When most of us think about the places we want to explore, the list starts somewhere just over the equator or on the far side of the mid-ocean ridge. We want experiences that are exotic, new, unique.
When I left for a semester in Kaikoura, New Zealand my junior year of college, I couldn’t wait to explore the brand new coastlines and mountains of this gorgeous new country. I hiked the peninsula, I stumbled down the pebbly beach, I snapped pictures of the baby seals. But then something different happened: I stayed. And I started to think of Kaikoura, not as a check off my list, but as my home. And it was then that I could really start to explore.
Before I left New Zealand I asked my friend why there were so few young people living in Kaikoura. She shrugged. “They say there isn’t anything to do here.” After having experienced the beauty of Kaikoura I couldn’t believe that anyone could see it as dull, but then my astonishment turned inward. I realized that I had used the same excuse to get out of my own hometown of Long Beach, California. And I started to re-think my assumption that adventures could only take place beyond the fall-out zone of my front porch.
After coming back from New Zealand I attacked Long Beach with the intensity of a European backpacker. I scoured coffee shop bulletin boards, walked circles around the few nature preserves, and tried to see my home from as many angles and in as many shades of light as possible. After a while I forgot this was the same city that I had denied for so many years. And after a while, I began to feel truly at home.
You don’t always need to travel to see the world. The world, remember, has come to you.
Here are a few of the strategies that helped me to re-discover my sense of place. I hope they can help you as much as they’ve helped me.
1. Wake up for the Sunrise
Sometimes all that it takes to re-discover a place is to see it in a different light. When living in my college apartment in Santa Barbara, California, I had begun to grow apathetic about this city that I had lived in for the past four years. I’d hiked the trails before; I’d gone to the beach. Finally I reached a point of such static that the water always looked the same, and the mountains only shifted in color as the day went on.
Then one morning, I woke up to my “nature sounds” alarm clock chirping away at an ungodly hour. I made a cup of hot coffee. I donned my hoodie and some sweatpants. I drove to Butterfly Beach.
As soon as I stepped out of my car I could tell I’d just walked onto an entirely different beach. The foam rolled in a stony white through the gray light. More birds than I had ever seen poked and prodded along the waterline. The sand lay flat and empty, silent beneath the footprints and towel marks of the previous day.
The mountain tops darkened against the pale pink sky. Then their tips turned gold, and the sky grew white-hot, and in a minute you couldn’t see the mountains behind the light that stabbed through the ridgelines and the sky and the waves that now shone pink above shadows. Clouds that I hadn’t even seen before turned rose, purple, white-gold. I was dazzled, unsettled, and entirely at home.
Since then I’ve learned to punctuate my weeks with a sunrise here or there. It doesn’t matter whether it’s mountains that catch the gold, or trees, or stoplights. It really only matters that you take the time to discover the world’s awakening.
2. Learn the Names of Things
Before going to New Zealand, I had heard that part of my ecology curriculum would involve birding. Ha, I said. Ha ha. I had absolutely no interest in joining the ranks of dry, khaki-vested, binocular-wielding birders that I had seen tracking lonely stretches of surf beach. I had no interest in birds.
But after some time in New Zealand, where after a few million years without mammals birds seem to have tossed out the rulebook to being a bird, I started to waver. Then, one day, I learned the name of my first bird: fantail. Names began to dart through the trees and across the fields: New Zealand robin. Silvereye. Tui. Pukeko. Each shape among the leaves had a name, a personality. All of the sudden, I could walk into the forest and not be alone.
Once I came back to Long Beach I looked out over the beach and realized that I didn’t know the name of a single bird. I went on Amazon and bought the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America, a book with a name as long as the body length of some of its species. I started to actually notice the life around me, not just as a backdrop but as species that existed in their own right. Gulls were no longer just seagulls; they were Heerman’s gulls, Western Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, each with a different personality. I could look at the sand and tell you that that long-beaked bird at the waterline looks just like a relative that flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year. The air around me became thick with stories, with names, and I humbly realized that I had come that much closer to knowing my home.
3. Go on a Walk of Little Things
I started this practice in New Zealand, after having read a poem by Emily Dickinson about looking deep into the intricacy of small beauties. I can’t stand Emily Dickinson, but I had to admit that she had a point. So later that day, I took my smallest notebook and went for a walk, stopping every so often to write a sentence along the way. I noticed things I wouldn’t normally notice: the conglomeration of miniature flowers that made up a single blossom, the layers of green upon a stream, the way the poplars stood out against the mountain haze. Since then I haven’t been able to stop noticing these intricate beauties. Now every lawn brims with wonder, the underside of each tree is a potential mosaic, and I have lost my excuse for boredom.
If this practice is just a little too weird for you, then just go on a normal walk. You’d be surprised to discover how much of beauty lies just beyond your front yard.
4. Ride your Bike
There are the usual reasons behind calls to ride your bike: air pollution, carbon emissions, the American Obesity Epidemic. These are all really good reasons to take to the streets. But there’s one more reason that is less often invoked: riding a bike is just plain fun. You earn each mile with your trimmed muscle and sweat. More importantly for this list, you can learn to see the streets from an entirely different angle.
If you’re like most of us, then a street is just a street. You drive up one way. You drive back down the next. There’s little discovery in the passage, little wonder. But on a bike the air of that street courses through your lungs, and your muscles propel you across the pavement. Streets look different when you’ve earned them. Then, take a different path. Ride through a park, or along a river. You never know quite what you might find.
5. Check out Community Events
Whenever I reach a place where my life stays cramped inside of four walls, I look around to see what other people are doing in my community. I’ll pick up a newspaper, check on a mailing list, go online. Rarely do these searches come up empty-handed. Some of my highlights: farmers markets, concerts in the park, outdoor movie screenings. I’ve shared a spade with a famous scientist at a restoration workday; I’ve attacked the streets with a camera for a photography contest. I’ve joined those khaki-vested birders for a hike up a new canyon. Just remember that you’re not the only person looking to discover your place. Connect with those around you, and you’ve already started to re-define home.
6. Get a Job that you Love
Finally. we come to my real reason for writing this list. This past week, I finished up my last shift in the lifeguard towers where I’ve worked for the last six summers. I can honestly say that I’ve learned more about my world from those 40-hour weeks than from any other nature center or dive spot. My job wasn’t just a job; it was a place of learning, a place where the immensity of the ocean condensed into a rim of foam and current that brushed through the secrets of dolphins, cormorants, pelicans, even the occasional whale. I learned wonder through that job. I learned to call my ocean home.
Yes, I’ve spent most of my working life in a box. It just so happens that that box was raised on stilts above some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Where you work will decide where you spend the majority of your time. So, choose well. Ask around at nature preserves. Find any ecotourism companies in your area; my friend in New Zealand has worked fifteen years at Kaikoura Whale Watch and absolutely loves her job. Make a list of what you love, find who does that professionally, and then stop by for an introduction. You never know how things might turn out.
Above all, keep in mind that any place can be a place of discovery if you bring along the right attitude. Search out wonder between the cracks of school, work, home. Step outside and let the world fill your lungs. Look close at the sketches of beauty underfoot. And remember that this is your home, the place where you are a body in the midst of rolling, heaving life.