On the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, it’s not hard to find a sprawling sandy beach with sparkling turquoise waters. One of the local favorites, back when I lived there, was Brewers Beach. With a food truck parked nearby selling johnny cakes, saltfish patties, and cold drinks, it was a pleasant, easy place to take a break or spend a day. Every morning on my drive to work I would pass Brewers and glimpse a small group of people wading together in the shallows. Standing waist deep or treading lightly in loose circles, they talked and laughed as the gentle waves swayed them. A typical beach scene, but they stood out to me because they were there every day, religiously. Eventually I learned they met daily to “salt our souls” as one grey haired, smiling man told me. Greeting the sun while bathing in the sea kept them energized, full of positivity, he explained.
On my return trip home, the beach scene would be busier, but this time the domino players would catch my eye. Sitting on weathered chairs in the shade of the sea grapes, not too far from the food truck, they were focused on their game, occasionally shouting or gesturing. With drinks in hand, friends would watch over players’ shoulders, tossing jokes. Every day they would be there. Like a stop at the local pub after work, yet the camaraderie was enjoyed out by the sea, in the salty breeze.
In my line of work, I think a lot about the myriad ways people connect with their environment. At the surface, outdoor activities, like walking in a park, or birding, are good things to do merely for the fun of doing them. However, science continually shows how being outdoors, especially in natural places, is crucial for our health and wellbeing. Connections with nature don’t have to occur at a magical beach or in wild, out of reach landscapes; you can encounter nature even in the most urban setting to reap benefits. When we have positive experiences in our favorite places, it fosters a sense of identity and a sense of place. One of my favorite places in the world is Hull Bay Beach, where I would swim almost every day with my two children, husband, and friends. These benefits cascade out beyond the self. Enjoying the outdoors with others builds relationships and community. And from these individual or communal experiences, the sense of environmental stewardship blossoms, whether we are aware of it or not.
What is environmental stewardship? A Google search reveals various definitions, but all are rooted in the concept of responsible use and protection of the environment. We might envision volunteer group activities like beach cleanups, or maybe individual actions like opting for metal instead of plastic straws. Environmental organizations, natural resource management agencies, large corporations, and small businesses, often include environmental stewardship among their core missions and will promote or fund stewardship opportunities.
In working with communities over the years, I have learned there are people that are environmental stewards for no other reason than they care. They may or may not realize how linked their wellbeing is to their favorite outdoor place, but when decisions are being made about those places, they are usually the ones that show up in the decision making process, and by doing so they catalyze change. Their motivation likely stems from values grown with life experience. For example, the swimmers and domino players likely value their beach because of positive experiences they have had there. Does that make them environmental stewards? Maybe, maybe not. But I bet they could tell us so much about their beach: the weather patterns, the wildlife living there, who else visits it. I wonder how to cultivate those outdoor experiences and values so that more people connect, and care, and show up, on behalf of not only the natural spaces they love, but on behalf of their own health and wellbeing.
Do you seek out natural spaces? Where do you feed your soul? Are you a steward of a special place?