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The Oil Tanker and the Penguins

By Maria Baron Palamar

When I finished high school my dad had the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” talk with me. I remember the day perfectly, we were in the car and it was getting dark. At that time we were living in Argentina and there had been an oil spill in Patagonia, it was all over the news and they were calling for volunteers to help trap and clean impacted wildlife. I took a couple of moments to think and I said: “I want to be a veterinarian, I want to be down there, cleaning and treating those penguins.” My father looked at me and asked, “How many penguins do you think you can save in a day?” “Ten, maybe 15 if I work very hard.” I responded. “How many would you like to save?” he asked. “As many as I can!” I responded confused. He looked at me for a long moment and said “Then maybe you should become an engineer that builds oil tankers, then you could make them safer and save thousands of penguins and other wildlife, maybe you can build an oil tanker that does not spill at all.” Although I heard him, I think I was to young to understand what he meant. An engineer? That felt like the opposite of a veterinarian. Eventually I grew up, and a vet degree and a PhD later (not in engineering), I was offered the job of my dreams; I was to become the Wildlife Veterinarian for the state of North Carolina. I was going to get paid for a job I would have done for free. What else could I ever want from life?

Throughout my studies I had observed the significance of people’s interaction with nature, first at veterinary school in Argentina, and later during my PhD, when I studied human-wildlife conflict using raccoon rabies as a model. But even then, I was not truly aware of human dynamics and the profound effect they had on the issues that I cared about. I saw human-wildlife interaction as a negative effect of humans on nature, simply put, we had decided to live in the habitat of this wildlife, we humans do not understand it, and we see the effects of wildlife in our life as conflict. It took years of working for the state, some pretty intense training, and some very fortunate encounters with gifted community builders, for me to understand what was really missing. After all, there was something else that I wanted; I had found my oil tanker.

You see? Not too long ago, humans had a strong connection to the natural world, they were part of it, just as the wildlife, the river, the cycle of the seasons; we humans belonged here. We understood our place, because we felt it as ours, we were not guests on this planet, but active stewards. As the human species became more and more civilized, we lost that connection; we started to see our interactions with nature as something we had to prevail over, as something to conquer. Although the loss of connection with nature could turn out to be catastrophic for our species (and many others), most troubling yet is our loss of connection to each other.

There was a time when we needed each other; one was only as strong as the community one belonged to. It made sense to keep all members of the community healthy, fit to hunt, gather, build, produce offspring, etc. As a community we were able to understand the importance of place, a healthy place, a place that we could see change with the seasons, that we could observe after a fire, a place that provided for us, and that we could provide for. As a community we understood the different needs of our members, we understood how long it took to grow and harvest food, we were close to those collecting our water, and we could spend time sharing our observations, our experiences with each other. As we became civilized, we lost that connection to each other, and with it, we lost our connection to the land and the life that covers it. We are now so far removed from the river where our drinking water is collected, that we most likely do not even know one person that works at a water treatment plant, and if we did, we would most likely be too busy to spend a night discussing with our water-treatment-plant-worker-friend what he or she observed in the plant and the river that feeds it. We live at such a fast pace, that relationships suffer, and with them we suffer as well. Humans are not meant to be solitary, we need each other, we thrive when in community, and we plunge into depression, anxiety, drug abuse and many other ailments when isolated, we are not meant to be on our own. The world literally falls apart when we forget our sense of community. Hunger, violence and mental illness plague those that have lost a tribe they can rely on, and with this loss, connection to nature, to place, slips between the cracks of our individualistic existence.

This brings me back to the oil tanker. I have seen and felt the power of community building, I have lived through the painful but extremely joyful exercise of creating alliances, rallying behind a common purpose, becoming trusting and trustworthy of those around you, and letting your vulnerability, your most human side, show.  It is true that nature is one of my priorities, and every time I have experienced community, I have felt closer and more connected to nature, still, I am sure other less nature oriented individuals have had similar experiences. From small groups, to larger crowds, becoming part of a community has a nature awakening side effect, a feeling of belonging, belonging to the community, but also to this world, to this moment. And that is my oil tanker; I understand now that if I want to see meaningful changes, save as many penguins as I can, then I have to work towards community building, the science, the facilitation, the whole experience. Through this work I want to help people find their communal voice and the strength to be the catalysts for the change that is needed now. With the creation of resilient communities, we will see a deeper connection to nature and a stronger sense of place, and that is something worth becoming an engineer for.

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