Annika Inampudi ’21 & Lily Sternlieb ’24 Win NCTE Writing Awards

My Relationship with Nature

by Lily Sternlieb

To be honest, I’ve never really felt a connection to nature. For me being outdoors has always been stressful. Ever since I was young my parents prided themselves on our family “hikes”. My dad in his twenties spent most of his time roaming off-path and walking through national parks. My mom, somewhere along in their marriage, was also stung by the outdoors bug. So every free weekend or break, my parents would take my brother and me on a trail. My parents as a rule never check the difficulty of a trail, wanting an adventure or a plunge into the unknown. We’ll walk for what seems like hours, flecks of dirt flying up our pants, occasionally slipping in crevices of mud and tripping on algae covered rocks into a knee-deep marsh. Our bodies pivot left and right, following the switchbacks that lead up a steep mountain like small veins running through a heart. Eventually our mouths become dry and our bottles empty. My family gets frustrated, dehydrated and in some cases delusional. My mom once after hours without water developed a sudden fear of bears and shouted randomly because she had read bears wouldn’t attack if they hear your voice. Though my dad is good with directions, in the woods without cell service we tend to get lost. On several occasions my family has ended up going in circles, accidentally switched to a different route and found ourselves in a completely uncharted part of a forest.  So for me being in the wild has not been calming or serene, but scary, stressful and upsetting. In some ways my uneasiness with the outdoors led me to the orderliness of one of my grandfather’s greatest loves, his garden.

My grandfather for a decade of my life lived five minutes away from me. Every weekend I biked to his house, opened the rusted gate that quietly creaked and entered his paradise. At the base of his driveway was a gorgeous magnolia tree, with cream white petals and a dark yellow center. As I walked, fallen leaves flowed around me, swimming in the lazy river-like breeze. My grandfather met me at the front door, with his soil-stained shirt and muddied pants. He wore a gardening belt that hung loose on his thinning body, and thick, green gloves that hid his calloused hands. He showed me around his garden, pointing happily to the tall intricate dahlias, which blushed pink. We plucked the plump tomatoes and pulled at the weeds burrowed deep in the dirt. My grandfather especially delighted in his orchids, kept in the moist air of his greenhouse, each one speckled with perfectly sized purple spots. He would even recite their Latin names, stumbling subtly over the syllables and sounds. At some point my grandfather would hold my hand for balance, and motion wordlessly to the plum-colored lilacs and to the delicate honeysuckles pleasantly dripping sweet liquid. We sat near his small pond, waiting for a hidden frog to gurgle and groan and, although I quickly grew impatient, my grandpa never lost hope. For me, at the time, I did not appreciate the beauty and elegance of my grandfather’s garden, much like how I took his life for granted. 

Slowly my grandfather grew older, sicker. He could no longer precisely cut thick stems with shears or heave heavy pots through acres of trimmed grass. He was dying and in turn so was his life’s work. The ivy tangled and crumbled, the flowers grayed and withered, and the branches sagged and snapped. The beautiful garden turned bare. The flowers’ aroma did not waft from their petals and their whimsicalness faded like light itself.  It was not sudden, but gradual, a parallel to my grandfather’s declining health. 

When my grandfather was gone we scattered his ashes on the roots of a huge chestnut tree in his backyard. It alone had stayed alive in my grandpa’s absence. Only then did I become sad. Sad because I knew it was the last time I would be allowed to roam the garden. The last time I would watch the bees hover perplexedly above dead daisies, recalling a time where the flowers flushed with youth and powdered pollen. The first and last time I stood upon the stumps of chopped oak trees, cut by new owners. The legacy of my grandfather, like his exquisite plants, had turned into dust with the change of the seasons.

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