The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing.

Nakul Grover, ’19, Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar in English and Chemical Engineering, won Third Place for his essay, below, responding to this prompt:

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” John Muir
In this age, when many people are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural environment, what is the role of nature in society and everyday life?

Grover also won Third Place last year for his essay, “The Colonist, the Environment, and a Billion Dreams.”

A Trail of Photographs

My girlfriend and I last year, apart from our vivid plans of marrying each other, decided that we must visit the Northern Lights in Iceland. Right below the spirals of green and white light dancing at night, we’d stand together, holding hands… but suddenly, a concern struck me: who would click the picture? My encounters with nature have been superficial since childhood, perhaps because growing up in the vast metropolis of New Delhi framed forests and wildlife as exotic and distant. In my own country, I visited wilderness with an objective of collecting a souvenir, more material than memorable. I hardly remember the experiences from when I visited a tiger sanctuary in the Himalayas at the age of six. My mother reminds me that I couldn’t stop asking for cotton candy the entire time. I forgot everything, yet the pictures remained. We didn’t see tigers there, only pugmarks.

We leave trails of photographs of wherever we go, upload them in the exhibition of our Instagrams and Facebooks, and sit there, waiting, expecting like artists, for someone to notice the ordinary things we’ve done. Like the pugmarks of the tiger I never saw, someone might follow my trail too. Nature, a narcissistic prop for many people like me, always alerts me that I don’t own this planet. From the ribs of a leaf on the ground, to the billion bacteria chewing on wood, to the cub prowling in the tigress’s womb, to the colonies of ants hidden from naked eye, it reminds me that if all species walked in a single file, we humans are so few and insignificant in the intricate pattern of the universe. We might consider ourselves advanced creatures who turned the silicon in rock to computers, but what of happiness that the free monkeys and birds know better than us? Our overly complicated species become depressed with the distractions of our own abnormalities, forgetting that even an infant, two years of age, knows very well how to keep herself happy. Returning to reality from the magic of the wilderness amidst a large, hot, smoggy, trashy city, insults our development as a species. There was a time when we hunted in the same forests we so eagerly photograph today. Perhaps our attraction to return to nature is our unique way of paying homage to our past. While walking down a beautiful trail of orange fall leaves in State College, I can’t imagine that in the near future new green whorls wouldn’t appear, that the sky would ooze gray clouds and hide the melting pink sun.

And then suddenly I grew up, which meant that I could visit the Himalayas with my friends, and it got down to trying vodka and smoking cigarettes in the highest mountains of the world. In those years my cell-phone got increasingly glued to my hands. I also captured higher-definition pictures of all my natural ventures, for which my father decided to promote my cell-phone to a small Sony Camera that finally became a professional Canon SLR. Photography for leisure added an extra lens to each time I visited a natural habitat. Each time I clicked a picture, I imagined how the image would do in a market composed of people who cared very little about me.

Nature in our everyday life brings us closer to our guilt, our lack of responsibility, and our lack of action. Our planet coughs before us, and we do nothing. I don’t blame you. Can today’s lifestyle sustain us to return to the forests and meditate our lives away? My Hindu upbringing idealizes returning to the woods as a yogi to “find answers.” As irresponsible as that sounds, how can we end human misery by returning to nature? Wouldn’t it oppose all the progress our nomadic and explorative nature has manifested us? We speak of nature only with pessimism. The most popular children’s books Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner represent the environment in shambles. They prepare our children for the condition of our planet more than scientists and politicians. “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Atwood wrote in the nineteen-eighties.

Succumbing to a simple rural life closer to nature becomes harder when a gas company appears at your doorstep with a $250,000 check to frack for natural gas. Entire Pennsylvania becomes a natural gas plant, and the people begin to die from groundwater contamination. $250,000 today, or a series of stillbirths for “unknown” reasons tomorrow? Our hunger for money jeopardizes our children directly–and it all started with a single act of exploiting the nature that our parents left us.

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