Throughout my life, nature has been a way to find inspiration, seed conversation, and get at truth. I grew up under towering Douglas firs in Oregon. The smell of fir needles, the stickiness of pitch, and the story of how the forest mice ran into the fir cones to escape fire (on a Doug fir cone, you can see their legs and tails still sticking out) are indelible memories.
My love of trees has led me to work as an environmental educator, urban forester, field researcher, and now public artist. People and plants have walked in tandem throughout history, and I am fascinated by how trees hold our stories. With their much longer lifespans, trees bridge human generations. A big tree is a portal to the past, with its own history of why it grew in a certain spot.
It can also be a signpost of things to come as forests respond to climate shifts. In my work as an artist, I explore trees as a way to delve into the past, present, and future. For example, trees were used as markers in the 1800s’ Original Public Land Survey System. In the past year, I have been following a trail that has shown me how our gridwork of roads, our real estate documents, and redlining all descend from this system. Trees have observed the engineering of our society all along. That gives me hope that trees can guide us in correcting our paths forward, individually and collectively.
I take small groups of people on “tree walks” in Minneapolis, where we talk about what we can do to acknowledge difficult histories and improve our collective future. I have found that under a canopy of leaves is a perfect setting to grow our connections to each other and to the landscapes we inhabit.
Nature speaks to me in sounds, images, and gentle touches. I am a city girl, parttime Minnesotan, and native Bostonian, but my family is from the Cape. I have had an enchanting relationship with the ocean, and I often journal an ode to the song of the waves’ serenade.
There is something about the morning that draws me out into connection with the natural world. I am grateful that during 2020 and Covid-19, I was able to find delight, calm, and satisfaction in lakes, sunsets, and meadows around my community.
The quiet of the morning offers me a unique opportunity for grace and renewal unlike any other time of the day: the sun peeking through my blinds, birds singing a morning melody, or the rustling of leaves blowing across my lawn telling me a new day has dawned.
I have connected with nature most of my life because of the wonder I have that steers me as I wander, like an archaeologist out for her first dig. The excitement of what I might find, seeking unknown places or parks; the thrill of discovering a new body of water where I find beauty, scenic serenity, or an animal’s habitat. I have witnessed in the last year shooting stars, the joy of walking on a frozen body of water, and ducks shouting to one another while dancing.
Often my senses are awakened and brought to peace by connecting with the natural world. The tranquility I find on walks alone or with another provides me a canopy of solace and the renewed safety I need.
I am back from my third solo five-day backpack on the Superior Hiking Trail. At age 71 and unathletic, I am still waiting for various body parts to reassemble themselves.
Why do I do it?
To get away from humans, noise, distractions, and strategic planning sessions. With humans it is a struggle to know who I am, to be who I am. To get out of my head and substitute fresh air. I do it because of old age and climate change and the possibility that humans might ride off to another planet. There are ten thousand unique beings — flora, fauna, waterways, and more. I personally, and humans generally, will soon not be able to connect with them.
Imagine you are on that departing spaceship. Will you suddenly panic at the loss of that smell that comes before rain? Or the soft green moss you will never touch again? The song of the chickadee?
I am different on the trail. My feet stop on their own when I just cannot go on. Do you know the palindrome, La ruta nos aportó otro paso natural? (“The path provides the natural next step.”)
Usually an overeater, I pack little food because I want so much less there. I thought I would listen to podcasts, but never do. Each step around rock and root, listening, smelling, a million spring beauty flowers. That is enough.
Nature was my playground as a child. I grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, where I observed plants close-up. In spring, orange lilies mysteriously emerged among piled rocks and undisturbed soil in the hedgerows between agricultural fields. Our farm is in the area where the last glacier stopped; the tension zone between the prairie-forest province and the northern-hardwoods province, as I learned later when I read John T. Curtis’s “The Vegetation of Wisconsin.” The wood lilies were the last evidence of a native forest.
I photograph landscapes over time. At first, landforms and trees were compositional anchors. But as I observed changes in the landscape, I wanted to know what caused them, so I educated myself. I attained a degree in landscape architecture, a profession that combines plant knowledge and ecology with the design and care of landscapes. I engaged scientists who study the landscapes that I photograph, enabling the landscape’s story to emerge.
Spring-fed Trout Brook meets the Saint Croix River in a sandy floodplain at the base of bluffs lining the river. Floodplain forests are dynamic systems that rely on disturbance for their health. This maple and cottonwood forest provides habitat and filters runoff from uplands including agricultural lands, residential subdivisions, and the Afton Alps ski area. My photograph [above] chronicles a recent period of historic crests on the river caused by global weather patterns. In this seemingly pastoral image, trees and roots submerge, suffocating because of anoxia (lack of oxygen), and the forest is literally floating away.
During our brief time on earth, we are stewards of the land, responsible for its care.
Her life, the life of the water, is our life. I approach the small stream of my childhood tenderly, kneel down close enough to smell her. She who trickles downhill, feeds the estuary, who flows into gichigami, the sweet water sea, the lifeblood we know as Lake Superior. Under the surface, thrumming dark cold purity mingles with dirt, stone, and decay. I come to listen to her.
