One of my earliest memories is of my parents taking 4-year-old me on a “camping trip” a quarter mile into the woods behind our house. I remember cooking rice and beans on a portable stove, telling ghost stories and sleeping in a tent. Actually, what I remember most was temporarily losing my favorite stuffed animal and frantically searching for it in the woods for an hour. Fortunately, that traumatic experience didn’t ruin the outdoors for me.
While I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, my most transformative outdoor experiences have come in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. This region of Appalachia is home to the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi, among the most biodiversity in North America, and a rich cultural heritage. Way back in the 1940s, my great-grandfather bought a patch of land in a ghost-town called Edgemont and built a fishing cabin next to a beautiful creek. It’s been in our family ever since. I spent every summer of my life hiking, fishing, swimming and tubing at the cabin. I quickly fell in love with it all: the vistas, trees, cold streams, waterfalls, brook, brown and rainbow trout, campfires and s’mores―especially the s’mores! The outdoors to me meant fun, adventure and peace of mind.
My first foray into environmental activism came when I was 9 years old. A Florida developer wanted to build 225 houses along the banks of Wilson Creek (no relation), one of only four national Wild and Scenic Rivers in North Carolina and not far from our cabin. Countless hikers, anglers, kayakers and just regular folks frequented and loved the Wilson Creek area and surrounding Pisgah National Forest. My dad encouraged everyone he had ever introduced to this area ― including me ― to write a letter to the Caldwell County commissioners urging them to reject the development application and protect the creek.
While I’m sure my third-grade prose left much to be desired, it was the first time I thought deeply about why I cared for the environment. I poured my heart into that letter, genuinely terrified that a place I loved would be destroyed forever. After receiving the most public comment on a single issue in Caldwell County history, the commissioners turned down the project. Wilson Creek has been protected ever since. The experience taught me that my voice ― as part of collective action ― can have an impact. While my singular letter might not have done much to move the needle, the sum of several hundred singular letters did.
As I grew up, the outdoors always held a special place in my heart. I continued to go to the North Carolina mountains each summer, and we would occasionally venture out to the West. The highlight of those adventures was an incredible hiking trip to Mount Rainier in 2014. Even in my hometown in North Carolina’s comparatively less spectacular Piedmont, I was still able to find beauty and peace in nature. A big part of my love for running cross country in high school was getting to work out in the woods.
Around this time in high school I became seriously concerned about global warming and the impact it was already having on our world. I not only learned about climate science in the classroom, but I also experienced changes firsthand in the mountains: rising water temperatures had made it significantly harder to catch trout and droughts made tubing down the rapids impossible. My time studying environmental policy at Washington University in St. Louis further confirmed that I wanted to pursue environmentalism as a career.
Today, less than 6 months out of college, I’m a Go Solar campaign associate for Environment America in the Boston office. My main project is to convince Walmart ― and eventually all big box stores ― to install solar panels on all viable roofs and parking lots. I strongly believe that we must maximize solar generation on the built environment as part of a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Here’s why ― just days into my new job, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most dire warning yet to humanity: In order to avoid the worst of the climate crisis, we must take bold action now.
I think a lot about my time in nature: hiking in pristine forests, swimming under spectacular waterfalls, and sleeping in tents with my family. I’ve been blessed to experience the wonders of the outdoors and want others to be able to experience the same. We live on a spectacular planet. Let’s protect it.