I grew up in a town called Scarborough on the southern coast of Maine. Although I was not born here, it’s the only place I remember living.
Here, among the balsams and oaks, the sound of coyote puppies howling or tom turkeys attracting a mate, and the plentiful vegetables from our garden in summertime. Here, where the winter world is covered in a sparkling blanket and transformed into an icy wonderland. This is the world that has raised me and helped shape me into the person I am today.
I grew up rubbing dandelions on my cheeks for yellow makeup and with no houses in sight, would run with my sister, naked, through the falling rain. We helped collect acorns for the chipmunks and poured them down their holes before winter. Every day after school I walked home from the bus stop down our half-mile dirt driveway with my mom. Every day I was enveloped in whatever weather, wildlife or season that was presented to us by nature. Sometimes this was annoying to me. After school I was tired; I didn’t want to walk home. Always the conscientious student, I would complain when my mom said I couldn’t do my homework until I had played outside. This confused me. Weren’t my parents always saying, “work before play”? I obeyed, though, and always found something to do despite my original resistance.
Old stone walls lie in various places on our property; some have fallen into the ground. Over one of the walls, we were forbidden to go. As a young kid, this rule was bewildering. Why couldn’t we go somewhere that was right next to our house, a piece of land on which no other houses stood? I was told many times that this was the Rachel Carson Preserve, it was protected land for wildlife. It would not be until I was much older that I would realize the magnitude of Carson’s work as an environmentalist. To me, her preserve had simply meant a restriction to my exploration.
This was not the only restriction I dealt with, however. I could never go in the woods, or tall grasses in the summertime, or wear the same clothes inside as outside. This was due to the ever-increasing tick problem. Doing “tick checks” was a common ritual in my household. After 14 years of living there, I finally felt the harmful repercussions of the epidemic.
I suddenly fell ill at the end of my eighth-grade year and, for three weeks, could not get out of bed. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease and at least two other tick-borne illnesses. This was devastating. I had been sick before but never for this duration. I saw countless doctors, each with his/her own idea of treatment, but nothing was successful. We were so desperate for me to get better that my parents sought experts as far away as Germany! In the meantime, I was really struggling to function. I would often miss consecutive weeks of school, barely able to do any activity. Other times I would make it to partial days of school but feel unable to think when I was there. Brain fog was just one of my symptoms. Occasionally, I would remember the reality of my existence and I would break down and become very depressed.
One winter day, as I lay in a recliner chair (the place I now spent most of my time), watching the snowflakes swirling in mini tornados on their way down to the blustery blanket below, I realized I hadn’t played outside in over a year. I hadn’t even smelled fresh air in the past few days. At this realization my mind became numb and my heart was crushed into something I no longer recognized as my own. There had been no walks on the driveway, experiencing the changing seasons, no sledding, swimming or running through the grass with my sister. There were only me, the chair and the TV that was keeping my mind off of the world. It was at that moment I regretted all the complaining I had done when I was younger when my mom told me to go outside.
I wasn’t aware of how lucky I had been. I would have given anything to jump out of my chair at that very moment and run outside into a snowbank.
Two years passed before I found an effective treatment. Both my mom and sister went through this treatment with me as they had been diagnosed as well. Getting better was an ordeal in itself but, the good news was, I was getting BETTER! I began to return to school and stay for a longer time. My brain was able to process work again. Though my energy was, and still is, limited, I could now tolerate spending time outside again. The liberation I felt walking down my driveway was the most enjoyable experience I had felt in a long time. I was floating, no longer weighed down by the burden of illness and soon I would have the freedom to live the way I chose.
Although I am still (physically and mentally) recovering from this debilitating time in my life, I am returning to feeling like the “real me.” Even though I’m starting to feel like myself again, some things have changed.
Every time I feel the wind against my skin or pavement, gravel, grass or fall leaves moving under my feet I can’t help but be reminded of how lucky I am. I will never take the ability to be outdoors for granted again.
Having been brought up in an environmentally-conscious family, I have always been aware of factors that contribute to the balance between human health and the health of nature. Often, I helped to pick up trash alongside the road or on the beach and was disappointed in the people who participated in allowing this problem to continue. My passion was accentuated through my time of illness however and I realized how important the Earth was to me. My knowledge of climate change increased along with the problem and became an ever-expanding thunderhead looming over my consciousness.When my friend shouts “Hey! Is that a jellyfish?” and I look to see a plastic bag rising and falling with the waves of
the ocean, my excitement does the same. When I see a video of a polar bear swimming in the water and hear that it may drown before it reaches land or ice and that humans are to blame, I’m angry. I did not choose to contract this illness. However, we can choose to prevent these global crises from happening— but only if we choose. I want to help people understand this and help them to understand that there are other ways; that it is possible to live in harmony with the world in which we live.
Everything I have been through has led me to this realization: from growing up with the trees, being taught how to love them and being deprived of their shade, to being brought back under them with the help of my family, and now being able to walk freely among them and independently through the forest. When I now gaze over the stone wall, I think not of my limitations but of the protection and possibilities, this symbolizes for our society and the wild growth around us.
Photo credits: Maya Chase
MOTHER’S HOME REMEDY: Understanding the Ocean’s Healing Powers
THE HEALING POWER OF NATURE: When Community and Nature Come Together in the Face of Tragedy
THE RIVER: The Restorative Power of Nature in Difficult Times, by Richard Louv
TECHNOLOGY IS IN OUR NATURE: But to Flourish, We Still Need Our Wild Connection