Dear 18-year-old Miranda,

 I bet you’re surprised to be getting a letter like this, aren’t you? You were convinced you would never make it this far, that you would never be okay. You certainly never imagined your words or story being published in a book! One about conservation, at that? Today – at twenty-two, almost twenty-three – your life is more than you could have ever imagined possible. Now that’s only four years, could it be all that different? Why not write to 10-year-old Miranda, or five-year-old Miranda, someone further in the past? Well, I think of all the possibilities, you need to hear this the most. Settle in, get cozy, and let me tell you a story – our story, the one you thought would never come to be. 

I want to start this letter by reflecting on what life looks like for you, 18-year-old Miranda. It is the summer after your high school graduation, and you have tried to find your foothold in the world. You got into your first pick school, a private art school, with a near-full ride. Still, you’d need a lot of loans, and independence wouldn’t be on the table for many years. You paid your deposits and got your dorm assignments but couldn’t shake this sinking feeling. A voice asking, “if you do this, will you ever be able to get out of this place, this town, this house?”. A month before the semester began, you trusted your instincts and withdrew your acceptance, letting go of that dream of what could be. Then, it felt like you were drowning, aimlessly searching for a foothold to cling to. You were working multiple jobs, saving every penny you could, thrifting furniture for an apartment that was nothing more than a daydream. Every moment spent at work, with friends, or in the woods, was a moment of calm that could never be found at home. When you were there, the abuse was constant. Fear, anxiety, loneliness, and sorrow permeated your mind, that house, everything. The products of trauma, 18 years of it, those feelings became all-consuming. You were desperately, frantically looking for a way to save yourself and to save your life. 

 “You can’t run from your problems”. Six small words, but they were heavy enough to shatter any foothold that you were reaching for. As you desperately searched for independence and a way to save yourself, every possibility was ridiculed and mocked by your parent. The verbal abuse was constant and defeating. Every possible way out was met with the same response. “What are you thinking? What is wrong with you? Running away won’t fix anything. You’ll never be happy until you fix yourself. You can’t run from your problems”. Every single time those words were said, it felt like another dream was shattered, another foothold broke away under pressure. You came to believe that nothing would ever get better, and you would never feel happiness or safety, let alone deserve those things. 

So that’s where you are, at 18 years old, while you read this letter. You feel stuck, searching, wandering, and hopelessly looking for a way forward after losing every dream you had clung to. I am writing to you because if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is this: “you can’t run from your problems” has an exception, a very important one. If your “problems” amount to an abusive, unsafe household or relationship, you absolutely can and should run from them, as far and as fast as you can. I can write this letter to you today because I ran, as far and as fast as I could, and I got out of that place. So let me tell you what life has looked like since, and how on earth I came to write a letter for a book about conservationists.

A few months before turning nineteen I found a new job, an apartment, and a safe landing. A few months after that, I found my partner. A person I’d known for many years and finally the stars aligned for us. This partner shows me safety, support, love, and compassion in ways I’ve never experienced before. He shows me all of these things that I never thought I deserved. Together, my partner and I started a family, rescuing animals of all kinds – dogs, cats, rats, hermit crabs, the list goes on. Through my partner’s love, and a lot of therapy, I decided to finally free myself from the constraints of abuse, and I stopped speaking to most family members. While it sounds unrelated, all of this sets the stage for my future jump into conservation, which quickly became my guiding light in a confusing and dark world.

In December of 2019, I made a day trip to the local aquarium with my partner. For about a year I had felt listless. Unfulfilled in my job, completely intimidated by the thought of college, and unsure what to study. I knew I wanted to pursue science, something vaguely related to conservation, but the world felt huge, and the options felt endless. That trip to the aquarium reminded me of a dream I had when I was a little girl. Marine biologist. I wandered around the hallways excitedly pointing to animals I could identify and telling my partner the little I knew about them. There was information about various conservation efforts on the walls, and education about how climate change is affecting marine life. I felt so validated, with so many of my passions and interests in one place, including the ones I had forgotten years ago. I could not get a word to leave my mind that entire day – biology. We went home and I searched “community college biology” on my laptop. I applied to my local community college that day. I knew working forty hours a week and going to college for a STEM degree would be hard, maybe impossible, but I felt so buoyant and hopeful that I just had to try. 

A year and a half later I can be found waist-deep in a local river, collecting benthic macroinvertebrate samples. I’m working with a professor and a lab tech/graduate student on a research project. We are examining how water quality is impacted by human activity in this local river, as it is frequented often by people. The macroinvertebrates, alongside bacteria and various abiotic factors, will give us an indication of how water quality is changing over the summer season. This project has been my first taste of ‘real science’, as my professor says, and it has been my favorite experience so far. We spent many hot days in that river, counting invertebrates, taking water samples, and scribbling nutrient concentrations into lab books. After spending four months on the water collecting raw data, everything had to be analyzed. Bacteria samples were counted, macroinvertebrate data was indexed, and statistical tests were run on all our findings. I spent two weeks preparing and agonizing over the presentation of our results. I wrote a thirty-two-page paper full of tables, figures, statistics, and appendices. Six months ago, I didn’t know how to do any of this, and now I could do much of it in my sleep. Yet amazingly, the skill set I have is infinitely small in the massive world of biology and conservation. Perhaps that is what makes the field so alluring, the seemingly limitless paths to walk down, getting lost in a forest of options.

