As a young goth, I liked to proclaim an angry neutrality for the outdoors. “Trees are fine, I guess,” I’d sneer, “but put me in the city. I don’t need anything but concrete.” I had all the world-weary cynicism of someone who freebased chili fries at Embers at 2am, but I believed it: all I needed was gray and hard. Nothing but buildings and sidewalks for me please, I’m happiest when there’s not a shrub in sight. Trashing trees made me sound tough and uncaring, the cool girl I wanted so desperately to be.
If you scratched my surface, publicly hating nature was one of many attempts to hide a soft and squishy center. I wore giant, heavy boots, velvet coats, and a rotating wardrobe of black, even in the dead heat of Minnesota summer. It was uncomfortable but I was committed, I told myself as sweat ran down the crack of my ass. I wasn’t like those shallow people in their silly shorts and t-shirts – I understood on some level they never would that the world was a bleak and gloomy place. Ironically, I did have some hard areas, real hard areas – rough family life, crippling anxiety, rock-bottom self-esteem – but it was easier to say fuck flowers than acknowledge something as unromantic as everyday pain.
There was some truth in my adolescent boast. I do like cities. I love them, in fact. I was born in a city, I live in a city, I will probably die in a city. My biological clock continues its soft tick, but it has not occurred to me to move to the suburbs. If anything, thoughts of the future only strengthen my desire to stay where houses are close and life pulses. My reasoning is not so different than people who flee for Naperville or Schaumburg when they find themselves with child: I want my kid to grew up how I did.
I don’t have this kind of certainty about much else in the physical world. Restaurants close, neighborhoods change, temperatures rise and rise. I read a headline in the New York Times telling me that More Permafrost Than Thought May Be Lost as Planet Warms, reminding me there are greater things at stake than my Midwestern metropolis microcosm. There are seismic shifts more far-reaching than being priced out of northwest Chicago.
My nature snubs continued into college. “I don’t get why anyone likes to live by the lake,” I’d scoff, “I mean it’s nice, but like, who cares.” And yet during my third week at school, I swam in Lake Michigan in the early hours of the morning, ducking my head under the waves in an attempt to understand the invisible forces that made them crash. That night remains one of the most magical experiences of my life.
I told no one about bobbing buoyant in the midnight moonlight, then stumbling cold and elated to the sandy shore. Couldn’t blow my cover. Being into the outdoors didn’t line up with how I saw myself: dark, troubled, complicated. Fun in the sun was for douche bros and sorority babes, people with small brains who didn’t read books, probably.
A few years later, my boyfriend asked if I wanted to go swimming. “I don’t really do pools,” I demurred, “but okay.”
The sun was blinding and the water was clear. It was cleaner and prettier than I had expected, a rec center pool that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an old postcard. I slid in and held my breath and oh, I love to swim. I came up gasping, suddenly and secretly in love.
Climate change seems like it’s been an issue pretty much forever. I remember reading about it as a kid, though back then they called it global warming. Now it’s understood that it’s not just warming, but weather extremes. Really hot and really cold and really bad at some point, as far as living creatures are concerned.
I want my kid to grow up how I did. With buildings and buses and trees and a planet to call their own.
But that pool was a gateway drug. We went to beaches in Indiana and mountains in Los Angeles and eventually Hawaii, where his retired parents now lived. Hawaii. The ultimate nature level up.
By that point, I’d come a long way from my pale disdain for growing things. I was ready. I’d packed sneakers and a sports bra. Clothing suitable for outdoor activities. It felt like a very big deal, planning to be outside. I was ready.
His dad took one look at me, and said maybe we should do one of the lighter trails.
He chose Makapuʻu Lighthouse Trail, a gently sloping two miles just off the Kalanianaole Highway. It’s low-impact and high reward, which means lots of panoramic vistas but you don’t sweat that hard.
He chose well.
Hawaii is tropical and stunning, a paradise of mountain and ocean. There’s color everywhere and the breeze is soft. Mangos and avocados grow on trees and they’re the really good kind, not the weird, stringy dudes you get at the grocery store to make a sad winter guacamole. I am not exaggerating when I say it’s heaven, or at least very close.
We drove to the base of the mountain, and started up the paved path. Along the way, we passed a short, stocky blonde woman surrounded by Asian tourists, who I would later learn was Dog the Bounty Hunter’s wife. By later, I mean my future father-in-law said, “Hey, that’s Dog the Bounty Hunter’s wife,” but I missed it because I was too bowled over by surreal natural beauty.
The whole way up, thoughts burst in my head like plumeria:
“Green. Everything is very green.”
“This is so beautiful. God.”
“Everything in our world is connected by the delicate strands of the web of life, which is a balance between the forces of destruction and the magical forces of creation.’
That last one is from Fern Gully and I didn’t actually think that, but I kind of did.
Had I turned into some kind of tree hugger? Hell yeah. I wanted to do more than hug it. I wanted to make out with the big monster plants, get real weird with the windward coast.
Hawaii hit me right between the eyes. It knocked me out, clearing my head of any remaining cobwebs. I put one foot in front of the other, drinking in the low-growing plants, the old, red-roofed lighthouse, the truly amazing view of Kokohead Crater.
I stopped for a minute at the top. The heat beat down, making me feel both sleepy and incredibly alive. My limbs swung weightless as I surveyed the teal ocean, breaking into white surf at the edge of the land.
By the time we returned to the base of the mountain, I no longer thought nature was for assholes. There will always be pretentious types in comfortable sandals who act like they’re above the tenets of human civilization, while benefitting from it greatly. Fortunately, nature is democratic about its fanbase, accepting reformed goths and Teva-wearing pseudo-Rousseaus alike. Or more accurately, nature doesn’t care. It’s going to do what it’s going to do, whether you like it or hate it or don’t really bother. In the end, an end that I hope comes as late as we can make it, our opinions are less important than what seems like impossibly big actions.
The last morning on the island, I stood outside with my boyfriend's uncle and father. It was a beautiful morning. It was always a beautiful morning. They are talking about climate change. I as wearing pajamas because it was warm enough to do that. The trade winds played over my legs.
His uncle says the big animals are going to be the first to go. I say something back about how we have to take steps to stop it, sounding weak and lame, and he replies that we can’t stop people from trying to live their best lives. I don’t say anything back, because I don’t have a good answer. I don't want to leave my kid a garbage dump, but desire is not a long-term solution.
I try not to act like a sophomore back from his parent-sponsored walkabout in Thailand. I read about our warming world, I work to reduce my carbon footprint, I think about developing countries and people trying to live their best lives.
I fell for the outdoors later in life, but better late than nothing, I tell myself, better late than never. I hope we’re not a May-December romance, nature and me. I want it all to be around so much longer than me, and who comes after me. I slide on my outdoor clothes and pray for a someday spring.
About the author...
The product of nine years in San Francisco and eight years in St. Paul, Rosamund Lannin is pleasantly surprised to have lived in Chicago for over a decade. During that time, she has been published by Internet periodicals, performed stories around the city, and consumed many carne asada burritos. These days she co-hosts lady live lit show Miss Spoken, edits Story Club Magazine, and tries to write essays that make you feel things, or at the very least laugh. Come out to Miss Spoken on 11/29 for the last show of the year - the theme is Meet the Parents.