Letters to young conservationists

Letter to 5-year-old Jessie

Dear five-year-old Jessie,

 I know you hate being five. I know you sat mum down on the couch in the front living room to tell her that you’re done with this age and are more than ready to be six. But little do you know; I think of you often. It just so happens that you were the Jessie to inspire all of my decisions in education, career, and life in general till the age of 25. I always think back to you, and I hope you’re proud of my decisions because I have made so many of them with you in mind. 

The day that you asked mum how you could save the orangutans was a day I would later hear about from her friend Jane. That very question transformed you from a scientist who learned all about great apes, like your friend and stuffed gorilla, Sputnik, to a conservationist who has tried to conceive ways to protect these apes from deforestation and poaching. 

This is why you hate being five the most, isn’t it? The horrible realisation is that the adults you know aren’t doing anything to stop the big machinery trawling the forests or the bushmeat trade. They aren’t doing anything to stop these things even though they are adults that can do adult things. Finding out about this adult inactivity was like hearing a whistle that started a race to get older, a signal for you to speed through life to become someone of an age that could do something, anything for great apes, as fast as possible. You desperately wanted to be someone that people would listen to, respect, take seriously, but most importantly, someone who could enact change. I know that you want to be an adult who will actually use your adult privileges more than anything else. 

I am here to tell you that you don’t have to rush through growing up, and in fact, you are as much of a conservationist as I am today, 24 years later. You educate the people around you by sparking these conversations and questioning how we can all play a part in protecting our natural world from danger. Nowadays, people call that science communication, and it’s a precious skill to have. Now, please don’t be mad at me for not being in the forest protecting primates right now! I am also an educator, just like you. I know you wanted me to be on the ground, fighting the good fight, and don’t get me wrong, but I did that. But somehow, you stayed with me and kept inspiring me to be an educator with drive, determination, and passion – something that you are, even at five years old. 

Okay, fine, I will tell you what happened. 

Everything was going exactly to your plan. I went to an environmental high school before finishing my undergraduate degree in Science, Biodiversity and Conservation. During my university holidays, I volunteered quite a bit, including in a rehabilitation centre with macaques, dusky leaf monkeys and gibbons- your favourite!  After graduating from university, I worked for six months on a small island in Madagascar (of all places!), researching black lemurs, before finally getting an honours degree in ecology. This was the part where I lived your dreams, and I spent my days researching newly-restored orangutan habitats in Indonesia. That’s right: some people want to tear down oil palm plantations and regrow the forest just like you wanted! I was working with other orangutan researchers, local field staff and meeting many people in conservation organisations. I felt like I was really making a name for myself. Guess what? I even won an award for my research on regrowing forest habitats. You would have been so proud!

Now comes the part that you’re not going to like, or maybe even understand. 

The thing is, I had to come home. I had to leave that life we had always dreamed of because it wasn’t meant for us. You see, when I looked at the children that were the same age as you in the forest, I saw that they were crucial for the future of those forests, way more than I was. They were learning to grow baby trees that would soon grow into bigger trees, which would then make a brand-new forest habitat.  My research showed that North Sumatran rainforests could grow big enough to hold an orangutan nest in the same time that you have been alive for, five years. The children I saw learnt all about the forests, or hutan, from their mothers while they planted and tended seedlings in the nursery. Their dads also helped by tending to the bigger, but still young, trees in the restoration sites by watering them and watching them as they grew. Families worked together to protect the forests, which allowed the knowledge of forest restoration to be passed on through generations. It means that the forests will now keep growing as long as these families, and their families, and their families, keep protecting them. 

As an Australian, I have learnt that it’s more important that I help protect the ecosystems we have here in this country instead of trying to protect ecosystems in places where I do not belong. Having years of practice learning how to use my adult powers for good, I try hard to help others do the same. Instead of feeling the world on my shoulders and racing through life to be someone powerful enough to enact change, I have learnt to share that power with others to all enact change together. You know when you are about to finish a puzzle, and you realise that you have lost the last piece? At that moment, it’s so easy to realise that one small piece of a puzzle can have such an enormous impact on creating the bigger picture. Throughout your journey, you become really good at creating your own puzzles by seeing value in all the individual pieces and offering them the chance to come together to make something amazing. 

I feel devastated that you are so dissatisfied with life right now, especially at such a young age! I understand, though; when you are five, you learn so much about the world and have all these rules to adhere to and restrictions on what you can and can’t do. It’s not fair that you can’t make a mess and leave it, but adults can make many messes of Earth’s ecosystems and just leave them there. It’s the first time you are starting to understand that life isn’t fair or just, like the rules you are learning make everything out to be.

In a way, being dissatisfied with the state of the world is the crux of what being a conservationist is. This means that, often in your life, you will feel dissatisfied, isolated and frustrated just like you do now. These feelings aren’t necessarily bad because feeling them means that you care. Without people caring, not a lot can change- as Jane Goodall says. In fact, these feelings of despair and isolation will one day set you on the most powerful journey you will ever go on, a journey that will lead you to a community, career and internal fulfilment that you never imagined could be possible. But I won’t spoil any of that for you now.

I wish you could know how much power you do have and what a phenomenal leader you are! You have stuck with me through all these years, guiding me through life and ensuring that all the decisions I make are made with a purpose. I am older now, much older- exactly where you want to be. But you know what? Being older doesn’t mean that people will listen to you more or respect you more. I have worked with three and four-year-old kids with more wisdom than some of the 50-year-olds I know. You are a phenomenal conservationist at precisely your age, and I’m sorry nobody told you this or tried to prove this to you. 

I should wrap this up now, but I can’t leave this letter without thanking you for being my biggest inspiration. You’ve inspired me through all my education, travels, jobs, and experiences- none of which I would have had if they dared not align with your dreams. I’m sorry that you could never conceive the importance of your life as a five-year-old; I hope that by honouring you and never losing sight of your vision, you can see that I never stopped listening to you, respecting your values or rooting for your success. You don’t need to be an adult to be important, successful, or valuable, and I am so sorry that it took me to become one to figure that out. 

 Much love and appreciation,

29-year-old Jessie.

Written by Jessie @ecolojesst

Illustrated by Daisy Buckle @naturalcuriositystudio

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