Mud puddles and fireflies
As a child, some of my earliest and most treasured memories were of spending time in nature, included capturing grasshoppers and praying mantises, and keeping them as pets in mason jars. It was a simple life of splashing in mud puddles, climbing trees and watching fireflies from the porch on hot summer nights.
But it was also a time of upheaval. Around the time I was in second grade, my parents separated and both became unable to care for me, so I was placed in foster care, moving between 4 or 5 homes over a period of 3 years. I felt lost, unwanted, and not safe about connecting to any one human for fear of losing them.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in. ” -Rachel Carson
I was lucky to have one foster parent who spent quality time with me each day, teaching me to draw. I remember sitting on her couch learning to draw a cat by using a circle for the face, triangles for the ears, and so on. I grew to love drawing, and like many little girls, I mostly drew horses! Learning to draw was a game changer for me; it gave me a creative outlet where I could sit peacefully and draw and imagine a different life. (I wish I could thank her now, but I have no way to contact her; all records of my foster families have been lost and all my relatives have passed away.)
An Idyllic Childhood, then…
In my middle school years, my family reunited and we returned to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where I’d been born in an idyllic historic gold rush era town. And I was always outside, tending to my Noah’s Ark of sheep, rabbits, cats, dogs, birds, and fish. Every day, I would rush home from school to spend the afternoon delivering the local newspaper — on my beloved horse Mia, a half-mustang from Nevada!
And I loved being crafty; my bedroom floor was perpetually covered with various art projects in different stages of completion. I loved making sand candles in the backyard and sewing my own costumes for Halloween.
Life was good for a few years, but things would not remain idyllic for long. My mother passed away shortly after my sweet sixteen birthday party, and my father was forced to search for work in the city, which took him out of town leaving me alone for days at a time in a big, empty, spooky house.
This tragedy could have been a perfect excuse for me to get mixed up with a bad crowd, but again my saving grace was my animal friends, the proximity of nature and some influential teachers that saw my struggles as well as my potential which lessened the blow of losing a parent.
My dentist invited me to join our local Explorer Scouts chapter where he was the adult leader and I spent the rest of high school learning to backpack and Nordic ski, and learned skills of orienteering and wilderness first aid. These experiences with quality mentors and new, outdoorsy friends gave me a compass by which to navigate the treacherous teen years and a means of finding solace in nature when the rest of my world was falling apart. Thus, I grew into a person that had an extreme empathy for wild life and wild places.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” – John Muir
Because nature played such an important role in surviving my own childhood, I am passionate about getting folks, and especially children to see the benefits of time in nature and also to work hard to support conservation of nature so it will be around for us to gain inspiration from in the future (not to mention the fact that we depend upon it for our own survival, ultimately providing our food, clothing, shelter, fresh air and water).
After high school, I was itching to escape small town life, so like most of my friends, I headed to the nearest urban center; San Francisco. We were country bumpkins, experiencing all that the city had to offer, testing our limits. It was a heady time filled with lots of music concerts, late nights and bad behavior.
I tried working in a downtown skyscraper by day, but felt like a caged animal, pacing and staring out the window across the glittering bay. And seeing the empty looks on the faces of my co-workers, no passion or joy for their jobs, I knew I didn’t want to become one of them.
A Clear Path Appears
After a year, I’d had enough of the bright lights, big city; I had to get back to my roots and back to nature. I had a fire in my belly to do something different, something meaningful with my life. I decided to move up north where the sun was warm and the trees were tall, to study science at a state college.
I put myself through school waitressing at nights, while earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, focusing on ecology and environmental education.
Some years later, I followed a long-held dream of combining my passions for both the arts and sciences and I returned to school to earn a degree in scientific illustration at the University of California. My schooling complete, it was time to start using the knowledge I’d gained for the greater good.
“To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” -Terry Tempest Williams
A Rude Awakening
“Hello, this is United Airlines, we have your father here in Amsterdam and we’re sending him back on the next flight”. This one phone call I received about 10 years back changed the course of my life. Dad had begun developing dementia and had taken to running off to all parts of the globe, in last ditch efforts to assert his independence after the state revoked his driver’s license.
A Father’s Love
Like many daughters, I had a love/hate relationship with my father. We had enjoyed many adventures when I was a wee child, hiking, and camping in the woods, where he’d point out the many trees and birds we’d encounter and teaching me to pitch a tent and build a fire. I thought we were just having fun, little did I know we were often homeless, but that’s a story for another time.
He was a builder and I remember watching him sketch out the architectural plans for homes at his drafting table. I think this is where I got my love of detailed drawings, although for me it manifests in drawing not homes but anatomically correct scientific illustrations. I know Dad loved me fiercely and tried to do his best, but from the time I hit puberty through my adulthood, we just didn’t mix, like oil and vinegar.
A Necessary Detour
After the pivotal phone call from the airline, I reluctantly moved back home to be with him, having no other family members to help with his declining health. I could write a book about the trials and tribulations over the next five years (with some funny adventures too!), but I’m sure you’ve heard or experienced similar situations caring for an aging loved one.
I learned many lessons about life in those years, but the most important was to live your life to the fullest. I felt so bad for my father as I saw him slowly realize his life was coming to a close, and having so many regrets about not pursuing some of his dreams, especially about traveling and seeing the world. After dad passed away, I recommitted to this philosophy:
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
– Joseph Campbell
Pursuing a Purpose-driven Life
Growing up, I always loved both nature and art, but I didn’t know how to not sacrifice one for the other. Today, I feel so lucky to combine these two such seemingly diverse passions into a life and business that I love.
I’ve spent 10 years running my own company in the field of scientific communication where I’ve had the privilege of working on a variety of fascinating projects for such clients as the National Park Service, Botanical Society of America and many nonprofits, creating illustrations for children’s books, exhibits for nature centers, interpretive signs for nature trails and websites for scientists.
My passion for the natural world and curiosity about other cultures has taken me far and wide, from the Arctic tundra of Alaska to the Greek ruins of Sicily, from the azure coral reefs of the Caribbean to the tropical rain forests of Peru, Honduras and Borneo.
I’ve been scuba diving with sharks, tracked bears by moonlight, backpacked in the Sierra, mucked about in carnivorous plant bogs, studied bumblebee pollinators in alpine meadows, tagged trout in wild rivers and netted sharks in San Francisco Bay! I even rode my Harley 25,000 miles on solo vision quests. It’s been a wild ride.
It hasn’t been all fun and games though. I’ve been stung by jellyfish in the Mediterranean, dodged snapping trees in a lightning storm, been chased by a moose through the forest, vomited at 30 feet underwater while scuba diving and many other incidents I’m too embarrassed to mention!
When I’m not on the road or in my artist’s studio, I love sharing stories about the natural world with people young and old through multi-disciplinary techniques in which I incorporate artistic expression, song, dance, writing and nature explorations.
My overarching philosophy echoes that of the Senegalese forester, Baba Dioum who said:
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” -Baba Dioum
If you found my story interesting, you might like my slideshow, A Day in the Life of a Field Biologist.