Category Archives: Colleen MacGilvray

The Sea within My Soul

“We all leave home to find home, at the risk of being forever lost.”  -Philip Hoare from The Sea Inside

I recently went out to dinner with a couple members of Cohort 8.  I always enjoy spending time and sharing a meal with the cohort outside the classroom.  It helps us strengthen the bonds we have formed throughout the program.  Additionally, the food is always delicious.  When I paid for my meal during this particular outing, the waitress noticed that I had something quite non-Oregonian about me.

“You are not from around here.  Where are you from?” the waitress asked.

“I’m from North Carolina,” I tell her.

I have introduced myself as a North Carolinian numerous times throughout my graduate school experience in the Master of Science in Environmental Education program at Southern Oregon University.  Although I originally hail from Illinois, North Carolina has been home for the past eleven years.  I drove over 2,900 miles from my hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, to start a new chapter in Ashland, Oregon.  With that long distance move came sacrifices.  I traded longleaf pines for ponderosas and coastal plains for mountain views.  The hardest topographic sacrifice I had to make, though, was trading the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific.  On my first trip to the Oregon coast I asked myself, “This doesn’t seem right.  Where are all my sea oats?”

Sunset on the barrier island of Bald Head Island, North Carolina.

I felt out of place during my visit to the coast because it was so unlike the North Carolina shores and barrier islands I have grown to love.  Barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina are shaped by the wind and rain of storms that constantly change the landscape.  They serve as protection to mainland coastal communities during hurricanes.  One typical ecosystem of these islands includes the dunes.  The dunes may seem sparse of vegetation, but sea oats and other plants have deep roots that stabilize those systems.

View from a hike along Oregon’s coast.

The most striking contrast between the dunes of North Carolina’s beaches and Oregon’s coast is elevation.  While the dunes in North Carolina may resemble rolling hills, they do not compare to the majesty of the tall coastal mountains in Oregon.  The vegetation on these coastal mountains is comprised of coniferous forests and includes stands of Douglas firs and cedar trees.

Observing the tall stands of conifers along the Oregon coast greatly confused me, especially when I could hear the roar of the ocean.  The stark differences between the natural history along the coasts of North Carolina and Oregon also presented an opportunity for a personal study of coastal ecosystems.  I felt like Philip Hoare, author of The Sea Inside.  Hoare traveled across the globe detailing the world’s oceans and the personal connections humans have with the water.  From Southampton Water in England to New Zealand, Hoare presents natural, cultural, and personal histories of the ocean.  I dove into his prose while I read his book, and I took reflections of his travels to heart.  Hoare felt at ease in the water and the coastal communities he visited.  Like Hoare, I began to reflect on my own experiences.  I realized that I too have a connection to the sea.

From Philip Hoare:

In his book Hoare writes, “The sea sustains and threatens us, but it is also where we came from.”  I lived and worked as an Environmental Educator on the barrier island of Bald Head Island, North Carolina, during Summer 2014.  It was full of amazing, and sometimes contradictory, experiences.  The crashing waves and high tide of a hurricane brought stormy weather to the island, but when the storm moved, the sea was calm, plovers ran along the tide line, and tide pools exposed the intricate design of shells.  Bald Head Island changed me, just as the winds and storms constantly shaped the barrier island.  Those experiences are a part of me and have helped mold me into the environmental educator I am today.

I continue to return to the coast because I know that it is forever a part of my soul.  The roar of waves crashing on the beach is a familiar noise whether on the East coast or the West coast.  When I visit the beach and close my eyes, I am unable to differentiate between the shores of Bald Head Island and Cape Sebastian on the Oregon Coast Trail.  I return to what is familiar, and the coast forever represents home.

Whenever I introduce myself as a North Carolinian, such as I do to numerous people who fancy the conversation, they usually mention that I am a long way from home.  They are correct in that statement.  Home is not one place, though.  I left North Carolina and found wonder in Oregon, and I continue to do so every day.  I look towards the coast and listen to its sounds to remind myself that I am not lost.  I am home.


The Importance of Human Wonder

One of the most important lessons that I have learned from experiencing and exploring the outdoors is the potential for knowledge in human wonder.

Painted desert 2
Exploring the landscape of the Painted Desert at Petrified Forest National Park

The idea that one can learn from observing their surroundings through exploration is something that my parents instilled in me from a young age.  Family vacations, although a time to be spent together, often became a time for my siblings and me to investigate new surroundings.  Even while walking on the same trail, my brothers and I always saw things that made us feel differently.  On a trip to Petrified Forest National Park, I remember overhearing a conversation from another park visitor about vultures circling in the sky.  I immediately noticed the birds a little distance away.  I was fascinated and frightened by them at the same time.  What if those vultures thought I was a potential meal?  Were they strong enough to carry me away?

Looking back on my naive impression of those raptors, I am still amazed by those two vultures soaring in the Arizona sky many years ago.  What did those birds see as they circled?  How long did they soar before giving a flap to their wings?

A flock of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). From All About Birds:

I have taken Avian Biology courses and learned about the behavior of New World vultures.  I have read about thermal updrafts and understand why raptors take advantage of the rising air to conserve energy while flying.  I have researched the diets of vultures.  I am glad to say that they do not seek little girls in pink shirts.  None the less, I still wonder what it was that those particular vultures were thinking.

I continue to find myself wondering about the doings of birds.  Even while sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car, I’ll notice the turkey vultures circling above the interstate.  I ask myself the same questions about those vultures as I did their relatives at the Petrified Forest many years ago.

Gazing at the blue waters below

This curiosity, this sense of wonder, is as important to me now as it was then.  My parents raised my siblings and me to question the world around us but to never lose touch of the things that make the world special.  I was reminded of this when Cohort 8 shadowed the Classroom at Crater Lake program this October.  The students who visited on a class field trip learned important ecological concepts that make Crater Lake unique, but the knowledge they gained was nothing compared to the sense of wonder expressed on their faces when they looked over the rim and imagined what lurked in those beautiful blue waters.  Those students identified with that place, and now they are connected to it forever.

As I learn to become a successful environmental educator, I remind myself that some of the most important lessons that I can pass on to students are the same lessons that I learned from my first teachers, my parents.  Just as my parents allowed my brothers and me to explore our surroundings, from the woods in our backyard to the national parks of the United States, I should let my future students explore the world around them.  Although I have faith that these students will be able to identify plant species along the trails they walk, I would rather they expand their mind beyond classifications and imagine what species are the favorites of the animals that call the land beyond the trail home.  Like Rachel Carson, who eloquently described this experience in her 1965 publication The Sense of Wonder, I hope that these children will never falter in their sense of wonder and find inspiration in the everyday.  When they enjoy their time outdoors and have fun exploring, they will be able to better understand the world around them and the additional discoveries that await them.

Encourage your sense of wonder.  Explore your backyard, your neighborhood, your city, your state.  Identify what makes your place unique and how that uniqueness translates into the extraordinary.  Place your feet on a trail outside and see where your sense of wonder inspires you to explore.