Zach Garcia, director of education, natural resources, and research for Evansville’s Wesselman Woods, asks us to contemplate the beauty of the new world that will be formed out of our current pandemic moment.
Gratitude has been a reoccurring sentiment for me over the past few weeks. Despite the mix of drunken torpor and frantic hysteria surrounding the pandemic, I am quite surprised that gratitude is the emotion that overwhelms me.
Of course, apprehension, distress, and strife overcome me when I turn on the news and see communities ravaged by the pandemic. Our species is taking a significant hit by COVID – some communities more than others due to years of active oppression, injustice, and exclusion. What destruction has come to us! Yet, this destructive force, for all of us on this planet, provides a glimpse of our potential future.
I have at times attempted to envision what the next ten, fifteen, or twenty years will provide to us. I think this is a fair reflection for everyone to partake – what do we want our future to look like?
When I wonder about this question, the only guide I want and need is nature. I am here, at the southernmost tip of Indiana, nestled in the middle of the small city of Evansville, at Wesselman Woods, the largest tract of urban old growth forest in the United States. I would lie if I said I did not talk to myself when I am walking through the forest, and I would be an even bigger liar if I said I did not talk to the forest daily. It has been a ritual for me to traverse the same paths each day – greeting the tulip and sweetgum trees, intimately saying ‘hello’ to the spider webs I smash into face-first, and witnessing the wildflowers show off their colors. Yet despite this romantic embrace from nature, it is the destruction I witness on my wandering through the woods that sparks the most reflection.
Two months ago, I came upon a majestic cottonwood laying across the path – deep grooves within her bark, sprinkled all over with green and gray lichens. Rain had saturated the ground the night prior. Unable to maintain her balance in the swollen ground, her roots gave way. In her plummet toward the earth, she violently snapped a sugar maple in half – innards of the snapped trunk fanned out to expose the wound. I examined the damage, and, rather than sadness, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I was thankful to be the first to see the beautiful colors of beige and dark brown exposed within the wood, thankful to run my fingers across the deformed and splintered grain. I imagine what the future will hold for both of these trees now – a pit and mound teeming with life, a successional matrix of wildflowers, sprouting trees, and ruddy fungi.
As I walk these paths daily, I pass by both the fallen, damaged, decaying, and dead – and I remember that they are a reverent experience of life. So quickly, we are taught to ignore and fear the end of life, but my journeys acknowledge death, destruction, and decay into a light of veneration. I appreciate the various shapes, wounds, and bends in the plant life. As Alice Walker so beautifully wrote, "In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful."
With the push and pull of human struggles, a suffocating toil of emotions each day is a reality for many – feeling like our flesh is slowly being girdled and torn. Yet, these fractured feelings only affirm our spirits on Earth – we are here. With might and commitment, the forest has shaped itself to embrace destruction, chaos, and violence. All whilst knowing that underneath these terrifying times, a glorious spirit emerges with wounds of wisdom, shapes of splendor, and beguiling bends.
If you have time to explore during lockdown, I urge you to ingest the wisdom and strength of the forest. Nature understands and deals well with destruction - open yourself to take part in learning from the forest to master your own strife. Appreciate the fact that through all doors of destruction there is a light of hope. Make your journey your own - experience nature as a force of destructive power and creative love.
Despite the chaos of the current world, everyone can reflect on the gratitude of being on this Earth and a part of this magnificent universe right now. A quote, I constantly find myself drawn to, comes from “Journey of the Universe,” by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Thomas Swimme:
“For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, and an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself. And this changes everything.”
Never in my life has a quote centered me within the expanse of the universe as this one has at this time. It has been a mantra for me to continually remember that I am here – we are here. I believe immersing yourself in nature is unequivocally the first step to understanding yourself and your placement in this universe.
The trials of today seem uncompromising and the coming years when we will increasingly feel the impacts of climate change seem dismal, but we have the opportunity to heal our wounds. I am grateful that I am here now – a part of all of this, the good and the bad. I reflect on a new world – one we may not be a part of, but one we can surely begin, with creativity, to inspire and heal.
Zach Garcia is currently the Director of Education, Natural Resources, and Research at Wesselman Woods in Evansville, Indiana. Zach is keen on merging environmental humanities as a core piece of WesselmanWoods’sprograms. He recently graduated from theYale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University with a master’s degree in environmental management. Zach pursued research in socio-cultural and ecological interactions and environmental stewardship while completing his masters. Prior to graduate school, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal working alongside communities on agricultural and environmental projects.