Taking a walk along St. Nicholas Park. (Photo credit: Selah Ilunga-Reed)
While working remotely this summer is certainly not ideal, throughout my time working for the Natural History Institute (NHI), I have found that there are some undeniable benefits and new opportunities associated with virtual communication. NHI's normal operations consist mainly of live programming--book readings, lectures, exhibits--so the onset of stay-at-home orders posed a challenge for the Institute. In order to continue such programs, I've helped NHI organize and host virtual events as webinars on Zoom. While NHI's live events garner a fantastic, passionate audience, most of whom live in or near Prescott, the virtual events have made it possible for larger international audiences. NHI's work, which is inherently rooted in the study of the American West, can be broadcast live to people around the world, providing a window into American culture that juxtaposes natural history with the devastating messages of political upheaval and deteriorating public health reported on the news.
In each of our webinars, we've hosted a virtual Q&A session with audience members writing questions for our speakers to answer live. At least once in each webinar, someone asks a question about optimism and hope. How can we stay hopeful, foster love of the world and each other, and create a brighter future? In general, guest speakers will answer with a recommendation that we continue to study and explore the natural world around us, that we continue to attend similar events. The fact that this message of exploration, kindness, and a heightened connection to nature can be shared with people all over the world is due primarily to our necessary shift to remote work.
For example, in late July, we hosted an event with Tyson Yunkaporta, the author of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Tyson quickly diverged from the typical author Q&A and began to describe, in vivid detail, the problems he saw with human development and industrialization. I took handwritten notes, trying to copy down everything he said. I don’t know if I would’ve ever come across Tyson’s work had I not worked at NHI this summer; I certainly never would’ve met him. Despite the fact that we were separated by time zones and oceans, everyone who clicked the link and joined our webinar that night was able to connect to Tyson’s wisdom and philosophy, to come away from the event with a new way of thinking.
As my internship draws to a close, I've tried to take stock of the lessons I've learned while working at NHI. There are concrete skills--webinar organization, video production, branding--and there are life lessons. Through my work with NHI, I've met people working in a field that I didn't know about prior to this summer: interdisciplinary natural history. I’ve recently felt at odds with the classic portrayal of climate change as a global threat with scientific or technological solutions. While such solutions are invaluable, I also think there is an underlying human problem tied to environmental devastation: distance from nature. As a New Yorker, I've certainly felt a disconnect from the earth. While the city boasts beautiful parks and nearby rural getaways, I spend most of my days hemmed in by concrete. In order to combat climate change, I think it's crucial to restore and cultivate an appreciation for the world, for the natural land that exists beneath the concrete. NHI’s work is rooted in the belief that, in order to combat environmental devastation, we must reconnect with the natural world through study, experience, and artistic appreciation. My work this summer at NHI has inspired me to make more of an effort to connect with the earth even as I shelter-in-place in the city. I've witnessed the beginnings of this essential reconnection with the earth in the discussions in NHI's events. And I truly believe that these roots of reconnection have the potential to take hold and inspire heightened interest in our planet among all its inhabitants.
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