By Isabel “Scout” Pronto Breslin
Each spring, my parents and I would make the trip up to Central Park to go see the magnolia trees. As a kid, Central Park was the only place that truly had any sense of wildness in the city, and I savored it. I would take great joy in scrambling up the huge rocks speckled here and there throughout the park, and the magnolia trees – to my knowledge, the first tree I ever climbed was a magnolia tree. It was the highlight of every spring, getting to climb and sit perched like an odd bird amongst the pink flowers.
It brought me a sort of primal joy as a young child, as it does to this day – my boss who’s known me since I was nine still calls me “The Elf” because of how often I can be found up a tree – but back then, it was one of the few things I could do growing up in the city that brought such a feeling of freedom. Until the year when the Parks people, patrolling the borders of the grove of magnolias in search of any ne’er-do-wells, spotted me and quite rudely (I thought) told me to get down. After a couple years of returning in the spring just to stand and look at the trees, I stopped going. It made me too sad to see my magnolias and know I’d never be able to climb them again. As dearly as I loved the city I grew up in, I loved nature too, and aside from Central Park which was not close enough to frequent, all the other green spaces near me felt too perfectly manicured. They were lovely and peaceful but they didn’t feel real. Everything around me felt so strangely artificial. Amongst the metal, glass and concrete of New York City, I longed for a place where I could run and climb and not a soul would be around to stop me.
When I was twelve, we moved upstate. We’d been making trips up to the Hudson Valley for ten years and I already knew the area fairly well, but now, a whole other world had opened up to me. I would spend days riding my bike down my road, my golden retriever Tess at my side, venturing into the vast woods at the end of our block. I had finally obtained the freedom I’d longed for, and my love of nature only grew. And then one day, a person showed up at our door. They’d found an injured barred owl at the end of our road where it joined 9G, and we were the closest house. I named the owl Alice, and my mom and I brought her to a Wildlife Rehab Clinic in Sharon, Connecticut, where I learned that I could volunteer.
Thus began the start of my involvement with environmental work. I spent about two and a half years working at the clinic, learning how to identify what injury a bird had sustained and how to properly care for them till either they passed away peacefully or they could be released back into the wild. Once, I was given a pigeon to release myself. My mom drove us out to a field, and I opened up the cat carrier it was in and carefully lifted it out, then threw it upwards, the bird launching from my hands, taking flight immediately. It was a wonderful feeling, and working with the birds (and a baby ball python that would hang around my neck like a scaly scarf while I did the dishes) ignited a new sense of determination in me. From then on, I’d make sure biodiversity was a topic discussed in the youth climate summits I went to, and in my work beyond that nature be recognized as important in its own right, without having to benefit us to earn our respect.
Winnakee works to conserve our natural spaces and promote community access and enjoyment of them, a mission which is of the utmost importance in the present climate and ecological crises.
Something I always find funny is when you say you’re from New York, and people assume you mean the city. Of course, in my case, it’s true, but it’s still funny, because as we all know, New York is not only a pretty sizable state, but it contains a variety of natural habitats other than just fields and forest, some of them being consistently overlooked, like the marsh. I think people disregard marshes because there is little we can take from them. We can’t build on them, we can’t farm on them, well, why are they there then? Well, they actually do benefit us by acting as carbon sinks as well as storm and flood buffers as well as filtering water. So yeah, it’s in our best interest to conserve them, but they have intrinsic value, being an important ecosystem that supports many different species of birds and other creatures.
If you live in Rhinebeck, or maybe if you don’t, you might’ve attended Winnakee Land Trust’s Woodland Night Walk last fall at Vlei Marsh, which was a magical experience to say the least. Winnakee works to conserve our natural spaces and promote community access and enjoyment of them, a mission which is of the utmost importance in the present climate and ecological crises. Part of the work of reconnecting people to the land is getting people to notice the land and what lives on it, and this can be done with a Bioblitz, where participants catalog every living thing they see, from giant trees to the tiniest, shiniest little beetle. This exercise not only encourages people to really pay attention to just how much life exists in the natural world, but also aids in the conservation of the land by collecting valuable data on the variety of life. The bioblitz at Vlei Marsh this Saturday will be a wonderful way to make a contribution to and celebrate Earth Day as well as our beautiful Hudson Valley.
For me, Earth Day is about recognizing my small part in the vast web of life on the planet, as well as coming together in community for nature.