I never felt overly attached to nature or the natural world. Animals have always held a special place in my heart, ever since I was a child. The abiotic and biotic factors in nature beyond animals, however, never seemed to concern me. As I grew up, my eyes began to open and I saw the beauty in the sunset and the importance of cleaning up pollution in our oceans. Eventually, my passion for nature took me to Tanzania, where I spent a semester studying wildlife management and ecology. While abroad, my connection with the natural world changed drastically.
Before leaving for Africa, my values in the environment were primarily about aesthetics. I loved beautiful sights and sounds, appreciating long hikes in the Pocono mountains or exploring different beaches around Charleston. I wanted to clean up pollution and our waters because of the health of wildlife and to preserve the majesty of nature. My connection to the natural world changed once I was immersed in it for four months. Quite early in my semester I saw how dependent the Tanzanians were on the environment. The majority of people were farmers, and if not they were pastoralists or even agro-pastoralists. No one really owned the land to the point others didn’t utilize it as well. The vegetation changed on different parts of a road depending on if it was a flood zone or how close it was to another farm. People lived their life around the natural world to survive, rather than changing the natural world in order to serve them best. There was something so peaceful about this relationship it was inspiring.
Besides appreciating the human/environment relationship, I also observed some not-so-happy events occuring in the ecosystems there. There was excessive land degradation in many areas due to overgrazing, lack of nutrient cycling, and improper farming techniques. There was also very careful water utilization due to the lengths it took people to acquire water. The water acidity in Lake Manyara National Park was getting increasingly more acidic, causing large portions of the Flamingo populations to be poisoned by the toxic algae. Animals were also encroaching on farmland and homes due to settlements blocking important migratory corridors. These various problems enlightened me to other amazing and important parts of ecosystems and the environment. I also felt a connection to the Tanzanians because they accepted that climate change was a problem, they can see drastic differences in rainfall and weather patterns every year. Animal behavior even reflects the consequences of climate change. Living with people willing to fight and educate others about a common problem we share globally was really inspiring.
The moment I truly felt the most connected with nature was while camping in the Serengeti for a week. Without a phone, plumbing, or any technology besides my camera, I was forced to be entertained by the world around me. Birding at 5 am became a treat instead of a hassle. Instead of taking quizzes on buzzfeed, I was able to watch a baby elephant practice using its trunk. The best moment of my life, and the one I attribute to my love for nature, is when we were driving back to camp after a long day of game drives and the sky unleashed a waterfall of rain onto us. Normally, we would put the roof back down and shield ourselves from the unpleasantries of being drenched. Instead, we watched Wildebeests dance in the rain with happiness, heard the trumpets of elephants with excitement, and saw all of the Serengeti celebrate the end of a drought and the beginning of the short rain season. Realizing how dependent the ecosystem was on every portion of the system was incredible. That moment changed my entire view on nature and opened my eyes at the beautiful complexities that go into it.
Getting ourselves out of touch with technology and in touch with nature will not only be beneficial for the environment, but for ourselves as well. Taking a walk around the battery instead of binge watching season 3 of Rick and Morty will give your body some vitamin D, your mind a break from the chaos that is undergrad, and might even do a little something for your soul.