I had a dream when I was in my late teens. That I would live in the mother of all cities: New York City. When I finally arrived there for graduate school in 2008, it was exactly as I had imagined it. A city whose sights and sounds never faded at any time of the night, where ambulance and police sirens disturbed REM cycles with no guilt. A city where residents spilled out of bars and nightclubs enamored with the vibrancy of the city, intoxicated by more than just alcohol at frivolous hours of the morning. A city where street vendors – immigrants and transplants – started their mornings at those same inane hours, setting up their enterprises and dreams for a new life, made less fanciful and idealistic by all the sweat that went into making it a reality. The constant din of the city was my lullaby, the background score to my life for over 2 years. The life outside of the city, out in nature, out in sparsely populated parts of the world where people were replaced by land, where gardening and woodshedding were real hobbies, where you had to get into a car even to buy milk or medicine held no romantic whimsy for me. I had been born in a big city and I would never leave one if my life depended on it.
A few years, I moved out west drawn by the endless slew of tech startups and job opportunities to San Francisco. As I settled myself into the new rhythms of the city shrouded in fog, along with talks about VCs, IPOs, and apps, I started to hear a lot about spending time in the outdoors. Camping, hiking, and sailing were listed as hobbies on everyone’s online dating profiles. At first, I couldn’t fathom living in one of the most expensive cities in the world only to attempt to escape it at any given opportunity.
Slowly, my skepticism was eroded by the plunging cliffside views of the Pacific Ocean flanking the San Francisco Bay Area, the curves and drops of the Sonoma Valley, the magnitude of the towering redwoods, the unforgiving heat of the middle of California, so divorced from its coastal experience. I found myself summitting the highest peaks in the Sierras and the rock faces of Yosemite. I camped out by the roars of the Pacific, or nestled in lush parks and valleys, each time humbled by the forces of nature and wildlife around me. I was raptured by the sight of the stars, unleashed from the prison of the city lights, titillating in the way they covered an expansive, inexhaustive inky blue sky. I watched the sun rise and fall, painting the same sky in different shades of crimson, blush, and butterscotch.
Fast forward a few years to 2018…I just spent a summer out in nature, traversing National Parks across 3 countries. There were the Listerine blue lakes of Banff National Park
fed by gargantuan glaciers. There were the angry, boiling geysers and effervescent springs bursting from under the earth’s surface in Yellowstone. Then the mystical, moody fjords and unspoiled countryside resplendent with gushing waterfalls in Iceland.
As I reflect back on a summer spent amongst some of the greatest manifestations of nature, I have come to realize that it has profoundly changed me. I no longer feel the need to fill up every crevice of my life with sounds, sights, and activities. I have come to appreciate the stillness of the night without ambulance sirens and the rustle of the trees without the mechanical noises of sidewalk construction. I have come to appreciate the colors and textures in nature in a way that no luscious piece of clothing or furniture could ever enrapture me. I have felt the sheer panic and mortality associated with wild noises I did not recognize, trembling at the helplessness of encountering a creature I had no might to fight against. I have felt the pure joy of witnessing something completely untouched my man – a tiny flower sprouting in the wild or the sounds of crashing waves, or the shadows cast on a mountainside by the rising sun.
Maybe what I have come to appreciate the most during my escapades in nature is the moment pregnant with itself, devoid of any distractions or escapes. I have to pay attention, in and of itself a dwindling commodity heading toward extinction. Sometimes paying attention is a matter of survival, sometimes it’s a matter of joy. Sometimes it is feeling the burden and privilege of viewing something so remarkable – be it the Skaftafell glacier in Iceland, the Peyto Lake in Banff, or the Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone – that we as humans, for all our collective progress, could never truly replicate. Not because we don’t have the resources for it but because we don’t have the imagination for it.
I can see why generations of writers, poets, and philosophers spent their life’s work putting words to describe nature’s works and what it evoked in them. Seven years after my New York City stint came to an end, I know that being in a city surrounded by human intervention all day long is well and good but nature holds a mystery and promise that, if we were to understand her, we might actually understand more about ourselves as humans.
And maybe the key to understanding is to let go of the notion that you can understand it all.