When I was three, I lived in the country where my mom owned 21 acres of woodsy hillside. I was too young to form many memories there before we moved, but of the ones that remain, all but two took place outside. I had a swing set that faced the hill, and on pretty days, I would swing and focus my attention to the hill with all of its untouched trees and weeds, on the hawks that soared overhead, on the sound of nature around me. I felt the warm breeze as I watched butterflies and bees pass by. That was my happy place, outside in my little clearing.
When I was ten, I begged my dad to take me to the park every chance we got to walk the paths, see the squirrels and traverse the creeks and streams. We played games and talked, but mostly, we blazed our own trails through the woods in revered silence. As we walked, we listened to the frogs and the echo of twigs beneath our feet.
When I was fifteen, I spent every evening it wasn’t snowing outside, alone with my thoughts and whatever music I wanted that day. During that time, the trials of high school would wash away as I focused my attention to yet another hill older than anything else I knew while starlings swarmed at sunset. At an age where I most wanted to figure out who I was going to be and needed space to do that, I relied on the calming nature of sun and sky and breezes, grass under my feet, the smell of wildflowers and the sounds of animals.
When I was twenty-two in graduate school away from home and everyone I knew, I again found solace in the world beyond the streets. I knew no one in that city, and for the first time in my life, I had to take care of myself without a safety net. Yet far away from the hills I knew before, I found my peace in different streams, trees and birds.
Even now when I feel panicked and overwhelmed, I run to the door. Something within me shouts to go outside to feel better. I find the nearest green space and breathe it in. I focus my attention on the newly-formed buds on previously barren trees, and I reassess. Seeing nature emerge from sidewalks despite civilization’s best effort reminds me that I, too, can thrive despite obstacles.
This is what nature has given to me. Through childhood, school, relocation and work, I have found purpose and direction walking through fields with fireflies. But even in my beloved West Virginia, those magical hills that provide me perspective are being flattened for industry. We owe them more than that. I owe them more than that.
I am indebted beyond measure to my sanctuary of greenery and open space, and I bet I’m not alone. For every child who collects rocks or flowers for his/her parent, for every family planning picnics and hikes, for all the kids playing baseball or soccer from dawn to dusk and for every person like me who gains clarity from nature, we have an obligation to protect it.
We can’t halt civilization, nor should we try, but we can make more intentional and long-term decisions. We can develop better recycling programs in the communities that still lack them. We can volunteer to do park clean-ups and protect wildlife habitats. We can work toward more renewable resources and cleaner energy. We can replant what has been cut down and remain cognizant of what’s been taken already.
All of my life, the world outside my door has been my comfort. Its effect on my happiness over the years is immeasurable, and I can’t begin to repay that gift. But I can try. Because I’d like to think that nature will continue to guide me through my successes and trials and because I suspect so many others get that same comfort, I want to sustain that which sustains me. I want to do whatever I can to provide future generations the peace I felt when I walked through my woods. I hope others join me.
Heather Cazad joined Character.org in the fall of 2013. Since then she has planned and executed the annual National Forum on Character Education with roughly 800 attendees each year from around the country and other nations.