Nature teaches me I’m the protagonist in my own life
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Nature teaches me I’m the protagonist in my own life

By Rachel Briggs

My moms always tried to pull me outdoors when I was a child, and I always resisted. I was happiest curled up with a book, connecting with the awe and beauty of the world through the pages of an epic fantasy novel from the comfort of my favorite chair.  

Growing up in Hawai’i. Photo by Jill Briggs

My moms persisted. They made me read those books at the beach, or the botanical garden–and while outside, I often became so interested in my surroundings that I forgot the book for a time. Suddenly I was the protagonist moving through and occupying the landscape of the story. And oh what stories I told myself. What adventures I imagined—and what adventures I’ve had! 

When the magic finds me

The natural world became a place I could go to find myself—my dreams, my stories, my fears—and to ground in myself, my lived experience, the present moment. It became a place I could go to find the magic that exists in this world. Like the bioluminescent plankton sparking in the glassy ocean, making me feel as if I were paddling through the stars. The way the sunlight made the cliffs glow, as if alight from within. The small, precise sound of a parrotfish’s beak clicking against the coral, and the immense, bone-shaking sound of a rockslide from across the ravine during a midnight storm. The way our campfire, built at the base of a giant, root-wrapped, egg-shaped boulder, burned bright purple when we added fungus-coated birch logs we’d found in the nearby forest. The rumbling of a calving glacier echoing through a fjord, completely occluded by the morning mist.  

Photo by Rachel Briggs

That magic exists for me in the small, everyday moments as well. The impossibly lovely freckles on the lily in my garden; the ravens that land in my spruce tree and make a sound like water dripping in a cave; the outline of tree branches against the sky, when I tip my face back, and the warmth of sun against my skin; the smell of salt in the air in early spring. 

Grounded in time, connection, hope

This sense of being completely grounded in the present, while also connected to a sense of wonder and joy and beauty, is what I go to the natural world to find. And I would say that is the thread that most feeds my resilience, drive and inspiration—which is part of why I feel so grateful to be able to do the work that I do—and to live in a place like Alaska, where opportunities for that type of connection are abundant.

I can step out of my door in Anchorage and have mountains, forests, and water all at my fingertips—and if I’m willing to go a little further, and hike or paddle beyond the road system I can experience stunning places and wildlife on a scale I had only imagined before moving here.  

Whatever the scale, these are the experiences that leave me with a sense of connection, and hope, and peace. 

Photo by Rachel Briggs

Three questions about spending time in/with nature

What do you think is the ideal amount of time for you to spend in/with nature? 

It depends, but ideally at least for a bit every day. For me, it’s not about a specific amount of time but about being able to fluidly move between built and natural spaces and feel connected to both. 

What does a meaningful experience in nature look like for you? 

Something that is sensorial and connects me to the now. 

Describe one moment in nature/outdoors that left you with a sense of awe and connection?

I have a couple.

Photo by Rachel Briggs

Evening, sitting by a campfire on a remote lake, when trumpeter swans start singing. I had heard their shorter calls before, but in that moment their songs sounded like jazz trumpets echoing across the water. Surprising and absolutely beautiful. 

After college I spent a couple of years working for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance as a grassroots organizer. I loved the arid, sculptural, redrock country, partly because it was so different than the environment in which I had grown up (Hawaiʻi). It is a landscape full of both majesty and subtlety with a seemingly endless capacity to surprise—but I was based in Washington, D.C., so the opportunities to spend time in Utah were always special. On one occasion, I helped to organize a camping trip/get together for staff and supporters. I arrived in Salt Lake City and helped run a bunch of last-minute errands, then drove down to the site we’d selected later that evening with a colleague.

Fisher Towers, Utah. Photo by Rachel Briggs

It was dark when we arrived. I remember watching sagebrush and wild horses flicker through our headlights as we bounced along the dirt roads.  The site was way out in the desert, and we were the first to arrive. Without being able to see much in the dark, we just pulled up to the GPS coordinates and hoped that we had made it—all we could see was packed earth and scrub in the cones of the headlights. We got out of the car, laid out our sleeping bags and crashed. The next morning, we woke up to a revelation. We were indeed on packed earth, surrounded by scrub, but we were also perched on the edge of a canyon. The sounds of water burbled up from below, and the sunrise set the canyon walls and cliffs in front of us aglow. It was a moment of pure magic, to have that stunning landscape revealed to me all in an instant when I opened my eyes, with no knowledge or expectation of what I’d be confronted with. 

Rachel is a staff attorney with Trustees. Her story is the second in a monthly series about how nature, getting outside, and being with land and water influences human health, resilience, connection, and purpose. Look for these stories in our monthly newsletters.