Our Right to Nature

by Sergio Avila, Sierra Club Outdoor Activities

I grew up playing and exploring in the desert, among mesquite trees, Nopales (prickly pear cactus), and fresnos (ash trees); hunting lizards, looking at birds, always wondering where mountain lions lived. Both my parents had full time careers, so my brother and I spent our free time unsupervised, encouraged to go out there, to the mountains nearby our home, where a small creek ran after rainstorms and roadrunners and foxes found their homes.

Nature was an extension of our home, like our backyard; it was also an extension of our classroom – a place to learn and discover, and also an open gym where my dad would go for a run along the creek, or do repeats up and down the hill.

The place was special for the whole family. We celebrated birthdays with neighbors, had picnics under our favorite trees; we explored abandoned mines, rescued injured wildlife and collected shinny rocks. From a young age I learned how to peel prickly pear fruit (tunas) and had the pleasure to enjoy them fresh when the season came, after the summer rains.

Even with my early connection to Nature while growing up, I was the kid who was scared by many unknowns. My mind wondered: Are there snakes out here? What if I fall and get hurt? Are those bees?! It took many years for me to feel completely comfortable outside, but I never stopped going out, exploring, and wanting to see more, sometimes by myself, sometimes with friends.

My connection to Nature was also influenced through books, wildlife encyclopedias, TV shows and visits to the zoo – each influencing the way I enjoyed learning about wild animals, plants, and water. At a young age I started dreaming of studying wildlife and visiting, or even living, in remote places. I especially wanted to study big cats: African Lions, leopards, pumas. How great, I thought, it would be to get paid to study big cats while spending time out in Nature. After all, my father always said, “whatever you do, it should be something you are passionate about, this way you will get paid to do what you love.” So, I started dreaming of becoming a biologist.

When I went to school to study biology there were other students who had much more experience than me camping, backpacking, making a fire or hunting. They knew the names of animals and plants; they could navigate in the mountains without getting lost; and owned gear I had never seen before, such as tents, sleeping bags, hiking boots or other special trinkets for exploring the outdoors. I was intimidated to be part of a group where I felt behind in my knowledge and experience, but I embraced the opportunity to travel around, go camping and see new places.

Several years, and many bus, train and hitchhike trips later, in the course of my studies I had visited all 32 states in Mexico, including the Peninsulas of Yucatan and Baja California, the cloud forests of Veracruz and the Mapimi Desert in Durango, as well as the coasts and volcanoes of Jalisco and Colima.

After I graduated from college, I was given the opportunity to work in a remote area where Mexico’s largest Indigenous group, the Tarahumara (Raramuri) of the Copper Canyon, live in the state of Chihuahua. I lived there with them for 8 months, in a small cabin without running water and limited electricity. I traveled with the Tarahumara through canyons, rivers and forests, in search of wildlife species whose presence, if documented, would help protect the area from industrial logging. So I searched for endangered species such as jaguars, Mexican wolves or Imperial woodpeckers. I migrated with them in the winter to lower elevation canyons where they lived in caves, and back up in the summer. I shared their food, their language and witnessed a culture whose connection to Nature had nothing to do with my previous road in becoming a biologist, such as studying endangered species or publishing articles in books. With the Tarahumara I learned about corn and squash; about fishing in the rivers using amole (a type of agave) to stunt and collect the fish; and the way communities work together to plant, harvest and share year after year. But most of all I learned about the need, as a scientist, to conduct research that answers the urgent questions that will impact people’s daily lives such as food, climate change or agricultural pests.

Now looking back,  I realize my relationship with Nature has evolved. While I will always continue on the same ongoing and surprising adventures of discovery wherever I go, things have shifted for me.  My relationship with Nature began in childhood as one of discovery and adventure, family time, fitness, education, but now I have the distinct privilege of being a paid professional spending time outdoors as a career . As a biologist I have had many different jobs throughout Mexico and Arizona, all of which were located in places where maintaining a connection to Nature was vital.  From Chihuahua to Baja California, and from Sonora to Arizona, I’ve had the awesome privilege to visit natural protected areas, private properties and parks where work and adventures abound.  Now, in my professional capacity, my relationship with Nature has evolved to have a direct impact in people’s lives by protecting their natural surroundings.

From my own personal health (physical and mental), to getting to learn in an open classroom while connecting with family and friends, to traveling throughout the country, Nature has provided me with a unique way of life that I could not have planned better. It has not always been easy, because there have been hard times – cold nights, hungry days and dangerous situations, but my days have also been irreplaceably filled with beautiful sunsets, wildlife observations, and dark, star-filled nights.

I’ve enjoyed and connected with Nature – both personally and professionally, and that is an experience and privilege that I want to share with you. Whether a quick walk in the park, or an excursion to a local natural area or a trip to a national park – I urge you, any way you can get outdoors, and do it as often as you can! Being outside, it is your right and benefits you and your family. I invite you to take a moment out of the business of your daily grind and join me in going BEYOND – let’s all get outside and explore and enjoy nature!

Learn more about what Sergio Avila is doing today here.

August 29, 2019

Posted in: Explore