The wave came over the top of my head and then I was twisting, spinning, thrashing, and unable to breath. I had sand in my mouth and I was being dragged along under water. The relief of a gasping breath was tinged by the sting of salt water in my eyes. I stood up in the waist deep water as tears started to pour. When I found my sister, Puja, she asked me what happened. “I … was… and then… the wave…” I said, choking down the tears and sand.

The sudden loss of control was terrifying, and I remember it clearly although it happened 22 years ago.

I remember staring at the ocean wrapped in my towel, and for the first time I understood what it means to respect nature. I looked at the ocean in a different way.

There are a few times in my life where I remember this same close connection to the natural world. Most of these experiences have been incredibly peaceful moments.

Walking through northern California old growth redwood forests and climbing down river canyons always gave me a sense of my relative smallness.

My father used to take me to an abandoned airport where stargazers would bring their telescopes. There we would look at the rings of Saturn or the craters of the moon. Often someone would have their telescope aimed at a seemingly empty part of the sky. Yet, when you peered into the scope the lens would be filled with not just stars, but galaxies!

These moments are a temporary indulgence. Most of our lives are spent speeding down eight lane highways or riding escalators through enormous malls and shopping centers.  The dominant landscape where I live in South Florida is man-made. Endless irrigation canals and residential developments send the message that we are big, we are in control.

It’s imperative for human development that we have the opportunity to experience the stupendous and expansive natural world. These experiences should not merely aim to humble, but rather to help gain a realistic perspective on our physical and emotional limitations. Perhaps most importantly these experiences can instill a thirst for exploration and a drive for the preservation of the remaining natural landscapes. Our ancestors didn’t stare meekly at the great seas that seemed to drop off the face of the earth, they built boats and set sail. A generation that lacks in natural opportunities could also lack the will to explore and discover, resulting in the stagnation of the human spirit.

There is no pre-made, canned experience that can provide a deep connection to nature. Each moment is truly unique to each individual. Luckily, young children are instinctively drawn towards activities that elicit these connections. Adults need to recognize these opportunities and allow them to unfold. There’s tremendous potential in everyday moments, from sloshing around in a rainstorm to relaxing under a grove of trees in the sunshine.

Childhood is the perfect time to explore and discover the wonder in nature. Or as my friend, and fellow blogger, Jaime put it, “time to explore our own place in the context of the natural world.”

© Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photos © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012