of the tide.

Surfing is an extremely difficult sport to learn. Some folks find that they simply can not do it at all. Once I made it to San Diego I got my hands on a board and begun a lesson that would teach me about the quality of the brutality of nature. My condition as someone surviving off minimal resources had not improved. In fact, it was worse than ever. I had no education, no skills and no clue what direction I wanted to go in life. The only thing I knew was that if I went surfing everyday, the answers would eventually come to me like a swell of perfect waves.

The waves at Black’s Beach are fast and vicious and seem to take pride in punishing surfers. They draw you in, grab a hold of you and fling you forth, usually face first and then relentlessly pound you into the sand like a bully holding a weaker kid’s head underwater. Like massive blue hands they slap you awake, demanding respect while making you distinctly aware of your mortality. I was in a nonstop struggle against my environment, fighting against the force of the riptide and staggering about in the mosh pit-like chaos of waist-deep water where the surf meets the backwash. I was getting beat up on a daily basis by a relentless break on a notoriously unforgiving stretch of beach. I had traded in one desert for another and one day as I spat out salt water and dug sand out of my ears I realized that nothing had changed. I was still a broke, disillusioned loner wrestling with trying to find my way in an indifferent world. It was going to be the same for me wherever I went. I could go back home or stay put at the edge of the continent and face down the facts of physics. I and could confront my self-limiting beliefs that had been reinforced by years of poverty-minded thinking and learn to eclipse my weaknesses through sheer force of will.

When I caught my first wave I was overcome by a sublime sense of elation. The combination of timing, upper body strength, balance and guts had finally come together in the right amount. At last I felt the satisfaction that weeks of dehumanizing punishment had built up to. I was no longer a loser, a failure, a waste of energy. I could do something I really had no business attempting simply because I was determined. I stood in the ankle-deep water and let the endorphins render me weightless as a great  sense of relief washed over me. The waves were no longer my enemy by a hard won friend that would never lie to me. They held the promise of more humbling lessons in self-honesty and threshold bursting endeavors. My greatest teacher was a blue stretch of velocity and froth that didn’t care that I thought of myself as a washout. Thankfully that notion had rubbed off on me.

Earthly Tasks

By Paul L.

Rocks have a scent. I didn’t realize this until I was surrounded by them in a scramble in a notch in the Green Mountains of Vermont. This was the halfway point on a two mile stretch of the so-called Long Trail. I am by no means an expert hiker and was up there regaining the last vestiges of my pride after a debacle two weeks before, wherein I had to quit about 100 yards in, weighed down by pastrami and other crimes of the kitchen table. I was in good shape that day, having eaten all the correct foods and gotten sufficient sleep and all that, all the things they tell you you need to do in preparation for a day in communion with nature, as if nature needs to be impressed. My body was a temple, a ruined temple, yes, but a temple nonetheless. I threw on a knapsack filled with everything I needed for two miles of rigorous trekking at a 45-degree incline, with no respite save for a rock scramble up at the halfway point.

This was the point in the trail where everything evened out and you finally stopped moving after two hours, your heart thumping in your head. This is the point where you look around and you wonder why it is you’re there. This is no existential dilemma. You just happen to realize that there are a thousand places where you could be at that particular moment. Raking my fingers through my hair, I discovered I was badly in need of a barber. I remembered the empty fridge at home, and that my car was due for an oil change. Why here?

Then a breeze came through the rocks. It’s hard to describe the scent. (Is it a cop-out to say that it was cool and rocky-smelling?) As I stood there lamenting a day of earthly tasks left yet another day undone, the smell of rocks began to overpower me. Here was a collection which at one time sat a mile or so in the almost dead deep, and which, but for the slow churning of a jellied core, would have remained there. By pure chance was there a push in the right direction, a squeeze at the right moment. Those rocks could have wound up anywhere on the planet, feasibly. Why here? My contemplation was made all the more magnificent by another whiff of their breath, which I now recognized as the scent of salt and all the blind things that died and came to rest on their surface long ago, contributing another layer that after eons would rise up into a scramble on the notch.

