The first time I met Leah, she was reading an evolutionary biology textbook in a tree in the Mathey courtyard. As the weather grew warmer in the spring, I began to see her there almost constantly. One day, I decided to overcome my aversion to aerated New Jersey soil and sharp acorns, and joined her.
I’ve always struggled with my relationship with ‘nature.’ I grew up in New York City, where nature is only ever another form of ornamentation, or another thing that your dog isn’t allowed to pee on. I would overcompensate for this lack of exposure to nature by undertaking small acts such as safely removing a spider from a screaming friend’s lunchbox, or volunteering to feed a domesticated hog during a field trip to the zoo. I became comfortable with the doses of nature I encountered, and even decided I was passionate about it.
The summer after my senior year of high school—which coincided with a prototypical angst-driven Henry David Thoreau phase—I decided to work on an organic farm in Southern Vermont for a month. The farm that I worked on was still “developing” (i.e. didn’t really exist) so I lived in a tent without running water, cell phone service or electricity. I walked away from this experience feeling delighted with myself. If I survived off the land for a month, then I totally dug nature.
On a Tuesday afternoon last spring, I sat with Leah underneath her tree to study for our evolutionary biology final. It interested us that humans have come so far in terms of technology and innovation, but are lacking physical strength compared to our animal counterparts. Pampered and protected by our dorm rooms, dining halls, and internets, humans no longer have a need for claws, fur and other traits that belonged in the natural world. This discussion was disrupted when she said the three most frightening words that can follow each other in a sentence:
“Let’s sleep outside!”
“What?” I asked wearily.
“It’s so nice outside! Hominids used to do this like every single day all the time.”
I envisioned myself lying down on the Mathey Courtyard with the streetlights glaring down, with my judgmental neighbors snickering as they saw us from their common room windows. “Nope,” I responded. But then I thought for a minute—the air was so still and warm, and I still had my OA sleeping bag somewhere under my bed. I had also lived in a tent for a month over the summer in a developing plot of dirt. How was this that different? Plus, these were the days when the phrase ‘yolo’ was beginning to nonchalantly fly out of people’s mouths. The circumstances seemed right and I agreed.
About five hours later, Leah and I flopped out our sleeping bags beside the tree. I brought three pillows, two yoga mats, and a snuggie (a regrettable impulse-purchase from the U-store just several days before). By 1:30 AM, the courtyard became nearly empty. I lay down to sleep with the naïve hope of feeling calm. Occasionally, students would walk past us. They would pause their conversations when they spotted us, possibly out of courtesy, possibly out of shock and amusement. At one point, a P-safe officer approached us and asked to see PUID. She just wanted to make sure that we weren’t trespassers, or dead. At around 2:00 AM, we finally fell asleep.
At 3:27 AM, I woke up dazed. I felt a thick moisture inside of my sleeping bag, which I chose to believe was dew and not sweat. I lay there stiffly and looked up to the sky for reassurance that I was, indeed, outside. Through my myopic, paranoid gaze, all I saw was the glare of streetlights and dim stars behind a thick layer of haze. I tried to appreciate my pseudo-natural surroundings. I stared out at the grass that surrounded me. It was probably seething with all of the ‘missing earrings’ that I hear about daily via the Mathey listserv. The ground teemed with small holes to aerate the short, implanted grass. Not a leaf, petal, or branch was in sight. Nature had a very high turnover rate on this lawn, due to the impeccable maintenance staff.
I looked at my phone again. It was nearing 4 AM and I had class in six hours. I suddenly began to anticipate the rising of the sun—the eerie, gentle glow that would appear about the roofs of the surrounding dorms. I sat straight up, palms sweating, and frantically patted the grass carpet for my glasses.
Once I put on my glasses, I looked over at Leah. She was peacefully sleeping. I envied her ability to relax. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just lie here and do something as simple as sleep, without scrutinizing every hole in the ground and source of artificial light? Hominids could do it. OA leaders could do it. And hadn’t I survived for an entire month in a tent? Why was this any different?
After a brief internal deliberation, I rolled up my sleeping bad, and did an unorthodox walk of shame through the courtyard back to my dorm room. I opened my shades, hoping that I’d be woken up when the sun rose, and then climbed into my bed. The feeling of my moist skin against my dry, cold sheets made me feel like a frog. For the first time in my life, I felt that I didn’t belong in a bed.
The next day, my alarm woke me. I was exhausted. I went about my day as usual, and had completely forgotten about my experience from the night before. It wasn’t until I saw Leah in the dining hall that I recalled what had happened. She was applying peanut butter to an English muffin when I approached her.
“Oh God. Leah. I’m so sorry I bailed on the outdoor sleeping,” I told her. “I—I just panicked. I looked around and it was dark and I was like… ‘I have a bed. Why am I here?’” I joked.
Unperturbed by my abandonment, she laughed. “You’re such a city girl,” she said, as she continued to spread the peanut butter.
I graciously accepted that mocking label. I am a city girl. Maybe there wasn’t anything wrong with me. My refusal of this “nature” (if it even merits that title) wasn’t a problem with me—it was a problem that my upbringing had imposed on me. But why is it that I was able to live in a tent for a month over the summer with complete comfort?
When I was placed in a field in Vermont, completely out of context with everything I know, the sense of comfort that I’ve grown accustomed to by being a “city girl” (god I hate that phrase) was completely forgotten. There was no cell phone service, no electricity, no running water, no indoor refuge across a manicured courtyard. The sky above me was something so completely different from the sky above me on Princeton campus or in New York City. It had neither glare nor gothic roof obtrusions. My sense of time was based on something more rigid than my course schedule; I fell asleep at sundown, and woke up just before sunrise. I lived with the sun, and not in spite of the sun.
Mankind has invented and passed on technologies—electricity, iphones, and snuggies—that pull us further and further away from the world that we evolved to inhabit. Technologies change the way that we operate and interact with the world around us. Born to a world where these technologies are the foundation of our every day existence, we feel no need to question our lifestyles. Princeton has given nature a new meaning; our meadows are confined by symmetrical stone paths, our ‘wildlife’ is limited to squirrels and stray cats, and it’s easier to find wifi than it is to find fallen leaves. Though my approach to reconnect with nature—by attempting to sleep outdoors in the Mathey courtyard—wasn’t the most mentally stable solution, it made me realize how my appreciation for wildlife was becoming secondary to my appreciation for a warm bed. Maybe putting lights, schedules, and yoga mats between ourselves and nature helps us feel more in control. But in exchange for this sense of control, we lose something invaluable; our sense of belonging in nature.