A few months ago, I was hiking along the Hooker Valley trail at the base of Aoraki Mt. Cook in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
The sky was a light blue, the sun was reflecting off the snow capped mountains and glaciers, and the river was rushing beneath the suspension bridges. How was it even possible that I, a girl from Cleveland, Ohio, could be experiencing this? How could I be standing under the looming shadow of Aoraki Mt. Cook? I don’t know if I will ever be able to come up with the correct words to describe this experience, but it raises a question: can you be in a constant state of awe when experiencing nature? Awe is defined as, “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder,” and as I reflect on my time spent at Aoraki Mt. Cook, I can’t help but think that I was in awe. The day before the hike I had some free time after class and decided to go for a run along a different trail: a winding path that led to a small look out of one of the glaciers. I was running in a place that I could never create in my dreams, a place that has made me understand my climate story.
My climate story begins on a snowy December morning as I shopped for a new fleece sweatshirt before my 8am class in high school. I clicked on the Patagonia website and was greeted with the phrase “The President Stole Your Land” printed in plain white letters against a black background. This happened at a point in my life where I had no idea what I was interested in.
As a sophomore in high school, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a biologist of some sort but as I began to learn exactly what Patagonia was talking about, I learned that my real passion lay in the world of politics.
On December 4th, 2017, former President Donald Trump announced that he was reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Escalante National Monuments. Shortly thereafter I walked around school with a shirt that said, “Protect Bears Ears,” talked about the issue to anyone who would listen, and I wrote two different research papers on various aspects of the controversy. I have continued to follow the Story of Bears Ears until President Joe Biden reinstated the original boundaries when he entered office. But as I continually checked on this issue for five years, some questions arose: Why did I care about this? Why did I allow the Southeast corner of Utah to occupy my thoughts on so many occasions?
The answers are not simple, as they are rooted in different parts of who I am. When I was a toddler, my dad would push me in a baby jogger as he ran along the Tow Path Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, and subsequently the Valley became my favorite place to run. I would go alone, with family, or with friends. But the key point is that I had continual access to a place I could explore and wander on my own time. I was unimpeded by any outside laws or circumstances, there was nothing stopping me from running along the crooked river under red and orange painted leaves. I grew up being in awe of the Valley and everything that lived within the boundaries of the national park.
Maybe that is why I was drawn to the issue of Bears Ears having the National Monument Status taken away. The Indigenous people that maintained their ancestral lands were suddenly barred from continuing their preservation and stewardship of key parts of the National Monument because of political battles that favored big oil companies. Political systems should help people, not tear them down. Political systems should empower people to protect what they believe in while also ensuring the continued rights of people and the environment. If I have an odd passion for the world of politics, why not use that to help lift the voices of those around me? If I love running in the Cuyahoga Valley then there is someone like me who loves running in Bears Ears or another natural area, and they have the same rights as I do to seek access to the land in a respectful way.
Learning about Bears Ears sparked a curiosity in me that forced me to learn about the intersection of politics and the environment.
I forgot to reflect on one key component of the definition of awe. The aspect of fear. While I respect nature and enjoy my time in it, is there ever a time where I am scared. Have I been scared while running through the Cuyahoga Valley or hiking under Aoraki Mt. Cook or any number of times where I have immersed myself in nature?
The answer is yes. Mother Nature has created some of the most beautiful things and places on this planet. Ocean reefs, old growth forests, and mountains that scrape the sky all the way down to plains that stretch for miles. But, Mother Nature also encompasses mudslides, droughts, wildfires, and flooding. These are natural processes that have existed long before humans roamed the Earth, and will exist long after we are gone. While it may not seem evident in every part of nature, climate change is disrupting and shifting pre-existing patterns. Climate change is destroying the world around us, creating more intense weather events, causing glaciers to melt, drought and diseases are becoming more prevalent, and the temperature is clearly rising around the globe.
If part of being in a constant state of awe of nature is fear, then I am in awe because I am scared that climate change is only getting worse. I am scared that running outside will be replaced with running on a treadmill with a screen as my window to the world. I am scared for the people who are forced to embark on a dangerous journey as they migrate across countries to seek refuge from climate change. I am scared because the political systems enacted to address climate change are failing. And I am scared because the power of nature cannot be harnessed by humans.
My climate story may not even be a story so much as it is a realization within myself that my future will involve seeking climate solutions. My climate story begins and ends with the confirmation that I am in awe of nature and will continue to be as I find my place in the world.
Julia is a Summer Climate Resilience Fellow with the Education Team at Climate generation for the 2023 summer. She is currently a senior at St. Olaf College where she is double majoring in political science and environmental studies. She is originally from Cleveland Ohio where she spent a vast amount of time exploring the Cuyahoga Valley National Park with her family and more importantly, her dog Fable. Throughout college, she has conducted research on various political and environmental topics and even presented research on the connection between voting behavior and abortion attitudes during the 2022 midterm election at an undergraduate conference. After recently studying abroad in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, she is excited to learn more about environmental and climate education while working at Climate Generation.