Claiming My True Kinship
You are never lost or alone, so long as you can claim kinship with everything that is.
You are no more alone than the river is alone or the mountains are alone or anything in the Universe, for you are part of the whole...
Every day you can come out and meet yourself in the sky’s reflection or the dew lying on petals or any other natural thing.
Renew yourself in these things; identify yourself with them; for all is fashioned from the same material, shaped by the same inspiration and animated by the same life breath.
Vivienne de Watteville in ‘Speak to the Earth’, 1935
THERE WASN'T A SINGLE moment I became a conservationist - rather, a sequence of events has directed me along the way since birth, from the tropical jungles to snow-capped mountains and finally, to the African bush.
As a four-year-old girl, I lived in perpetual summer, a tropical haven, surrounded by more diversity of wildlife than imaginable. My parents moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in Southeast Asia in 1993 with two small children in tow and high hopes for a prosperous future filled with novelty and excitement. Working for an international construction company gave my parents the opportunity to travel for work all over the world. When my dad had first been asked to take a job in Malaysia, neither of my parents were able to place the country on a map, let alone have an idea of the life that awaited them.
They were not disappointed. Several layovers, 9,364 miles, and a 24-hour-long journey later, my family stepped off the plane. Waves of heat, humidity, and the thick scent of a wild, unexplored land hit us. Life in Malaysia was a child’s dreamland. My brother and I enjoyed daily swims in our pool, bike rides through the luscious parks, trips to the mountains and the beach, and evenings on the porch watching thunderstorms roll in and drench the rain forests around us. I had planted my first roots deep within rich soil. Between the diverse people who attended and worked at my school and the dense jungles that encroached upon the city, I learned the importance of diversity and how it can spark and perpetuate individual change and growth in ways that the homogenous never can.
Malaysia was a mosaic of people from across Asia and beyond who spoke different languages, held different religious beliefs, and dressed in local or traditional garb. At the first school I ever attended, I was the only non-Asian person in my class and also the only person whose first language was English! It was difficult to relate to the other kids since we weren’t able to speak to one another.
For my elementary school years, I joined an international school where I was introduced to a host of new life experiences. One of my first best friends at that school was a girl from Kazakhstan, named Eldina. Until I was older and had a better appreciation for the unconventional life I had led as a child, it never occurred to me that being an American girl living in Malaysia with a best friend from Kazakhstan was at all unusual.
At my school, we were introduced to a myriad of religious and traditional holidays. Sometimes, instead of being spectators, we were able to play a role in the festivities, like the year I participated in a traditional Indian dance during the Diwali (spelled Deepavali in Malaysia) holiday and sang in Bahasa (the local Malaysian language) in our Malaysian studies class for Ramadan.
The rest of the animal kingdom in Malaysia was equally diverse. At our home, located in a neighborhood that bordered the jungle, we were regularly entertained by the shenanigans of howling monkeys that leaped from branch to branch and scurried across our roof or surprised by the sudden appearance of monitor lizards dragging their four-foot-long bodies across the yard. Small, semi-translucent lizards, locally known as “Cheechaks”, scampered throughout the house and acted as natural insect control. However, even those helpful creatures weren’t able to eradicate the swarms of mosquitoes and biting insects that, for the better part of four years, required me to be plastered in a permanent coat of Calamine lotion.
When my family had time for vacations, we often traveled to the forested mountains of Genting Highlands (tea plantations of Cameron Highlands), the white sand beaches of Pangkor Island, or Bali, Indonesia each with their own array of magnificent animals, people, and cultures. Living amidst such diversity and interconnectedness of people and the outdoor world became my baseline and was the start of a life-long love affair with nature and foreign cultures. Of course, at that point in my life, I didn’t know anything else. My earliest memories and experiences were from Malaysia. It was home to me. It’s no surprise then that when we moved away it tore at my heart.
From the Jungles to the Mountains
After a little over four years spent in tropical bliss, my family packed up and headed to Santiago, Chile in South America, a bone-dry desert in comparison. The entire length of Chile borders the Pacific Ocean and is home to the Andes Mountains, arid deserts, and salt lakes. At first, I hated my life there. I missed the warm humidity, the howling monkeys, and the fresh smell of afternoon thunderstorms. However, little by little, I recognized the inherent beauties in my new country and endeavored to learn about how the animals and plants lived and thrived despite the harsh conditions to which they were exposed. My appreciation for nature and all its unusual intricacies continued to grow when my family and I went on trips around the country and I was introduced to new habitats and people.
On one particular occasion, my family took a trip through the Atacama Desert, a 620 mile-long plateau located to the west of the Andes Mountains and considered the driest non-polar desert in the world. It is also home to some of the highest lakes in the world. Think Martian landscape and you’ll come close to what we saw when we arrived: barren mountains with snowcapped peaks, parched valleys with scraggly shrubs struggling to survive, and dusty soils that had cracked into puzzle pieces under the sun’s rays and the wind’s dry breath. We saw few animals, primarily different species of insects, lizards, and birds and occasionally a llama or two if we were near a village.
Outside the city of Santiago, the majority of people we encountered didn’t speak a word of English, so my family and I learned Spanish. While many Chileans – especially those in Santiago – are of European decent, we had plenty of opportunities to meet indigenous Chileans, about 85% of whom were of the Mapuche tribe. We also had the opportunity to meet indigenous Peruvians, since Chile and Peru share a border. Unlike the European descendants, the indigenous Chileans and Peruvians were shorter and stouter with darker completions. Those we met in isolated communities high in the Andes where temperatures would drop below freezing at night wore thick and colorful woven fabrics and hats. They worked in the communities, or at family farms, or some traveled down the mountains to work in the city.
