By Margot Bruder
I have felt a profound connection to the ocean for as long as I can recall smelling the water’s salt breath, hearing its hushed crashing, and feasting my eyes on its innumerable shades of blue. I am always struck by the sense of home and intrinsic belonging I feel each time I find myself standing before the world’s single, vast ocean.
The first several times I discovered myself along its Atlantic parts; being from the east coast, this is the region of the ocean I feel the most native to. I was fortunate to spend small and priceless portions of childhood summers in New England’s crown jewels of Rhode Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
Amidst the lull of evening conversation and laughter, the munching of hors d’oeuvres, and the refilling of wine glasses atop a balcony or a distanced dune, I would always sit quietly in awe of the way the sunlight scattered across the tops of the ebbing waves. To this day, each time I see the sun refracting atop the ocean, I think to myself that that spot on the horizon where the sky meets the water and the sun begins its liquid dance must be as close as eternity can get to reaching us here on solid land.
I spent these fleeting vacation days scoping the beach for sea glass, and immersing my tanned slender limbs in the shining marvel of the salt water, returning home each time with many treasured souvenirs that are still displayed in glass jars in my childhood bedroom.These exposures to the ocean’s glory instilled an ever-strengthening sense of belonging in me, and a love for its wildlife at large. This undercurrent has remained with me into my adulthood, even when my consciousness and senses are preoccupied with the surroundings of a corporate career, life in a city, and the desire for material possessions. In moments of utmost inner-honesty, I rediscover the same truth every time. The connection to natural landscapes brings to bare the purest emotions associated with our humanity: a heightened sense of self.
These emotions often come subtly at first in the invigoration of cold water on skin, the thrill of a forest echo, and the wonder of a wide starry sky. They linger in the depths of our hearts where there is nowhere to hide from the things we love and fear most. They are the feelings that make you realize that while you may be walking and breathing every day, you may be doing it without really feeling alive.
When I was twenty years old, my environmental studies brought me to greet the Pacific Ocean for the first time. During a college semester abroad I found myself on the east coast of Australia, in the surf town destination of Byron Bay. I was halfway around the world from the only home I had ever known, my friends and my family; yet I felt inexplicably at home amongst the landscape that surrounded me.While at the time I thought I had traveled thousands of miles to experience exotic life abroad, I now know that I was actually coming home, and in a different way than ever before: home to the ocean.
I had always been trying to come home to the ocean. It’s why I had packed bags filled with shells and sea glass in my suitcase each time I had to leave it. I didn’t keep these treasures just to put their aesthetic beauty on exhibition; it was an attempt to bring that feeling of belonging back with me and to bottle the bliss I had felt while immersed in that place. We often look to physical relics to trace and validate the moments in our lives that struck chords. The truth is, the vibrations from these moments never cease and endlessly echo within us.
I can still feel those resounding echoes of an early morning run up to the Cape Byron lighthouse, which marked the most eastern point of mainland Australia, watching the whales migrate past it, seeing the sun emerge before anyone else in the world, and later tanning and swimming topless on the beach below.
It was a love affair. And like all love affairs, it imparted lasting lessons. From Australia and its people who have remembered generations of ancient wisdom, I learned one of the greatest lessons of my life as I came to understand the notion of ‘country.’In Australia, the indigenous cultures refer to the land as country. The term country conveys the human relationship to nature better than any other. The concept reflects not just physical land, but the powerful combination of the subjective notion of one’s belonging to it, and the inherent duty therein to serve as its steward.
While it is incumbent upon us as inhabitants of the world and our respective ‘country’ to protect and honor it, what is lesser realized is what we glean through delivering on this sacred duty.
I was struck by how many people I met in Australia who clearly understood and embodied the notion of country. It is notable that many of them carried themselves in a way that suggested they were at peace in their lives- perhaps because country offers an invigoration of the soul, the body and the mind simultaneously. Country lends to us words and feelings that transcend centuries and can connect people and place in a bond without regard for time or space.
We are offered relief by the open arms of landscapes, where our human pain becomes relatively temporary and small, and therefore perhaps even tolerable. But we can only continue to receive this gift if we honor it appropriately, and what better reason can we find to save something than to save ourselves along with it? Neglecting the environment has come at the highest of opportunity costs–our sense of self.
The consequences of undervaluing the environment and its natural resources are often further down the line than individuals are willing to look. However, in analyzing the wreckage following so many of our industrial endeavors it becomes clear, in the words of Australian author Tim Winton, “There are no wastelands in our landscape quite like those we’ve created ourselves.”To come to know country is a lifelong pursuit with no end, but in the vulnerable ambition of this venture, there is time enough to discover mutual respect, the power of place and our own selves.
If we agree to this lifelong contract then we must devote our bodies, our minds, and our souls to that from which they derived- to ‘country,’ or as I affectionately call her sometimes, Mother Nature.
Margot Bruder works in business development at an institutional investment management firm in Boston, Massachusetts. Born and raised in Connecticut, she graduated with a degree in Environmental Policy from Colby College in Maine and continues to explore and photograph natural landscapes whenever possible. She hopes to have the opportunity to return to Australia’s east coast someday. Read her ebook The Land That Made Us Human, connect with her on LinkedIn and on Instagram @margs630.