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The journals my mother gave me

By Rayma Cooley

A brown journal with beautiful backing paperI took a trip this last weekend up to Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota with two of my girlfriends. The winter in Iowa was long and cold, and the pressures of completing my thesis this last spring had forced me to spend most my days deep in the depths of my cinder-walled basement office. Almost all I experienced these last six months were the bone-chilling darkness of the morning and night when I came and left my office, and the flickering of fluorescent above my desk. I was craving the woods. As I left my house, I quickly grabbed one of many journals sitting on my bookshelf.

We set off on our journey to the northwoods and stayed at my friend’s cabin on a beautiful private lake. On Sunday, while my friends were canoeing, I was feeling particularly reflective and decided I would write in my journal. The sheer number of journals I have collected over the years can be attributed to one person, my mother, whom at every birthday and Christmas would gift me with one. I would hold the crisply wrapped present in my hand, knowing in my head that alas, my mother had given me another journal. I grew quite tired of this gift and feigned appreciation and surprise.

As I grew older I learned that I actually received great satisfaction in recording my thoughts. I would write poems, make sketches, record my dreams and goals, lessons learned, love interests, and adventures to exotic places. Journaling helped me to remember what I would otherwise forget, and created more significance around my daily life. One of my favorite things to do on a lazy afternoon is sit down and read old entries. Doing so brings me right back to that place and time in my head, and I can remember and feel an experience as if it was yesterday.

A page from a journal with a sketch of a person and a birdI couldn’t help it this day to also read and reflect on a letter in my journal that I had written to my family but never sent. The letter was dated June 5, 2007, almost seven years ago. The letter describes the first time I had gone out looking for Northern spotted owls in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, California. I was hired as a field technician to locate, monitor behavior, and collect the scat from these federally threatened birds as part of a research team with the University of Washington to assess the effect of off-highway vehicle (OHV) use on stress hormone levels. Every detail in this letter takes me back and allows me to experience those first feelings of finally finding my calling in this world. That job was so monumental in navigating my course in life.

As I read and think back to the time in my life when this conservation-focused world was so new to me, I most fondly remember the feeling of finally belonging to something I had long been searching for- feelings of excitement, mystery, magic, curiosity, adventure, and purpose. When I first entered the woods, my legs were like a fawn, shaky and new. It was difficult to maneuver up the steep, uneven slopes with the loose soil bringing me three steps back with every step forward and winded within moments. By the end of that summer I ran through the woods with ease and joy, lungs full of air. I felt almost native, like the woods had accepted me into their world. I enjoyed the back-and-forth game of Marco Polo that I would play with the owls every day. Being a territorial type, the owls would respond to my hoots and then I would run into the forest and try to find them. This was my job! I fully appreciated things more—food with friends over a campfire, cool dips in the river, a National Geographic article—everything made me feel alive.

Page from a the journal, with writingI didn’t want that summer to end, and when it did I reentered a civilization that seemed foreign to me. I experienced culture shock by my own culture. I held on to that summer, hoping that I could summon it when I was feeling disconnected from my work. And I still can summon it, through the words in my journal. There in the northwoods of Minnesota I was transformed to the northwoods of California. I closed my eyes and could acutely hear the electric chime of the cicadas all around me, the agitated squawking of the Steller’s jay, and the soft, distant 4-note of the spotted owl.

It is these memories that help me remember my purpose, and it is my journal that helps me recall these memories. Thanks mom. What helps you stay connected to your passion?