From the Mountains to the Bush
After six years in Malaysia and Chile combined, my family moved back to the United States. Once again, I had a difficult time adjusting to life. This time it was because my American community felt bizarrely and shockingly homogenous. The sudden immersion into a large American city removed from nature and surrounded by people who looked like me, spoke like me, and believed and acted in similar ways, paralyzed me. I felt redundant and ordinary, so I closed off to the world at the age of eleven. I remember, with some embarrassment, that my seventh-grade teacher jokingly told me he thought I was mute since I rarely spoke at school and sat quietly in the back of the classroom –in prior years this would have been inconceivable behavior for me. (A kindergarten teacher of mine once wrote on my report card, “She is quite verbal”. My parents like to quote her even today).
While today I’ve learned to enjoy the natural spaces around me even when they feel tiny and appreciate the diversity present in those who appear similar at first, back then I felt suffocated. I missed the jungles of Southeast Asia and the mountains of South America and longed for wild places and diverse cultures. Malaysia and Chile will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s because of this that once I physically left them behind, I strove to find my way back to Neverland – the place where deep wonder and gloriously raw nature meet. I found it this time in Africa.
As an undergraduate, I studied biology and ecology. The more I learned about the miracles of nature, as well as the destruction of the world’s last wild places and those trying to conserve them, the more I heard the word ‘Africa’. The desire to learn about these topics first-hand spurred my decision to study abroad. I chose South Africa and in hindsight, the most suitable country for my purpose. I fell in love with South Africa the moment I felt the waves of heat and humidity brush across my face and smelled the thick scent of adventure that my parents had first experienced when they arrived in Malaysia. It felt welcoming and familiar.
Throughout my program, I connected back to nature and the community in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I spent nearly three months in the Kruger National Park followed by several weeks in the Western Cape where I conducted ecology and conservation projects and learned everything possible about the country, its wildlife, and people. We drove the length of Kruger Park for research purposes at least twice and encountered the “Big Five” (i.e. lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) almost every week. It was a wildlife lover’s dream. After every encounter, I had to pinch myself to remind myself I wasn’t watching one of David Attenborough’s documentaries!
One of the most memorable experiences from that trip was the time I laid eyes on my first spotted hyena. It happened one summer evening just before dusk when the sun’s last rays stretched across the bush. One of my lecturers knew of my desire to see hyenas, so that evening he called me over and led me to the open gates of the Shingwedzi research camp in the Kruger Park. At first, I didn’t see what he was trying to show me. Without a word, he stood next to me with a broad smile on his face and looked directly out in front of him. Eventually, I saw them: a clan of four or five spotted hyenas loped through the bush only twenty feet away! They stopped when they saw us, regarded our presence with heads cocked to one side, and called out with an eerie “whoop, whoop, whoop” before bounding off into the darkness. Immobilized at the sight, my eyes were wide in wonder. My hair stood on end. And that was it. I was hooked on Africa.
I was equally enchanted with the South African people. Every South African I met from a different region of the country spoke at least two different African languages plus English and/or Afrikaans, and each person had their own customs, traditional clothing, and history. In the Northern Province of South Africa in a town called Hamakuya, I experienced rural African life up close and personal. During my homestay, a translator helped me communicate with my Venda host family and learn about their lives. Mornings before sunrise came too quickly and then it was time to collect firewood and water – chores that are done by women in the village every day without fail – to cook and clean.
As mid-afternoon rolled around and the sun rose high in the sky, all activities ceased. It was the time when everyone sat in the shade of their home and visited with one another or took a nap. Evenings brought cheerful, bouncing children home from school, eager to play with one another and anyone else who cared to join. Over the course of a week, I prepared, cooked, and ate traditional meals, assisted with everyday chores, and had the awesome opportunity to interact with and learn from people I otherwise never would have met. My experience in the small South African village, while uncomfortable and stressful at times, was informative and inspirational.
On this trip to Africa, it was the first time I took photography seriously. I worked hard to develop my skills and understand the technical aspects of the process that make a photograph an effective tool for communication. Ansel Adams is noted to have said, “photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communication, offers an infinite variety of perceptions, interpretation, and execution”. I’ve seen how effective photographers and photojournalists have proven this simple quote true and have influenced my own thoughts about conservation.
Today, photography is a mandatory part of my life as a naturalist, just as is traveling. When I surround myself with Earth’s wild places my soul recharges as well as my motivation for life as a conservationist. Photography has a similar effect.
Many of the native people I’ve met around the world regard nature in general and their environment specifically with great respect. They’re appreciative for how the land and its resources have sustained them, their livelihoods, and their families. It’s only recently that as a society, human beings have grown more distant than ever from nature. It’s in this space where I see a need to connect people to the natural world in a way that reminds us of our shared connection with all life, regardless of where you are from or to what species you belong.
TerraLens Photography LLC is the wildlife photography company I founded in order to bridge this gap and inspire awe of our planet’s inherent beauty and encourage the responsible treatment of nature. My goal is to convey scientific and conservation information in an easily digestible format through stories and images to those who don’t have a science background, but which is still informative for those who do. The power of photographs and words in bringing people together in support of conservation efforts can’t be overstated.
By far, the single-most influential thing in my life has been traveling. Throughout my life, it’s drawn me closer to nature and the desire to conserve it, but also to other human beings. It’s taught me to have the courage to see others as they truly are and to speak openly and honestly with everyone I meet. Traveling has also impressed upon me the importance of diversity in thought, action, and genetic makeup for a functioning world. Because of my collective experiences, I’m able to see myself in other beings, whether they happen to be a fellow Homo sapiens or a lily on a pond or a lion crouched in the grass. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m able to “claim kinship with everything that is” and encourage others to do the same.