Even before my mother gave birth to me when she was 15 years old, she knew that she wanted to be an artist. When I was 7, she moved us from the woods and ponds of rural Indiana to New York City. It was the early ’70s, and I had a very hard time adapting to the concrete and grit of lower Manhattan.
What saved me were vacations from school when I got to visit my grandparents back in the Midwest and, for Christmas, their winter home on Grand Bahama Island. The moment we arrived, I kicked off my shoes, ditched my city clothes, and ran up the beach to a patch of rocky tidepools that I considered to be my reef. I learned to crouch and be still beside the water and not frighten the creatures who lived there. Neon blue and yellow and purple fish stopped darting across their pools and resumed swimming around the anemones. Tiny hermit crabs came out of their shells and scrabbled around on the sand. Black sea urchins tucked into crevices moved their spines like rays of sunlight.
One day I met an octopus. Under a ledge in a tidepool, I saw a bit of reddish-brown mottled flesh, bumpy and soft-looking. I squatted and saw part of an arm with white suction pads. When I put my hand in the water, she withdrew, went pale, and siphoned a gush of water at me. I pulled my hand away and kept still. Her curiosity matched mine, and soon, she came forward, her color changing back to reddish-brown, and I saw her eyes. We watched each other. Crab claws and opened mollusks lay on the sand in a semicircle outside her cave. As I sat still with the octopus, all was well in my world, and I forgot about my struggles adapting to the city and making friends at school.
Back in the city, my mother allowed me to have pets — anole lizards, turtles rescued from a dime store, snails from a market in Chinatown — and, when I got a little older, green iguanas I found in pet shops. If not for my animals and access to wild places, I don’t think I could have survived.
I now live with my iguanas in the woods near a pond in the Catskills. When I recently read 19-year-old conservationist Dara McAnulty’s “Diary of a Young Naturalist,” it brought me back to the feeling of being uprooted and to the solace of nature. McAnulty, who is from Northern Ireland and is autistic, writes about his intense connection with nature. I can relate deeply to his account of how being still and watching animals — tadpoles, a raven, an earwig tending her eggs — saved him when he felt his world spinning out. Spending time in woodlands and meadows and by the sea — most often with his parents and siblings — lets McAnulty endure the “uprooting of a home,” his autism, and the turmoil of adolescence. “When I’m immersed in nature,” McAnulty writes, “I am less focused on myself and more aware of the other organisms around me — trees, plants, birds . . . "
I totally identify with nature’s capacity to provide relief from adolescent self-scrutiny. I didn’t think about my body at all until puberty hit. Overnight, it seemed, I grew to nearly 6 feet tall, needed a 36C bra, and contended with an eruption of acne across my face and shoulders. All of it made life at school and on the streets of the city nearly unbearable.
I studied hard in my classes for the reward of getting out a couple of weeks early, so that my mother and my iguanas and I could go to the family cottage on Higgins Lake in Michigan for the summer. My mother set up her easel and paints, and I put on my swimsuit and went into the lake. Cool water rose from my knees to my waist, then my chest, and I took a breath and dove under. The lake’s water was as clear as the Bahamas’s West Atlantic Ocean, and when I surfaced, I opened my eyes to look far into the distance, into a blue-green horizon in all directions. I was weightless, unselfconscious, and free.I swam toward the Cut River that winds its way to Houghton Lake, pushing off the sandy bottom with my feet, breaking the surface for air like a dolphin, then diving down to be a sea turtle, using my arms like flippers. Where the lake water flowed over a small dam, I went with it like an otter to let the current carry me around a bend away from the lake and through one of three big viaducts that went under a road. As the current pulled me through the tunnel I looked up at spiders with grape-sized bodies hanging in webs overhead. Out the other side, I left cars, cottages, and boats behind as the water carried me around the stream’s bends into the northern wilderness.
Floating like a crocodile, eyes and nose above water, I drifted past several painted turtles sunning on a log. Around another bend, a fat, dappled water snake basked on the warm mud of the bank. A heron stood on stilt legs, fishing for minnows. Dragonflies landed on my head. The stream was a dragonfly paradise, with infinite shallow pools where their larvae could eat mosquito larvae and be safe from bass. A few of the Cut’s bends held deep pools where pale green pike hung in the water near the roots of fallen trees, fins moving just enough to hold a position, big round eyes watching a school of minnows. The pike reminded me of barracuda in the Bahamas, and how a lot of animals seemed to have counterparts in different ecosystems, and how there were ecosystems around the world filled with creatures that I wanted one day to see.
As a young person, my desire for a future with wildlife gave me my own sense of security when the rest of my world felt uncertain. Whenever I think about my experiences with animals and in nature, the sun shines inside me, as though to remind me where I need to be and what I need to do.
Wendy Townsend is a member of the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group and has written three wildlife-themed novels for young readers, plus articles, op-eds, and essays about reptiles. She lives in Callicoon, N.Y., and is writing a memoir titled “Lizards Saved Me.”