Suddenly, earthly tasks didn’t seem so urgent.

A Close Encounter of the Bear Kind

By Michael N.

When I was 14, I moved from the town I had grown up in in suburban Connecticut to a sprawling, sparsely-populated rural town tucked into Northwest New Jersey. It was everything my hometown was not – conservative and paint-dry boring, full of Yankee fans and crawling with trucks that displayed NASCAR allegiances.

Nothing took longer to adjust to, though, than the sudden appearance of the “environment” and “nature” around me. Back in the Nutmeg State, it was a unique event if a squirrel appeared in the backyard; in Jersey, our house could have been the center for a Jack Hanna documentary. Hawks swooped and screeched overhead. Raccoons picked through our garbage and gnawed on our fencepost. Deer were everywhere; within a year, my father had totaled one car and severely damaged another in encounters with some unfortunate ones and the fall months were filled with the sounds of hunters’ gunshots. It was a brand new world for me.

I looked on this wild kingdom with wonder for the first summer I lived there, eventually growing to love this new kind of environment. Then, on the first day of high school that fall, I learned how to really appreciate the power of nature. As my roly-poly 14-year-old self stood at the bus stop at the entrance to the development, nervous and scared for the first day of high school and clutching an overloaded lunch bag, I heard a strange, deep grunt from behind me.

I turned to look up the hill to see an enormous black bear the size of a small minivan or large Volkswagen clomping down the hill coming directly at me, maybe 75 yards away from me and getting closer with every stride. “Oh no, I’m hot lunch”, I thought, thinking that the bear could feast for months on my chubby corpse. I stood paralyzed, quaking with terror.

Luckily, I was not eaten, mauled or even pestered. A car driven by some seniors came by and honked at the onrushing bear, chasing it back into the woods. I was left shaking and wondering if it was a horrible omen for my high-school experience (as it turned out to be, it was).

So, what did this experience teach me? That along with all of the wonder in the world, there came a degree of responsibility, too. My close bear encounter reminded me that we share the world with nature – and that we have to learn how to exist alongside these wondrous creatures. It was something that never left me.

Oh, and one good thing that came of the bear encounter? Killer first-date tale. Absolutely killer.

We’re Falling into Deeper Waters

Curtis F.

I never quite thought I could get as interested in the environment as I now am. It confounds me just how involved I’ve become in protecting it since I saw the difficulties caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I already had a trip planned for months to visit my sister down at Louisiana’s gulf coast when the explosion erupted that started the 87-day-long oil spill. We had all seen the news stories, but they really couldn’t come close to explaining just how detrimental the spill had become.

Countless places were closed down due to the spill by the time I got there, but this wasn’t the truth everywhere. By the time we’d gotten back to my sister’s house that day, though, I wished that it had been. The once beautiful beach that I enjoyed visiting the one or two times I was able to make it down to the Gulf was no longer what I was used to. Whereas I once saw beautiful shells spread across the ground, there were now black clumps of tar. The scariest thing? If you didn’t know what they were, you could’ve assumed that they were nothing more than black rocks.

What really shook me to the core, though, was the loss of life on the shores. I saw no scenes of pelicans stuck in gobs of oil; I assume beaches in that bad of shape were closed. There were, however, countless smaller animals who had met their ends on these once happy shores. The horseshoe crabs seemed to have gotten the worst of it, but it was the dead baby turtles strewn about every so often that visibly upset my sister.

Though, at the end of that day, I had wished that I’d never gone to the beach. I am now more thankful than ever that I did. Since that day, I’ve done everything from attend protests of other environmentally destructive ideas — such as the Keystone Pipeline — to engaging in massive tree planting projects in an effort to counteract deforestation. Sadly, it never seems to be enough from just the few people who participate.

