I have a confession to make: when I applied to Sustainable Summer, I was more focused on Ecuador and the Amazon as a destination than I was focused on sustainability. While I whole heartedly supported environmental reformation, conservation, and preservation and possessed a basic understanding of sustainability and the importance of the Amazon rainforest, I didn’t grasp the significance of the trip until I truly absorbed the Amazon’s raw beauty and power. I can still remember where I was when I realized my purpose had shifted: I was about to jump into an isolated watering hole, feeling both invincible and vulnerable: vulnerable because I was a tiny speck in the largest rainforest in the world, invincible because I had made it this far. I had come from my small, North Carolina town to Ecuador, into the Amazon, through a cave, to an enchanting watering hole where I dove right in. Literally, I was diving into the emerald water—figuratively, I was diving into the greatest life-altering epiphany I’d ever had.
I came up for air, letting the cool water relax my body, still aching from the day’s four hour hike. Looking up, I noticed how the sunlight leaked through the dense foliage over my head. The leaves were gleaming, sparkling even, and the vibrant sky was littered with the whitest, fluffiest clouds I had ever laid eyes on. Laughter was echoing off the cliffs and ringing gleefully in my ears, padded by the faintness of the rushing waterfalls. The frigid water lapping at my sides expressed nature’s vivacity. Everything around me was not just alive; it was gleaming. A brilliant glow radiated off of the rainforest itself.
As I continued to glance around, every ounce of life that surrounded me seemed to have a new and unique persona, and that meant that all life is valuable life. In such a diverse and fruitful landscape, I was just one of the many unique organisms that made that landscape so special. From a little succulent, to a towering balsa tree, to the colony of lemon ants—we were all relevant, vital, and worthy of respect. The effort of the locals to sustain the Amazon was finally clicking with me. They didn’t just want to save the Amazon because it’s their source of food, water, and resources, nor did they only wish to only save the Amazon because it’s their home. They wanted to save the Amazon because it is their friend, too. Initially, I had found the rainforest frightening; it could be dark, and I’d known there were poisonous plants and animals lurking within it, moreover, it was virtually endless, an inescapable maze constantly closing in on me. Now only a few days later, I’d learned the subtle yet infinite shades of her colors, and they felt like the inviting embrace of an old friend.
As I continued to drift, I had no recognition of the past or the present; I only had recognition of the future. What future would there be without the Amazon? With all its people, plants, animals, systems, what kind of world would exist without it? I was suddenly distraught by the Amazon’s receding tree line. I also thought of all the friends I had made on the trip; my 9 fellow travelers whom I’d bonded with, who made me laugh and let me revel at their uniqueness, there were my two counselors, who offered their support, guidance, and wisdom to me when I needed it most, our rainforest guide, Miguel, who proved on every second of our time in the forest that “all life is energy and all energy comes back to the Selva”, and the little girls and boys from the Kichwa community who grabbed my hands to dance. What if the place where I’d made all these wonderful memories disappeared? The thought was utterly unbearable.
I took in my surroundings once more and saw a small bird flying overhead as it disappeared into the ember glow of the sun. My friend called to me, reminding me of the reality I lived in. I swam back to the shore for a well-deserved lunch. While I’d regained my consciousness, I left my previous attitude towards my surroundings at the water’s edge. I had fallen in love with the rainforest, which meant I had fallen in love with life itself. I had a new purpose: to make all forms of life prosper. I finally understood what sustainability meant: the burning passion to preserve what exists and to innovate new ways to sustain this incomprehensibly alive and strikingly beautiful planet we call home.