Talking to people has never been my thing.
I have always been an introvert, preferring to spend my time with plants and animals and rocks and wind rather than humans.
In my childhood, my mother would make an exasperated sigh, hands on her hips, when I darted out to the backyard as guests arrived.
The backyard had an aging silver maple, tall and regal, that would always welcome me with open arms. There was a perfectly sized crevice at the base of the trunk, with just enough space for my nine-year-old body. I could sit there and feel embraced by the maple, completely safe.
Time would pass in that crevice, and if I sat there long enough, I could witness an entire ecosystem functioning all around me.
- The line of worker ants following the tried and true path to their source of food.
- The patch of moss taking the opportunity granted by last night’s rain to launch their minuscule sporophytes into the air, loaded with thousands of spores that will beget new life.
- The sow bugs (AKA “rolly pollies”) toddling along to achieve their goals.
- The harvestman (AKA “daddy longleg”) taking shelter under a fallen leaf, reminding me that they are friend and not foe.
- The chipmunk going about his business before stopping midstride, realizing my presence, and skittering away to safety.
An entire world was taking place in this area no larger than a cupboard, and I was lucky enough to observe this world, immerse myself in this world, until my mother called me back inside.
At nine years old, I had three heroes who immersed themselves into extraordinary worlds.
At 25, Biruté Mary Galdikas dove into the wilderness of the Tanjung Puting Reserve in Borneo. Despite being told by her colleagues that what she intended to accomplish could not be done, Galdikas immersed herself into the world of the orangutans. It is thanks to her work that we know the 400 different types of food they eat, the amount of time that passes between giving birth, and how they communicate.
At 34, Dian Fossey arrived in the Virungas – the world of the mountain gorilla. Identifying individuals by their “noseprints” and revealing to us humans the complexities of gorilla sociality, Fossey was a trailblazer. She founded the concept of “active conservation,” putting her life on the line to protect gorillas from harm, until she was murdered in 1985.
At 26, Jane Goodall found herself in Tanzania with her binoculars and her notebook, ready to see chimpanzees as they had never been seen before. We now regard chimps as intelligent kin, with the ability to make and use tools and form complex emotional bonds, because of Jane.
These women enthralled and inspired me.
I decided that I would follow in their footsteps.
I decided that in my twenties, I would set off into the natural world in order to discover its intricacies and complexities and beauties. Upon returning, I would share my findings with a society that had forgotten, that had lost touch with the wild. I could be my introverted self out there, alone with the plants and animals and rocks and wind, just like my heroes.
So I went to college and I earned my wildlife ecology degrees.
I entered my twenties ready to grow into the next Goodall/Fossey/Galdikas.
Where would I go first?
Coral reefs, caves brimming with bats, the African savannas?
As I learned, I added more and more places to my list.
However, I slowly began to recognize a pattern as I moved through my classes.
From Ornithology to Mammalogy to Ichthyology – something was very, very wrong.
A darkness was beginning to overshadow my joy of learning all that I could about wildlife, and I saw my dream of being the next great female explorer begin to fade away.
Every species I studied was in danger of extinction. Every habitat I read about was being degraded, destroyed, plowed over, converted, burned, flooded, or polluted. Every ecosystem I researched was losing its functionality due to climate change. Everything I loved was being mistreated by humans.
A realization hit me like a brick wall.
- I can’t snorkel through the coral reefs because they are bleaching and dying in warm and acidic waters.
- I can’t traverse caves full of bats because they are dying from white-nose syndrome.
- I can’t immerse myself in the world of the African elephant because poachers are taking their lives with abandon.
- I can’t study any species without acknowledging that they are disappearing — that in a few decades, they may be completely gone.
Thus, I can’t be the next great female explorer.
Instead, I have to be a fixer.
All of my time and knowledge and skills must go towards mending what is broken, conserving what is not yet lost, and protecting the species I have loved from the beginning.
At 22, I made it to the coral reefs of Belize. My research helped to show the effectiveness of a newly established Marine Protected Area (MPA) that banned fishing and boat traffic over a large section of reef. The protected corals were flourishing with diversity, supporting fishes and sea turtles and octopuses galore. The non-protected corals were being suffocated by algae.
At 25, I crawled through the caves of southern Missouri on my hands and knees. I never saw a crowd of bats, but I took small samples of skin from the handful of bats I did see. From the biopsies, I created cell cultures in the lab, exposed the cells to the white-nose syndrome fungus, and studied gene expression in response to the fungus. All without bringing a bat into the lab or causing harm.
I have not yet made my way to the African elephant, but I will. In the meantime, I am a science educator, showing my students the wonders of wildlife all around us.
Every day as a wildlife biologist is painful.
Every day feels like a timer is slowly running out, the sand in the hourglass is dwindling as more species are lost and more environmental damage is done.
- I think about what Dr. Galdikas must feel, as the person who has studied orangutans longer than anyone else in the world, now that we are a couple of decades away from potentially losing the species to extinction.
- I imagine the pain that Dr. Fossey felt, knowing that human-gorilla conflict was not going to stop.
- I look at Dr. Goodall in awe as she completely transformed into a voice of hope in the midst of climate change, all while mourning the diminishing populations of chimpanzees.
The grief can be unbearable.
The losses pile on top of each other, and the weight of it all can crush me.
It took a lot of work to untangle myself from the grief and depression and eco-anxiety, and some days are still harder than others.
Oftentimes I would find myself completely depleted, after working without ceasing until my energy was gone.
It took a long time to realize that my method was unsustainable, that I could not properly care for the natural world until I first cared for myself.Briana Anderson
Allowing myself to rest, putting my to-do list aside, and nurturing my body and soul is no easy task for me. But it is absolutely critical for my survival, and for my ability to stay strong in this line of work.
Over the past few years, I have learned so much from The Resilient Activist – the power of mindfulness, the path to joyful resilience, and strategies to cope in a healthy manner.
Back to the maple trees
I have found that there is solace, a calming relief, in making my way back to the maple trees.
Now that I’m in my upper twenties, I can’t fit in the crevice at the base of the silver maple anymore.
But I can find my way back to the trees, back to the tiny world of moss and insects and fallen leaves. I can put away the terrifying media headlines and climate change data and news of another extinction in order to just breathe. To just exist with the plants and animals and rocks and wind.
Just as Dr. Galdikas simply existed amongst the orangutans.
Just as Dr. Fossey sat in silent reverence with the gorillas.
Just as Dr. Goodall breathed with the chimpanzees.
We just breathe. And then we get to work.