Early versions of this blog had me start off by saying how I couldn’t really pinpoint what set me on the environmental career path or where my connection to nature truly began. But in the process of writing and the reflection that comes with it, I surprised myself by stumbling across a collection of moments instead. Before we get to those, I want to preface this by saying there was no *one* “aha!” moment that sparked my connection to nature and as with most things in life it was more a series of unfortunate events.
I can easily pinpoint who planted the curious seed of my environmentalism, it’s no secret that my Nana’s incessant nagging successfully made me a staunch conservationist. However, given that the connection between nature and I has ebbed and flowed, growing stronger when I needed it the most and waning when I thought I was just perfectly fine by myself, I think it would be more beneficial to share a different origin story, one that set me on the career path I’m on today. How my connection with nature flourished.
Nature started out as a shelter for me outside of the room I shared with my mum, a way for my cousins and I to escape when our loud parents were too much for our ears to handle, and a place for me to destress and collect my angsty teenage thoughts... (if you haven’t guessed already from my quiet introspection, yes, I was an emo and nature was my safe space).
This ‘emo phase’ persisted out of my teenage years into adulthood and my first job. I remember being 20 years old sitting on the central line at 6.30 am for the fourth time in a row after closing the store. I was staring out the window, drowning my thoughts out with My Chemical Romance and just trying to keep it together, holding back the tears. I was working in a job where I was battling with my identity and values, because, in order to get a promotion I needed to take my manager’s advice and “play the game”.
What’s playing the game? Simply, it’s doing things in an accepted way without the ability to challenge things. In my case, “playing the game” was embodying my ‘corporate self’ i.e. heels on, make-up on, hiding my natural afro in braids or a scarf because it looked “so much nicer” and “more presentable”… I hope those are words you never hear, but from after-work chats with friends it sadly seems like it's pretty commonplace advice.
Now, I realise that it’d make a rosier and more uplifting story to have a voiceover come in saying “and it was in that very moment staring out the train window, reflecting on my professional career and who I was becoming that I finally found myself and realised that nature was my path” but I’d be lying. Being told that in order for me to be successful I had to compromise my identity and values completely wrecked my self-esteem. For a little while.
It took a ridiculous amount of deep train journeys, teary nights and support from my partner at the time to ‘wake up’ and realise that yes, I had taken the job to learn some new skills and there were aspects of the job I loved, but I’d spent too long ignoring all the experiences it was denying me. It was a toxic environment that didn’t allow me to thrive professionally or even align with my values as a human being. I needed to find my path again.
So a few months later I turned to one of my favourite tools in moments of crisis; the art of self-reflection in the form of list-making. And after spending a couple of hours being *brutally* honest with myself about my likes, dislikes, passions, values, what gives me energy in life... nature came out on top.
Even when I’m not using the local park as an escape, I love hanging out outside with my friends. I’m basic. I like sunbathing, I love staring at flowers, identifying them with iNaturalist and practicing my nature photography. I react terribly to bites but I’d happily go canoeing through Scotland whilst trying to limit how much the midges ate me and the number of midges eaten in my cheese and midge sandwich.
I recognised that I’d developed a one-sided relationship with the outdoors, I’d let nature take me in with healing arms during my darkest moments but I’d always ignored it once I thought I’d found joy and fulfillment in other aspects of my life. I wanted to give back to nature.
At the time (in my mind) as I couldn’t afford to volunteer, the only way for me to get the knowledge and experience needed to secure a job in the environmental sector was to go to university. I’m not saying the route I took is the right one, nor is my journey. We all forge our own paths with a bit of luck and will. It delights me to be able to say that there are so many more meaningful opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds to step into the environmental sector, especially compared to 10 years ago.
I happened to stumble across one of these midway through my final year - the ‘Keeping it Wild traineeship’ with the London Wildlife Trust which turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had in nature. It gave me the confidence I needed to forge my own path in the environmental sector and the skills required to back that up. Now I work with young people directly as a Programme Coordinator at Action for Conservation inspiring the next generation of environmentalists without using my Nana’s nagging techniques.
So when I think back on how my connection to nature flourished and what led me to a career in conservation, I’m left with a collection of moments of being reminded “you *can*”. In fact, I wouldn’t even have gotten this job if my ex-manager hadn’t reached out to say that my application was welcomed. It was in the reflection from making that list, taking a risk and all the support from my colleagues and loved ones that my connection with nature truly flourished.
Thanks for reading.
Charlie Nwanodi, AFC South East Programme Coordinator.