It’s been roughly two years since I enrolled in school. The experience has been far different from what I had anticipated, largely due to the ongoing pandemic. Oh yeah, the pandemic. In short, spring of 2020 is going to be a wild one for you, 18-year-old-Miranda, with a global pandemic popping up involving the zoonotic, newly introduced COVID-19 virus. We’re still fighting through it, and I’ve learned a lot about public health along the way. Due to the pandemic, the world is going to look a little different for a while, but overall, my partner and I are doing okay throughout it. Anyway, unforeseen challenges aside, I have only one more semester before I receive my associate’s degree in chemistry. Then, I will transfer to a four-year school to finish the last half of my undergraduate degree in biology. One day I will conquer grad school as well, and I dream of being accepted into a conservation biology program. For now, I am looking for opportunities closer to home, and I hope to spend many more hours working on ‘real science’ as I finish my undergraduate degree. In conservation and biology, I have found an immense purpose and direction for my life, one that gives me energy and motivation to move forward.

18-year-old Miranda, I’m not sure that you would recognize the person I am today. Everything about the last four years has been unexpected. Some of it has been wonderful, some of it has been horrific. Yet here you are, through it all. Despite everything happening right now, both close to home and worlds away, I am doing better than ever before. Perhaps it’s the therapy, or the loving partner, the safe landing, or the new direction. Most likely it’s a combination of all those things that have led me to feel unrecognizable and foreign to my past self but in a wonderful way. In four short years, I have become a person that 18-year-old Miranda could not even imagine, let alone hope for. I have seen so much growth and celebrated so many achievements, even among the most difficult moments and traumatic events. I now have trust and faith in myself and in my ability to navigate the world. I have truly grown to see myself as intelligent, capable, compassionate, driven, and resilient. At the same time, I am soft and gentle, and I have torn down the walls that previously protected me from the world, but also love. 

I remember being younger during the “it gets better” trend that was very popular in the LGBTQIA+ community. I was a young, queer woman in a conservative town grappling with homophobia in my community and my home. I never doubted myself or my identity, but those around me forced me to doubt everything. At the time, I did not believe that “it gets better”. These days, I fully believe that, and I know it to be true. It does get better for many, many people. It got better for me, and it got better for my friends in the LGBTQIA+ community. I see myself in young, queer women that are fighting to be respected and valued. I see what I aspire to be in the queer women I know who work in conservation, STEM, and biology. I admire their advocacy and seeing their presence makes me feel safer as I step into the world of conservation. I know now that it can get better, and it’s worth sticking around for that. 
I have found that I thrive in science, in conservation. I have fallen in love with the community and the work, and I no longer feel like it’s a world impossible to navigate. Yet, as I fall in love with the discipline, I do fear the future. My climate anxiety has been very high in recent years, as the effects of climate change continue to cause chaos. I have a heaviness in my heart knowing everything that is lost, and being lost before I can ever see it or fight for it. Loss and loneliness often go hand in hand, as I find it hard to vocalize why I feel such sadness. Even the research I’ve helped with was peppered with a sense of frustration and loss. The river was always littered with visible garbage and pollution. The factors we studied acted as we had hypothesized, with water quality in the river decreasing over the summer. I had truly hoped that our hypothesis would be unsupported, and the river would show itself to be healthy and unchanged by human activity. I am entering the field of conservation biology with a heavy understanding of what we are fighting for and why. I hope that in the world of conservation I can find a feeling of fulfillment, knowing I am causing good trouble every way that I can. I am a person with privilege and opportunity, and I am determined not to waste that in the crisis we are both facing and causing.

18-year-old Miranda, I hope you can see that things do get better, and they will in the blink of an eye. I want you to understand that it is never too late to remember a dream that filled you with excitement and hope, no matter how long ago. While being a marine biologist is a little difficult in a land-locked state, there is a world of possibilities beyond that, and you will spend your life exploring them. While I went back to college young, at 21, it wouldn’t have been too late if I was 30, 45, or any age. You can always try to recapture that dream. Things do get better, and it is never too late to try. There is something inside of you that has evolved over millennia. An instinct to fight, to survive, and to find a way out. At the end of the day, human beings are nothing more than the product of evolution, and that evolution exists within you in ways that humans will likely never understand in full. That pursuit for knowledge, understanding, and scientific connections will take you to wonderful places, I am certain of it. It has already taken me to communities like this one, where people will put their faith in me and ask me to do something scary but wonderful, like writing a letter for a book. 18-year-old Miranda, in just a few short years you will be given opportunities that sound impossible. You will find yourself invited to a community of conservationists around the globe that are fighting the same battles as you. Conservation needs you, and every other person who wants to fight for this planet and the life upon it. Simply put, you can’t give up yet. It gets better, and the world needs you to make it to the other side. 

22-year-old Miranda

Written by Miranda @florent__x

Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman