How was your summer getaway?
“Trip from hell,” my neighbors reported.
They’d headed west to escape the mugginess, traffic, politics and heat of our Eastern states, hungry for clear mountain vistas, cool breezes, hikes and fly-fishing in Montana.
Instead, haze and heat met them. The warmed trout streams of drought-stricken Montana barely trickled. “We ate smoke for days,” they said. Wildfires surrounded them — even pouring smoke down from Canada.
They drove home dispirited, not just from the loss of so much North American forest, but the loss of a vision, the mirage of some last unspoiled refuge out there in a world that no longer exists.
A coworker’s family had fled in the opposite direction, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for a similar escape from heat and traffic, for some ocean breeze and carefree birding.
But construction workers accidentally chopped a power line to their isle — the umbilical cord to human livability there — winking out AC and shuttering grocery stores.
Our denuded coastal areas, once cooler, covered in wildlife-rich forest and flanked by fish-filled tides, are no longer habitable for long without trucked-in food and refrigerated buildings.
It’s true nearly everywhere.
Sitting in inland-bound traffic, my colleague had time to ponder our profound dependence on a power grid that wasn’t needed by our ancestors, whose landscapes were cooler, edible, livable.
This fall they’re spending their vacation refund on making their own place more alive — converting some lawn to shade tree saplings, a garden and native shrubs for those migratory birds they’ve always traveled elsewhere to see.
And the smoked-out neighbors? Alarmed by the loss of so much western canopy and groundwater, they also decided to create a rain garden, to protect local groundwater, and begin converting portions of lawn to canopy.
I find this remarkable. The two summer getaways from hell each in fact opened a way out of hell on Earth. That way leads back home. And it’s a route recommended by a growing groundswell of younger environmentalists.
Emma Marris is one. This environmental science writer/speaker encourages people to get out and explore nature in their own imperfect realm.
“I try to get [people] psyched about the possibilities of whatever kind of space they have direct control over,” Marris says. “Their backyard, or the roundabout on their street. Or their window box, if they’re in Brooklyn.…There’s a lot you can do with fiddling with your garden and making it much more biodiverse. And if you want to get into it … you could be planting the plants that certain migrating birds and insects need.”
Marris, who is “more interested in joy than despair,” is tired of the doomed-Earth news that only makes humans want to run away from our own world.
Millennial conservationist Evan Marks has a similar return-to-home ethic: “I think, ultimately, it’s probably unplugging the phone, putting your hands in the soil and just becoming a citizen [of the] planet.”
After managing sustainable farms around the world, Marks felt a call to return home and stir life, hope and community in his native Orange County, CA. Gathering helpers, he turned an old house and dirt lot into what is now a thriving ecological refuge, teeming with young and old student volunteers.
Back in my Virginia mountains, water-quality advocate Tim Miller is also helping kids and adults to feel at home in nature — and to invite nature back home.
Miller quit his indoor teaching gig to get humans back outdoors. His goal is to stir up love for the homeland and awareness of how local landscapes influence the entire world downstream.
“I work to re-establish a connection that’s been frayed between people and the natural world,” Miller told me. “If we love something, we want to protect it … a great blue heron standing in a creek, fireflies dancing on a summer’s evening, a tree growing stubbornly out of a rock.”
This love also brings humans back to life and joy. “I’ve seen middle school kids squeal with delight the first time they hold a crayfish,” he said.
Miller regularly takes hundreds of middle-schoolers into their local Catawba Creek, alongside a local cement plant. They learn stream species and water quality basics, from that mountain stream to its Chesapeake Bay destination hundreds of miles east.
Many of these kids will never in their lives get to go see the Chesapeake Bay — or an ocean, for that matter. But you’d never convince them, giddily exploring their local creek, that they aren’t on a vacation in the exact place they want to be.
Liza Field is a conservationist, tree planter and ethics teacher in southwest Virginia.