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What It Means to Be a Good Friend in a Long-Distance Relationship with Nature

Caring for the planet demands we recognize that we are just as much a part of nature as the planet that we are so desperately trying to save. 

By Lauren Ritchie, she/her

Waves swell against the shore. Wiggling my toes in the cool slush of seaweed and sand, my eyes squint upwards to take in the full weight of the sun. The warmth and brightness melt into my skin, saturating my senses as sunbeams stream through the gaps of a prepubescent grin. I take a few steps into the water, hoping that this slight shift in proximity will enhance the sun’s ability to thaw and permeate, that the sun will accept my approach as a gesture of openness and humility.

Eyes glued to the sky, I wade further from the beach, grateful for my grandma’s insistence on sunscreen. I ruminate over the recent insight obtained in the eighth grade courses, and wonder how this distant star can weigh so heavily on my skin now, illuminating the vast landscape. I search for my place among these formidable natural forces, but the only answer uncovered is the overwhelming closeness I feel with the Earth and my island. Turning to the shore, I watch my younger cousins roll around in the sand, my mom watching attentively as she sips from a coconut she retrieved from the yard earlier that day. We bask in the dancing lights across the ocean surface, the scent of salt, sweat, and joy in the air.   

*

I return to that beach often. 

Perched in my narrow Columbia dorm room, enveloped by withered houseplants, faulty windows, and a symphony of car horns and sirens, I’m flooded with dreams of home. I revel in visions of palm trees, sea turtles, and sweltering heat. But what I yearn for most is the closeness that I felt with nature throughout my upbringing. 

In highschool, nature was my comfort and my escape. The sun’s stern glare grounded me during the existentialist angst of my teenage years. Morning walks on the beach kept me healthy and happy while the soft ocean breeze lulled me to sleep. I mourned my first heartbreak with my dad’s homemade soursop ice cream, the fruit freshly picked from the tree in his garden. 

With all that nature had given me came the duty to return the favor. As the devoted partner I was, I poured myself into beach clean-ups, recycling programs, and environmental advocacy protests across my island, just to show her I cared.

When I reflect on how my formative years shaped my approach to climate action, I recognize the value of the Afro-Indigenous traditions I inherit. In these teachings, we see our vital duty as stewards and protectors of the environment and the consequences which ensue when humans separate themselves from nature. 

Caring for the planet demands we recognize that we are just as much a part of nature as the planet that we are so desperately trying to save, and that each molecule of excess carbon emitted, or drop of oil that spills into the ocean, ties our fate even more tightly to that of the planet. 

Aligned interests aside, I am grateful for my years of quality time spent with nature.

Especially now in the early days of spring, when at last a solitary flower blossoms on the shriveled tree peeking through the sidewalk pavement outside my window. In this concrete jungle, I’ll take what I can get. 

I’ve gotten used to confining myself to my bedroom to escape the sleet and snow of New York’s brutal winters. On warmer days, I relish the opportunity to soak in the limited supply of sunshine, sometimes even dipping a toe into the murky waters at Coney Island in a fraught attempt to reignite my dwindling relationship with the Earth. 

Seeking refuge in my room, I call out for the beach that raised me. But for the first time, I can’t tell if she’s listening. I wonder, how do you maintain a close friendship with someone you rarely see anymore?

While adapting to my recent long-distance relationship with nature, I am learning what it means to be a good friend, to love unconditionally and allow yourself to be loved in return. I’ve grown to cherish the Earth’s many love languages and her unwavering grace as I try my best to keep in touch. 

Working on climate justice advocacy and education, I now care for the Earth by sharing her story. I uplift the voices of my community members, those who are rarely chosen as her spokespeople despite being her longtime friends. I showcase her complexity, and how she exceeds our hands-on interactions with the natural environment by intersecting with the social, economic, and political systems we have built during our time here. 

As Indigenous climate activist and author Enrique Salmon said, “If the Earth is alive and conscious, it will recognize who its cohort of friends are.” 

I hope she knows I’m on her side. 

Written by Lauren Ritchie for Youth To The People




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