For My Fellow Conservationists

by Laura Parker Roerden

I’ve been thinking of late about the feelings of discouragement so many of us who work in conservation have and how this links to courage. So much of what’s happening in the world right now is asking for us to rise to an historic occasion: global warming, the threat of mass species extinction, the loss of our coral reefs. Yet it takes so much courage to rise, not because the work is intrinsically frightening. But because of what’s at stake. When we rise, I honestly can’t say it feels all that great. It’s a risk. It feels a bit like hanging on out on a limb, like in one of those Hanna-Barbera cartoons of our youth, where you realize too late that you are also the one with the saw.

When I first started scuba diving 25 years ago, the coral reef I was privileged to become acquianted with was a very different reef than the one out there right now: the sheer volume of life and the diversity of it, the colors and shapes. It was impossible to not feel embraced by the ocean then; as if life was demanding we notice our own very small place in a much greater, grand scheme. The fluttering unfolding of awareness is of one where very cell from the tiniest colonial coral animal to the larger heart-stopping predators moved together as cogs in a mysteriously intricate wheel — a wheel that if we could just understand where we, too, belonged so many problems might — just maybe — simultaneously be solved, because clearly these problems too were connected to one another.

Something in that time, scuba diving with dozens upon dozens of teens, who were discovering this truth too, and finding their own place to belong to something larger than themselves, told me that we had been given this earth for a reason so much larger than the food or oxygen it supplies. It felt like an invitation to very intimate dance, to a place of knowing about the flow of life and about how being in community or communion with the earth and with each other was the entire point of it all. And yet, somehow that simple truth is what eludes us, as evidenced in how we treat one another, in how we treat the earth, in how we treat ourselves.

We have a tradition in Ocean Matters of summing up a day with a “Take Home Message.” We sometimes quipped that really it could be the same take home message every day: that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, but only when all parts are whole. I’ve always liked the symmetry in that riddle: the invitation to become whole as a suggested goal worthy in and of itself. But what does that look like? What are the magic ingredients that make that happen?

When youth gather to learn about the ocean we usually are strangers to one another, but then gradually something happens. Youth recover something of themselves during their time in the sea, then reach out in waves to one another. New connections, new ways of understanding ourselves emerge.

Parts gradually are mended into some sort of whole. Something we are able to experience together suggests itself and pulses through the group, as simple as truth. Could the youth be merely reflecting the integrity and connection they see in the larger wild places they are exploring?

It’s painful to me to see the coral reef of today, to see the ocean of now. Large swaths of dead coral is common, filaments and tufts of algae languish where once there was teeming life. A small goby darts out of a hole, but there is a suggestion of loneliness, of disconnection. The purples, pinks and oranges are replaced by greys and browns. Skeletons of coral with single dimpled depressions show you exactly where each single coral polyp once lived, now simply shallow suggestions of cupped, yet empty hands. Those hands are outstretched still, frozen like marble, memorial statues to potential. That potential is part of the ocean’s larger call to us.

And that’s why courage is needed: to rise, we must admit how much we love what we might lose and to also face the risk that we might fail. To potentially find that it’s all too big and slipping away from us, that we have failed the next generation, that we may have failed ourselves. There’s real grief to this work that will not let us give up, but sometimes also is paralyzing. Yet as Maya Angelou famously said—and frankly I don’t see any other way around it— “Still I rise.”

I rise for the ocean because I want my own kids and your kids and really every kid to have wild places to explore and come to know, so that they might also understand that they are never alone. I want them to have places where they belong so that they can frame their lives with this understanding and reach out to others in ways that are meaningful. I want them to see their tribe as one long game of a chain of Red Rover, one whose goal now is to mend the broken links, enfolding new members always into the line.

I hope that as this new game of Red Rover unfolds, that youth linking hands with adults can become the protective front along which we tackle climate change; a way we rise without fear to innovate and adapt with new solutions that seek never to exclude, but rather include enfolding our earth and its tides, its lungs that fill and release as forest and plankton. I hope that this chain flows from our hearts, which beat alongside animals, plant, and insects, bacteria and all versions of life so numerous we have yet to count, never mind name each — even as we rush to do so before they are lost — but whose pulse along which something holy and sacred travels as inexpressible as art, as imagination.

When we are discouraged, as many of us are right now, perhaps it’s a warning that we’ve drifted too far from the source and a reflection of the fragments we’ve allowed to now clutter our view. When I lack hope or can not connect to power or even prayer, I turn inward to my own heart and ask myself what it is that I am fighting for and why it is I am afraid? And the answer comes gently as I simply take my place where I belong and do what life demands must be done. Courge perhaps really then is merely a willingness to go all-heart, all-in, reaching out for others to join you by your side.

Laura Parker Roerden is the founding director of Ocean Matters and the former managing editor of Educators for Social Responsibility and New Designs for Youth Development. She serves on the boards of Women Working for Oceans (W20) and Earth, Ltd. and is a member of the Pleiades Network of Women in Sustainability. She lives on her fourth generation family farm in MA.

Sharing a love of what nature can teach us. Writer, public speaker & supportor of youth to boldly know & save the wilds. Dir @Ocean_Matters & 4th gen fam farmer