On April 4, 2018, students from across the University of Illinois campus gathered to attend Travel Around the World, an event that promotes the international community on campus. The event, now in its seventh year, is a part of International Week on campus and is held at the Illini Union in Urbana. Groups from across campus represent countries from around the world, displaying traditions, foods, music, games and more. Attendees receive a “passport” that is stamped at each booth they visit.
“It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.” -John Muir
Four years ago around this time of year, I was visiting Sequoia National Park for the first time. It was certainly a life-changing experience for me, an experience that got me interested in the national parks and in learning about sequoia trees.
Giant sequoias are the most fascinating, most miraculous living things I’ve ever seen in real life. The way they are created and the way they live on for thousands of years, facing drought, snow, fire –and today they are still standing, admired by millions.
John Muir described them best. “I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death. Barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all diseases that afflict and kill other trees,” he wrote in a travel journal. “Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.”
As I’ve grown more interested in science, and specifically in the environment and agriculture, I’ve learned that the greatest threat to sequoia trees is people. But we won’t be chopping them down and using their wood, or carving a hole in them so we can drive through — the threat that we’re creating is climate change.
According to a 2013 article by science journalist Bruce Dorminey, sequoias are being threatened by a combination of increased temperatures and diminished snowpack. Nate Stephenson, an ecologist, was quoted in the article saying: “In 100 years time, we could lose most of the big sequoias.”
It’s pretty baffling to me that something as permanent as a sequoia tree — which has lived through centuries, to see countries rise and fall, to see hundreds of snowfalls and fires and everything in between — could be toppled in just one century, not by something like a lightning strike or a disease, as Muir pondered, but by something humans are causing.
And what would Muir himself think? Recently, I’ve been reading John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. It’s an incredible thing to read purely for Muir’s elaborate and beautiful descriptions of nature. He had so much admiration for every little aspect of nature — the wind, the sound of a nearby stream, the movements of squirrels, lizards, and birds. He had such an appreciation for the smallest, most seemingly insignificant things, that someone else might not pay attention to, and I think about all the thoughts he surely had about these grand, enormous sequoia trees that are larger than life.
Reading his accounts also made me think about my own writing, and in science journalism, how I might use the appeal to the senses and to human emotion that Muir uses so effortlessly. Maybe writing about nature in this way could drive people to go see these places and work to save them, and make people more aware of the challenges these places face and the challenges that are ahead.
I often scroll through my Twitter feed and see article after article about a new temperature record being broken, raging wildfires, ocean acidification…the list goes on and on. And I’ve heard about these problems so often that they’ve become so familiar. I feel like I could easily explain them to someone I know. That’s the impact journalism has. Sure, it can seem excessive when you keep hearing about the same things related to climate change, but then you’re aware. And it becomes part of common language. And that’s when change can happen.
There is surely much more at stake than just the giant sequoias when it comes to climate change. Yet, it would be heartbreaking to see these trees that have stood the test of time be broken by something that we caused. It gives me hope knowing that it’s a problem many are researching and working on, and that there are dedicated science journalists there covering it along the way.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir
As spring has sprung in central Illinois, it’s become a lot more difficult to focus on projects and exams when I’d much rather spend all day outside. It also happens to be National Park Week, and today is the birthday of John Muir, the great conservationist and naturalist who helped in the establishment of two of my favorite places on earth, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.
I learned a lot about Muir’s life by watching Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” documentary — which everyone should watch — and reading a biography of Muir’s life by Donald Worster.
Muir advocated for the protection of nature and spoke often about how he believed that human beings are interconnected to nature. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” he said in one of his many writings, My First Summer in the Sierra. He was changed by nature, and allowed himself to use this passion to make real change in conservation efforts. He gave President Theodore Roosevelt a tour of Yosemite National Park, which led to further protection of the park that so many have grown to love.
