When the “Why” is Wordless

Posted on July 17, 2017 by Janet Coit

This past weekend, I took a long walk in Colt State Park in Bristol, Rhode Island. The sun was sparkling off the waves on Narragansett Bay and all sorts of people were similarly drawn to the pleasant shore-side landscape. My stroll through the park lifted my spirits and reminded me of the power of such experiences.

One of my favorite parts of my job is working to conserve habitats and get people outdoors to enjoy our parks and nature preserves. And while I believe – and often explain – that the health of the economy is inextricably linked with the health of the environment, the intangible aspects of natural areas never fail to inspire me. Rachel Carson wrote of a “sense of wonder” elicited by observing nature. Yes! When I see the brilliant flash of a scarlet tanager, otters frolicking in the water, or scores of river herring returning upriver, I am thrilled to the core. What gifts to have these creatures in our world! And we still have a lot to learn about the complex natural systems that sustain them.

In his book My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of New Environmentalism, David Gessner posits that the current environmental movement is too cerebral, and that there is joy found in nature that people like Rachel Carson understood. He writes, “And the deeper story begins not with a theory but with particular places . . . that particular Homo sapiens fall deeply and strangely in love with. Later, all this becomes laws and rules and books and essays. But it begins well before and well below that. What later becomes words begins with wordlessness.”

I so relate to that connection with a particular place. Think of a spot you love – where you can feel nature around you. For many those places are on the coast, filled with salt, sand and sounds. Mine is the forest by a lake. Wherever it exists, having a natural place in which to revel is often what makes a person support strong environmental laws and care about protecting wild places. Let’s face it: our views are shaped by our experiences.

The connections people find in nature are central to our work. Making sure urbanites have access to safe parks and children have the chance to play outside improves people’s health now and ensures the development of environmental stewards for the future. Grandparents are often influential, guiding younger generations to explore nature. The “rewilding” of rivers that run through our cities and restoration of green corridors bring nature closer, providing children in more neighborhoods the opportunity to observe a hawk soaring above or the shadows of fish darting just below the surface.

Change is inevitable. As seas rise, species compositions change, and intense storms – and generations – come and go, one thing we know is that undeveloped habitats and larger intact systems are healthier, and have a better chance to withstand storms and stressors. Informed by science, we must help the places we love be resilient, and to have a chance to rebound and thrive. This means working to identify, reduce and mitigate harms from inevitable natural and manmade impacts.

Last month, my father John Coit died, after 93 full years. After his death, I felt an urgent need to visit his special place in the foothills of the Adirondacks. I found him there in the ferns, the dark water, and the soft breeze. I found solace in the wordless magic of nature that carries poignant memories and delights the senses. These experiences fuel my drive to protect the environment – for wildlife, for our children and grandchildren, and for something wordless.