I saw a deer and a great blue heron on Teddy Roosevelt Island yesterday, and both encounters felt like a form of recognition.

I hadn’t visited the island for several days, and really needed to refresh my spirit with some time in nature. I went to my favorite spot, and even before I got there, I was really angry to see a couple of plastic drink bottles and some other trash littering the rocks. These weren’t things that had been washed up by the river; they had to have been accidentally dropped or carelessly left on the trails.

I was angry. I thought, I don’t want to deal with this. I came out here to be in some tiny corner of nature where I could, for just a few minutes, be a little more alone, a little away from the urban density, or even just pretend.

But people littering my favorite spot to connect with nature mean that even there, I can’t just sit down and look at the river without having bright orange reminders that a lot of people don’t seem to care about nature. The cleanup I helped do this spring was to try to fix some of that, to make up for other people’s lack of care and concern. But no matter how much effort I put in trying to help, to heal, those unconcerned people will keep making it worse, and I can’t keep up. I felt exhausted and even a tiny bit hopeless.

Those feelings were so similar to the ones I came to the island to get away from that I simply had to let them go. I picked up the bottles and stuff, put them by the trail I’d be taking out, and went to greet the particular spots I know best, marveling at how they seethed with life, noting how the river level has changed and that Arachne’s daughters are busy in the forest. Slowly, gently, I felt my soul relax.

As I continued down the trail with my hands full, I pondered my emotions. I had managed to let go of the anger; I wondered if I could replace it with something else. Compassion? Yes, I could feel compassion, for the island and its life forms, and focus on that compassion as the reason for my actions. I could even, after I contemplated it, feel compassion for people who drop plastic bottles in one of the most wild refuges to be found in our urban sprawl; people who do that probably never get to experience the deep refreshment and reconnection that I had just felt, and that makes me sad for them.

What about gratitude? And suddenly it blazed up in my heart: yes, I could feel gratitude. Not that people were so stupid as to give me the necessity of cleaning up after them – again and again – but if not for them, then at least for the place, for the circumstance. As I walked, the uncomfortable plastic seams cutting into my fingers became an occasion for gratitude, because I had the opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to TRI, my relationship with it and its ecosystem in a tangible, meaningful way. I relaxed further and widened my gaze beyond the irritating bottles.

As I did, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and froze. A heron was wading in the swampy wetland off to one side, and I’d almost missed it. If I had stayed angry, with my shoulders hunched and eyes narrowed, staring at the bottles and muttering about stupidity and laziness and petroleum, I would have walked right by the bird, only 15 meters away, much closer than I’d ever had the chance to see one before. The heron and I regarded each other, and as I walked away quietly, I gave thanks for the reminder.

After I reached a trash can and threw away the bottles, I walked a little more quietly, and it was not long before saw a family on the path ahead of me staring intently to one side. A shaft of sunlight caught the golden-brown gleam and just the edge of the white patch of a white-tailed deer, who was otherwise well-concealed in the vegetation. The deer didn’t seem to be nervous, so I cautiously came up to the family’s vantage point, and was able to make out the deer’s head and face. They said that several other deer had just crossed the path; they were probably heading uphill for a place to sleep during the day, in a more thickly forested space further from the perimeter trail. I’ve seen deer on the island a few times before, but it was still a magical experience, especially since the deer didn’t seem to be startled.

As I left, I couldn’t help but feel that the encounters were almost a form of recognition. Not exactly a reward, but the result of the time and effort I’ve spent building a relationship with the island and its life. I probably would have seen the animals if I hadn’t picked up the trash, but the fact that I have a relationship with the island was why I was there in the first place, and was why I did pick up the bottles. If I hadn’t gone, even on that hot and sticky day, I wouldn’t have had the chance to be in the right place at the right time to have those encounters.

It’s glorious to feel that my effort and actions have been recognized, even – especially – by Nature herself.

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