Everyone who visits Yosemite should make it their goal to see Lee Stetson’s portrayal of Muir. After learning about Muir’s life, seeing Stetson imitate a man who almost seems like an unreal part of history was pretty surreal. In a darkened room, Stetson, with his Scottish accent and Muir-like white beard, tells stories like of his beloved dog Stickeen. You can really imagine that it’s Muir sitting in a rocking chair, telling you a story about his dog that is both riveting and heartwarming.
Muir’s life was both fascinating and inspirational, and you can’t help but wish it was a life you had lived — spending summers in the Sierra, going on adventures in Alaska, and going through Yosemite with Teddy Roosevelt. But in a way his life has been an inspiration for my own. It sets the example that if you truly love what you are doing, it’s easier to put in the work to see the rewards — for both yourself and others. When I’m stressed out over studying for final exams and scrambling to finish projects, I remember that I’m doing what I’m doing because I have passion for it and it allows me to make an impact in people’s lives. It’s a different kind of impact than what Muir made, but I’m thankful to be able to do it.
As I write this blog post on the nine-hour flight back home, I’m once again grateful for my experiences traveling abroad, but more importantly, I’m grateful for the people I got to spend this past week with and the memories we share together.
Before this trip, I only knew one other student who would be traveling with me to London for the first time. By the end of this week, I’ve made so many new friends and had so many fun times and laughs with my fellow media students.
But we began the trip on a sad note. The terrorist attacks in Brussels, which happened exactly one year after I arrived in that same airport for my Belgium trip, really shook me up. As I explored the city for the first full day with my new friends, I couldn’t help but think about all the lives lost and the people affected for such senseless reasons. It made me appreciate that I live in a world where people come together in unity after such horrible events, and that together we can overcome these things.
As the week went on, I realized the importance of enjoying the experience of traveling, not just running around from place to place, making sure you hit all the sights, and not stopping to enjoy the atmosphere and the people around you. Several times this week I had to almost pinch myself and tell myself I was in London, a city I’d seen in movies and had only dreamed of visiting.
But more importantly, I was visiting such a great city and getting to see it with such great people. I laughed so much on this trip; it was a good break from the crazy stress of college to be able to see new things and enjoy new friends.
Some of my favorite memories from the trip included:
Our first tube ride and a selfie to commemorate it
Making a pit stop at King’s Cross station to take a picture that every Harry Potter fan needs
Faking British accents while we visited Buckingham Palace
Exploring the fun shops in the Covered Market in Oxford
Crossing Abbey Road (check out my friend Michelle’s blog for confirmation of how excited I was)
And all of the ridiculous inside jokes we made within the span of a week.
I had an incredible time and I am so grateful that I became so close with the group of girls traveling with me. I’m so glad we’ll have these amazing memories to cherish for the rest of our lives.
What a day. It was our last full day in London, but I checked off something that has been on my bucket list for years.
Finally, I crossed Abbey Road, replicating the epic album cover that is one of my favorites and from my favorite band of all time.
But first, we began our day at the British Museum, where I got to view artifacts from something else I’m obsessed with — Ancient Egyptology.
It was so incredible to view the Rosetta Stone and think about its significance.
But we only had a little over an hour to tour the museum, which is certainly not enough to view the massive collection. I’d love to go back someday, but I did see some pretty cool stuff while I was there.
After the museum, we pretty much made a beeline to Abbey Road, which is a bit out of the way but a must see for diehard fans like me. I pretty much freaked out thinking that I was walking on the site of an epic album cover, and I got to see the recording studio where the Beatles recorded. I’m the kind of overly obsessed Beatles fan who knows every little detail about them. Today, my dream came true. Now I only need to visit Liverpool.
And my favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney, who happens to live just a short walk away at 7 Cavendish Avenue (yeah, that’s the extent of my obsession with the Beatles…I know their current addresses).
So I got to see Paul McCartney’s house and freak out a lot.
After that, I had to calm down a bit and then we headed to Shoreditch to do some shopping and see some really cool street art.