Her life is reaching, flowing, yearning. Water holds the prayers of ancestors, that we may be here today, alive, opening, reaching. That we may smell earthy, wet moss tendrils, hear the music of moving water. My hands submerge, gently filling. I come for healing, to pray, “May I, whose ancestors were guests in this place, know that I am part of you. May I learn to care for you.”
My love of nature goes back as far as I can remember. I grew up in East Saint Paul and spent plenty of time hanging around the bluffs that the Dakota people call Imniza Ska. I am forever in awe of the color changes through the seasons. The warmth of the lime and sandstone rock face, when illuminated by the low sunsets of winter, is truly breathtaking.
When the 9 to 5 grinds my spirit into a stupor, a walk along the forest paths of Hidden Falls Park or Minnehaha Falls to hear the song of the red-winged blackbird washes away the murky film that cloaks my heart.
I keep a garden of my own that has become a sacred space. A place of reverence, relief, and joy. I also make it a point to visit parks and Lake Superior as often as possible. Cold Water Spring in Saint Paul is a current favorite. Every month, there is an informal walk from the parking lot to the spring on the full moon and it serves as a reminder that as an extension of the natural world, I am a part of something miraculous.
I like to walk outdoors, taking deep breaths, and meditate as I walk. At other times I sing or hum, as I am a firm believer that music soothes the soul. I walk more slowly as I am in my 90s, but I’m finding that walking more slowly I notice details that I would likely have missed if I was rushing along. It is a good time to think of incidents of kindness and love that my children and grandchildren have given to me over the years. Their frequent phone calls and texts lift my mood. I end every conversation with them by saying that I love them.
I connect to the natural world because the earth is my mother
and the sky is my father
and the animals and plants are my older brothers and sisters
my teachers and my healers
And the water that flows from River to Sea
in and around the world
is the same water that flows in me
In the woods and on seashore
Feeling the joy of being known
Feasting my eyes on green
opens my heart to things unseen
and wisdom that came from long ago
I need to be among plants and living bodies of water to breath freely
Disconnected, I cannot breathe, I am unknown, I am not free.
Up north, you’ll see billboards. “Where natural wonders never cease!”
I am aware of our climate crisis. Our natural wonders are under threat.
My family moved to the suburbs from western Minnesota before I was born so my dad could have better working opportunities. We visited family farms in the town where my parents were raised, where my ancestors settled after migrating from Germany. My ancestors’ way of life was to have their feet planted in the earth. I used to dread the drive through farmland, but now it has a special place in my heart.
Coming from a family of rural farmers, and having studied environmental justice, I know how farmers are the most productive workers in the country, how they are left behind, and how agriculture contributes to pollution. Tourism depends on places like the Boundary Waters Wilderness, where I learned to canoe. But the BWCA has been under threat from mining, and the Mississippi River is under threat from pipelines. I try to do my part, connecting myself to the land and bodies of water, and educating myself and my community on the rights of nature.
Animal babies born in the springtime show up hidden under bushes and in the forest protected by the foliage that grows around, almost impossible to detect. The underbrush holds the critters like larvae and caterpillars getting ready to transform into new life — chrysalis then butterflies. Bird migration is upon us and flocks gather showing their strength and territory. Little ducklings with their parents leading the way try to cross the road to get to the nearby pond. Even in the ants that build their nests at the edge of the cracks in the sidewalks, even the butterflies that gather nectar and go from flower to flower. Sounds of frogs and crickets fill the evening while chirping birds wake me in the morning, early — way too early. The sun starts to rise and the glow fills my room. Wonder. This is real life abundant.
Time. It does take pausing to notice, to look beyond myself and daily tasks. My time spent observing the natural tapestry, even a very small bit of time and merely looking up and around, can completely change my attitude, thought, perspective, and life force. Up to the sky, taking a breath and letting my senses wonder, then notice. If I fail to appreciate what is right here, all around me, everything from the ants to the caterpillars to the vast expanse; I will miss essence. All the importance. Life. Connecting to the natural world is life giving, vitally sustaining. It is my way of life.
The foundation of my life is rooted in the natural world and in agriculture. Each day I choose to purposefully connect with Her. I do this as my young child explores the world, through my appreciation for what the Earth gives us, and through my work at Conservation Minnesota.
As tenants on this planet, it is vital we reciprocate and give back to the Earth through our individual and collective actions. If we don’t connect with the natural world, our resources and places of recreation and peace will no longer be there for the next generation. I hope we can honor Minnesota’s unique environment, tended for centuries by the Indigenous people of this land, with thoughtful conservation and protection practices and policies.
As a woman and a mother, I have shared my connection with the natural world by teaching others how to grow food, by advocating for policies that impact us and address environmental inequities, and by digging myself into the dirt and into learning how to be a better steward of the Earth and my community. I aim to share with my son the connection I have with the natural world and appreciation for all that it is and could be.