Story written by Aaron Calidris
I lost it all two years ago. I was pursuing my degree in environmental biology at my local university. I was about ¾ of the way through and the end was in sight. I squelched through wetlands and muddy wet pine savannas to discover plants and animals I had never seen before. I basked in the sun and braved the wind-tossed sands of the Mississippi beaches. I was on the path to success and to a wonderful reality where I got to do what I wanted in the world. But something was holding me back. Underneath the scabs left by Smilax thorns and caked mud, I was forced to hide that I wasn’t just a nature-loving biology major; I was a gay guy living in one of the most conservative states in the US with a family who brought new meaning to the word conservative. I was living in the closet when all I wanted to do was dance in the sun.
I live in South Mississippi, where the abundant ecosystem in well-preserved areas is the Longleaf Pine Savanna. Fire is an intrinsic force that helps maintain the health of these ecosystems over time, even the areas that remain wet. Learning more about these ecosystems taught me a lot about resilience in the face of adversity. With proper management, these habitats get burned every few years, and the beauty that follows is something breathtaking to behold. Out of ashes comes swaths of wildflowers and herbs. Ferns unfold out of the charred ground to stretch their leaves wide into the sky. The Longleaf Pine has evolved over its history to withstand these burns; layers of bark flake away to reveal intact bark underneath and saplings surround themselves with fire-resistant green needles to ward off the flames rushing through the savanna. A time came in my life when the fires roared around me. I had been ground under pressure greater than ever before to obey and conform, and I chose to face the flames rather than to bend and break.
When a burn moves through a savanna, there’s always a period of time after when you might think that the beauty is lost; that the flowers must have died after facing such destruction. Before the new growth emerges and after the embers dwindle, it’s hard to believe that this ecosystem will rise again to full glory. Time proves us wrong in those moments, though – and likewise, I am in the process or recovering. In the time since then, I have spent a lot of time doing similar things to what I did before coming out of the closet. However, this time I get to be myself; I get to wear makeup if I want and show off my tattoos and earrings. I’m still in the process of getting back on my feet fully; it’s been a longer process than I had anticipated, starting from scratch.
Still, being gay in Mississippi while being a total geek for nature and conservation has its drawbacks. When I wander in the woods, I usually make sure at least one person knows where I’m going or wait until a friend can come with me. If I wear makeup and feminine jewellery, I avoid the more rural areas. When your favourite talking points are botany, birds, and biogeography, making new friends and dating are both more difficult than keying out a Juncus. Whereas before the most difficult part of my life was living in the closet, now I have to deal with rebuilding my life without a family and being openly gay in a blood-red state. But certain things are effortless. I no longer have to expend energy pretending to be something I’m not or hiding my identity, so that’s energy I get to funnel into simply enjoying the natural world around me.
The natural world around me has taught me to be a better me. It taught me to hold fast during the burning flames because beauty will come out of the ashes. Weird looking carnivorous plants taught me to love the strange and unusual and to appreciate the things that are misunderstood. It may have hurt to get here. At times it’s hard being a lonely conservationist, but I can say now that I love the natural world more than ever because of the lessons she’s taught me. And that means I want to save it even more than before.
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