I look at the recent report from the United Nations that says global warming is fueling natural disasters and food shortages and I can only get sickened when I remember what I saw on the beach that day. We’ve all seen exactly what these nonrenewable resources do to our environment, yet we seem to simply not care. Sadly, every time I’m out planting a tree now, the only thought going through my head is “What’s the point?” Of course, when I think back to that day at the beach, this question is quickly answered.

Stories as a Teenager

By April K.

Growing up as a Native American the environment was always a part of my life. My grandmother, who has been blessed to see nearly 98 years of this Earth used to remind me constantly of our connection with the land. As a child I would be given fruit to snack on and before I was able to throw away the seeds, my grandmother would swoop out of nowhere and give me the sternest look. When I queried her gaze, she’d tell me stories of when she was a child tending her very own fruit trees and how she was so proud when they blossomed. This prompted me to plant lemon seeds and fig seeds so I could grow my own trees. Over the years, I too grew proud of my trees and often gave the excess fruit to nearby neighbors or other children in my area. However, I still didn’t quite understand my connection to the land or just how important nature was until I was a teen.

When I was 14, my mother ran into a patch of difficulty that prompted us to move from our cozy home in Texas to a homeless shelter on the C.R.I.T. Reservation (Colorado River Indian Tribes). Here, there weren’t any convenience stores. In fact, there was no convenience at all. We were forced to eat whatever the earth provided for us — to drink from the Colorado River and to ration what goods we could from the tribe’s own farmland. I never knew how sweet an orange could taste, how precious the sight of a full moon could be, or how fun it was to play among the cacti until I was here. From then on I made it a point to continuously strive to advocate the importance of taking care of the land. As my grandmother used to say, “Take care of the Earth and she will take care of you.” I follow her advice still to this day.

I often think back to those times of desperation and I realize just how lucky I was to experience the Earth the way she was. She was beautiful and rich and colorful and clear. All of my best memories were out in nature and I still like to find little nooks and crannies among my new habitat in New York to explore. For this Earth Day I will cherish being here. I will cherish what nature gives me and take it all in with a smile knowing I was lucky enough to experience her once again.

A Message From a Dear Departed Loved One

By Malcolm C.

To say that my grandma and I were close just wouldn’t do justice to the bond we had. She was the one member of my family I could go to with any problem. No matter how embarrassing, or how personal the issue was, I could always rely on her to say the right thing and make everything OK. So when I lost her to cancer last year, a part of me died with her.

My granddad died over a decade ago, and grandma moved in with us almost immediately afterwards. At first, she was relatively fit and active. She liked nothing more than to tend to our enormous garden — when the weather and her health allowed it. For hours she would remove weeds, plant flowers, mow the lawn and generally make what used to be an overgrown mess into a beautiful communal area for the family to enjoy.

About six months after her passing, life had pretty much returned to normal. The same banalities and trivialities of existence were important to me once again, but I was now facing them without her love and wisdom for guidance. Although I didn’t know it at first, grandma was never too far away — a fact that hit home one day in an astonishing way.

I had been off work with depression for about a week at the time, and I was drowning in a pool of self-pity and despair. I can’t remember what prompted my mental anguish, but I remember closing my eyes and talking to my grandma — asking her for help. I had never experienced depression and I was struggling to cope.

A few days passed, and my emotional stress was beginning to take over my life. With no one to talk to or ask for help, I descended lower and lower, until I could barely lift my head off the pillow in the mornings. But one morning changed everything and it started with the gentle call of a wood pigeon from my garden.

Spring had just arrived, and the first signs of life were emerging everywhere, but when I opened my curtains to look for the bird I’d just heard, I was immediately taken aback by a blanket of yellow. Rows and rows of beautiful daffodils swathed my garden in glorious color. The bulbs that had been planted by my grandma several years earlier had once again come to life. My grandma was talking to me, and she was telling me that life is beautiful — filled with new beginnings.