Rebecca Haynes, a former park ranger, believes that her life is made better by being part of a local community and a local environment, whether in a small town, a big city, or the wilds of the Sonoran Desert.
The Ozarks. The Sonoran Desert. The Green Mountains. Death Valley. In my life I’ve called them all home. Like so many people I move for work, for new opportunities. I’m a park ranger, traveling every season to a new destination, a new natural wonder, a piece of American history. And being able to travel and live from coast to coast, I have come to believe that there are unique qualities in every part of this vast country.
As a ranger I look at the land first. I love moving to new parks and new ecosystems, to suddenly be looking at a forest of cactus, or thick hardwoods, or a slow meandering river. The second thing I look for is a hike into this new territory. And the third thing? Town. I find the grocery store. The library. And it’s amazing, because every nearby small town is just as unique as the park itself. There’s the dusty failing boom town on the Nevada border. The small mom-and-pop towns scattered throughout southern Missouri. Or the pretty town greens of Vermont.
I believe that it is a combination of the land, and its history, and its people, that makes these places unique. I’ve seen it almost everywhere I’ve been. Communities protecting their local identities, embracing their local histories, and celebrating their local ecology. I’ve seen these communities struggling to re-claim themselves from an often de-personalizing and sprawling modern life. I believe that community-identity can be created, and like all of the towns I’ve lived in, this identity can be created by embracing the local woods (be they mangroves or fir trees) and by embracing the local community, with its markets and libraries, historical societies, and businesses.
Being a park ranger, I, of course grew up in the city. And when I return home for holidays and new babies, I am always stunned at the monotony of my sprawling hometown. That’s what all these parks and small towns do to me. They make my own hometown look like all the other cities lining the interstate: bright, and bare, and gaudy. But then I look up, and I see the big forested mountains of the Northwest all around me, all around my city. And I see the old brick buildings in the center of town, the weekend markets, the river running downtown, and I feel hope for my city.
Sometimes, it takes a lot of effort to feel that hope, especially when my park communities are far away and I’m surrounded by the familiar chain stores and suburbs. I believe that it does take effort to create unique communities. Even more than effort, it takes simple intention, an intention to see what surrounds me. I believe that my life is made better by being part of a local community and a local environment. I believe my life is better for knowing, and seeing, both.
Rebecca is a science educator at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont. Previously she worked for seven years as an interpretative ranger for the National Park Service throughout the United States. Rebecca hails from Oregon and studied at Lewis and Clark College and Antioch New England.
Recorded by Vermont Public Radio and produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.
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