We had our final group dinner at Zaza’s, an Indian restauraunt near our hotel.
It’s hard to believe this was the last full day of our trip and that we’ll be leaving tomorrow. I can’t believe how much fun I’ve had with the great people I’ve been able to spend this week with.
We got a break from the bustling city of London today with a side trip to Oxford.
The hour long train ride was a great chance to get a look at some of the English countryside while getting a chance to sit and relax after a week of busy sightseeing.
We met up with our tour guide, who was great and explained the fascinating history of the town and the university. It was especially interesting to hear about how unique Oxford University is and how different it is from American universities. But no matter what, it was incredibly beautiful – especially all the landscaping (and the centuries old buildings).
Also, a lot of the buildings in Oxford University were used as inspiration for sets of the Harry Potter movies.
After a tour, most of it in the sprinkling rain, we headed out on our own to explore to various shops in the town. We also ran into a beautiful covered market that I loved.
It was mostly a day of shopping and hanging out in Oxford. I got a chance to journal on the train ride and think about all we’ve done on the trip. And when we got back, we had an amazing dinner at a great Turkish place by our hotel.
Today was certainly a day filled with British history, monarchy, and lots and lots to look at. The history was almost hard to believe, and being surrounded by things that were so old and full of stories was incredibly cool.
We started at the Tower of London and had an entertaining little tour from a yeoman guard. We wandered around the tower for a few hours, viewing different parts and exhibits and taking a look at the Crown Jewels, which reminded me of that great scene in BBC Sherlock where Moriarty steals the Crown Jewels.
After the Tower of London, we shot over in the tube to Westminster Abbey, but before that we got our first glimpse at Big Ben, which is much more massive than I would’ve thought from pictures.
Westminster Abbey was a complete sensory overload but fascinating to see where people like royal monarchs, then others like Geoffrey Chaucer, were laid to rest.
On our way out, we saw a man painting and struck up a conversation. He gave us some cute little prints of his work, which he signed. It was a nice little moment of a nice meeting with a stranger.
Then we went on a roundabout journey to find Buckingham Palace, which was not far, but we happened upon the Royal Horse Guards Parade, a daily occurrence of the guards being inspected that was quite a sight to see of pageantry and yelling.
Finally, we made it to Buckingham Palace, and by that time my new London pal Michelle and I were well versed in our British accents, likely annoying our fellow travelers but having a lot of fun.
It’s surreal to see places where so much history has occurred, where so much has gone on before you. And then you turn and see a city that is booming, busy, and modern.
Overall, it was a great day spent with friends, exploring and adventuring on our own and getting more acquainted to this great city.
One year ago today, I was at the Brussels airport, arriving in Belgium for a week long trip that would be my first amazing experience abroad.
Today, I woke up in my hotel room in London to my roommate telling me there were explosions reported at the Brussels airport.
I was incredibly saddened to hear of the terrible attacks in Brussels this morning. Belgium is a country very close to my heart, the first country I visited outside of the states that I fell in love with quickly. It was surreal to think that if what happened today had happened a year ago, my experience could have been drastically different.
I followed the news on the BBC from my hotel room TV and then headed out to a sunny London morning to visit none other than the BBC Broadcasting House, where I saw a newsroom full of journalists researching and reporting on the attacks.
Although my limited internet access kept me from keeping up with the news, it was in the back of my mind all day. We visited Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, where a floor in the lobby gave me a sweet and simple reminder in the midst of the sad news today.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in London. We walked the cobblestone streets and I couldn’t help but admire just how great this city is.
Then a group of my fellow travelers and I set out for our own adventure to Covent Gardens for shopping, eating, and finding our way home on the tube before stopping for a necessary picture at King’s Cross 9 and 3/4 platform.
Tonight, after a long day of fun, laughter and adventures with friends in a great city, I am thinking of those in Belgium affected by the terrorist attacks today. But I am also resting, and I am thankful for this experience I am getting in a new city and a new country to fall in love with.