I was on a run recently in the park near my apartment, one that has a nice circular course full of parents pushing strollers, panting dogs, and people like me, who sometimes resemble the panting dogs. Once I found the circular path, which snakes around the outside of a golf course and criss-crosses a beautiful stream, I started coming here to run almost daily. It’s a little more than a mile from where I live, making the run there a perfect warm up, and it can provide the kind of natural world serenity that makes you forget you’re in the city.
Finding a new favorite running route is one of my life’s most simple and profound pleasures, whether I’ve just moved somewhere or I’m visiting for only a little while. Moving through a space constantly, and seeing how it lives and breathes with the passing of time, makes me feel most alive. To see how herons bathe in the river, families sit on their porches, and the light dances differently on the trees when your first Spring there passes is a reminder that everything is always changing — a great storm might come and lay all the changes bare at once before our eyes, but we are in uncharted territory every moment of our lives. We might perceive things changing faster or slower sometimes, but it’s just a trick of the light.
The day of this run, I had to stop and re-tie my shoes after running on the course for awhile. I spotted a bench ideal for resting my feet on, and then noticed a plaque on it as I bent down. It bore the inscription: in honor of Robert S. Brandt, lifelong conservationist and greenways supporter. At first, the memorial made me a little sad. I wondered how Robert would feel to know that for all the work he’d put in, all it got him was an honorary bench that, like me until this very moment, most people would never notice. It seemed like a physical manifestation of the way that conservation and environmental efforts are relegated to the backwaters of our societal consciousness, placed perennially on the priority back-burner. I’m used to seeing dedications in the bricks of a walkway outside a stadium, or on the benches that dot my college campus, and knowing that they were purchased. They might be paid for out of love for a place and the memories made there, but they’re bought nonetheless. One of millions of things that the amount of money spent on them could have afforded.
But then something occurred to me: Robert probably didn’t work with the promise in mind that he could get a plaque one day, but in pursuit of ideals that he thought should be realized. Until this point, I’d assumed it was only natural to want something to show for the life that each of us lives, something physical, concrete, and indelibly dedicated to the memory of you. As someone whose life so far has been greatly shaped by travel, I immediately thought of the passports I have filled, the photos I’ve taken, and the souvenirs I’ve collected. At what point am I getting more from the natural world than I give back? I’m grateful for the experiences and memories, but am I any more or less grateful for the running route in my favorite park? Is there any fundamental difference in how my legs navigate hills in Nashville and the climb to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong?
Just as we shouldn’t compare the weight of our respective griefs (despite the temptation) the time has come to stop comparing our gratitude for what we have and experience, which is exactly what happens the more we try to out-travel, out-create, and generally outdo one another. You don’t need to have seen or ever set foot in a place to be grateful for its existence, or for the way its inhabitants notice the little details they might have missed for years — just how I did in my own backyard.
As we spent Earth Day in quarantine, I saw a lot of such gratitude gesturing on social media, from old travel pictures to those of people striking poses in National Parks. I made a post, too, and Passion Passport launched a new Instagram challenge, because these platforms still have the potential to inspire, however far they can stray from it at times. I am glad we are all celebrating the planet without the ability to roam it freely right now, because that just goes to show that we can redefine our respect for the natural world outside of a public health crisis, if we commit to it. After all, even when Coronavirus recedes and we can venture out again, we will still be in the midst of a climate crisis. I don’t say that to be alarmist, but to stress that we can affirm gratitude without also trying to get the better picture, the most likes, or more followers.
We have seen the devastating effects of our travel on ecosystems, but also the character they regain without us crowding them. We have seen that, stripped of our ability to travel and get “the shot,” we’re still finding ways to inspire one another and create at home. We have all probably noticed some small, awesome detail of our surroundings that we had previously entirely overlooked. These delightful reminders of our place on this planet can be found around the block and around the world, and neither one is any “better” than the other so long as you’re there, present in the moment, to see it. Don’t miss it.
During Earth Week, Passion Passport invites you to imagine a fairer future after this pandemic, one with more compassion for our planet and for each other. As how and where we travel comes under scrutiny for its effect on the environment, we’re committed to raising awareness for more sustainable travel practices and sharing stories that document how our relationship to the world around us is changing.