Conservation Efforts for Slow Thinking: Lessons from Everglades National Park

I slinked outside into the night to call my mom. She asked how my trip had been and I swallowed hard and told her that it had been great. We discussed birds and alligators and the weather. And the whole time I just kept hoping that she’d see straight through me and ask me what was wrong.

Mere hours ago I had woken up with a lovely man in a tent upon a wooden platform, just above the water, in the backcountry of Everglades National Park. For six days, we had lived out of a canoe, and planned our activities by the position of the sun. And I had fallen hopelessly in love.

Sure, the sunrays burned hot and the mosquitos and no-see-ums found me to be a delicacy, but that didn’t really matter. What mattered was the stillness, yet constant movement of the water. What mattered were the dolphins playfully swimming while graciously sharing with us their path. What mattered was being awoken from my day’s end meditation by the swooshing sound of wings as a flock of White Ibises passed overhead. What mattered was baring my chest to the sweet breeze of this incredible little pocket of earth. My heart was swollen with the fervent heat of love pulsing through my body—love of space, companionship, present time, and nature; love of love itself.

But now we were back, checked-in at a Quality Inn along a concrete boulevard of strip malls, preparing our return travel to Washington, D.C. And from the moment we strapped our canoe back onto the top of our rental car and drove out of the gates of the National Park, my heart fell heavy like a rock. I masked the feeling behind false exhaustion and as few words aspossible. But when motherly instinct finally asked the inevitable—“Are you ok?”—my eyes turned hot and plump and I cried all the tears one would shed for lost love.

Before going on the trip, I had learned about the history of the Everglades and of the unique, fragile, and vital ecosystem it created. I felt connected to the place, trying to soak up the boundless wisdom it held in its slow, but steady flow. It was such a spectacular manifestation of Gaia herself. I became bitter towards the manmade endeavors that shrank this treasure to its present day size, along with nearly destroying it all together. I sneered at nearby Miami that now polluted the past reach of the Everglades, and which I assumed knew little of her true beauty.

When we left the Everglades, goodbye was not gradual. Goodbye meant a return to urban spaces—and to stress. And it all hit me so fast—work, cell phones, social media, cars, scheduling, budgeting. I was overwhelmed by the pace and gravity of it all, and so I confessed to my mother all the feelings of my heart torn between the love of the Everglades and keeping that stillness forever, and the return to society and a drive to work hard to create meaningful change in this life. I couldn’t help, but wonder—what have we left behind in our pursuit of cities? And, if the city is a necessity, then where do we look to find the Everglades within it?

Back in Washington, life went on and eventually returned to normal, though a heart never really forgets. But then one day, I was taking a long bike ride up to a lake to spend the day relaxing and writing in nature when these questions returned to my mind with answers. Some of the writing I was going to be doing was letters to a few family and friends. When people discover that I spend not an insignificant amount of time mailing handwritten notes, they’re generally surprised and/or express a sense of detached admiration. It has become rare in the era of tweets, text messages, and email to actually sit down and write someone a letter. It takes time to do this. It takes slowing your mind down and thinking through the task, contemplating the meaning of the message you want to send. It’s not a quick 140 characters followed by 140 more if you decide there’s something else that needs to be communicated. It involves actual punctuation and proper sentence structure. And if the handwritten message is short and sweet, then it is probably done that way deliberately—which also takes added thought.

I was speaking with another 20-something in D.C. several months back whom I had just met. She was talking about social media, and then mentioned something called StumbleUpon. She was surprised to hear that I had no idea what that was. So she described it for me, “Oh, it’s great. You know how we’re like all ADD these days? Well, that’s what it’s great for. You just keep clicking on things and it just keeps recommending other things and the more you click the more things it takes you to, and so you can go through a lot of information really quickly, and never get bored.”

As the wind blew through my hair as I rode my bike, admiring the scenic wonder of the Rock Creek Trail, I thought about how much the concept of “slow thinking” has become endangered. Part of why I keep this blog is because it allows me to exercise my mind in a way that feels so much different than my day-to-day activities. I write a blog post generally after I’ve ruminated about a variety of experiences and moments and ideas and finally found connecting themes and meaning in the pieces, finally understood how they all connect. Writing allows me to slow-think, to actually synthesize information, rather than just jumping from topic to topic without ever stopping to contemplate the whole or any related implications.

Our instincts beckon us to flee urban spaces when we realize that our own slow thinking has stopped. For the point is not to stumble upon, and then stumble upon, and then stumble upon. The point should be to stumble upon and then explore and think through what you have found and what you have learned and maybe what forces brought you to this moment of stumbled discovery in the first place.

As we’ve embraced the fast-paced reality of cities and social media, I worry that we’ve forgotten how to think in-depth about a subject. And not only does a lack of slow thinking lead to increased stress, but I think it also leads to a dearth of generational wisdom. Have we paused and thought long enough to have lessons to pass on to the future? Have we recorded meaningful history that will move the hearts and souls of those who follow us? Have we stopped to see how fortunate we are, and to help those who are less so? Have we even stopped long enough to understand what that means?

And then there are the Everglades, where stress seems to disappear and every inch is so clearly soaked in seasoned wisdom.

If you look hard enough, you can find evidence of the Everglades in the city. The Everglades exist when someone takes time to read an actual book in its entirety. They exist when one sits down to write a letter to a friend, near or far. They exist whensomeone doesn’t simply repeat talking points, but rather actually studies an issue and has meaningful discourse on the topic with someone else who has versed him-or-herself in the subject matter. The Everglades are spending a day making art or going on a long stroll. The Everglades are growing your own garden and waiting patiently for the harvest. The Everglades are taking the time to think about life, love, and relationships instead of just hiding behind the next quick thing.

It was when the Everglades were nearly destroyed that a conservation and restoration effort finally took root. As slow thinking rapidly diminishes, will we also make an effort to save it before it’s gone, realizing its vital importance for our survival?

The water of the Everglades flows at the pace of about a quarter-mile per day. What this results in is something truly beautiful. We must remember to practice our thoughts in the way of the Everglades’ current. What will result is something truly beautiful.

I look forward to returning to the Everglades someday, but for now, I take solace knowing that I can find them in the stillness of my own mind.

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