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Earth Connection Inspires Environmental Stewardship

Conservationist leverages immersion in nature to help save the planet

April 22, 2020

By Mario Aguilera

When the time is right and we can safely venture out of our homes again, UC San Diego Biological Sciences Professor Carolyn Kurle would like you to take a hike… meander through a forest… explore the desert… wander on a beach—just get out to anywhere you can lose yourself in nature, near and far.

Her passion is to encourage more people to go outdoors and bond with Mother Nature, an idea she’s been developing and expounding on in recent years as “making an Earth Connection.” If you’re immersed in natural surroundings—anything from a walk amongst the greenery in your neighborhood to expeditions to remote wilderness locations—Kurle believes you’re more likely to forge a deeper appreciation for the planet. This, in turn, will spur your motivation to protect Earth and make choices to conserve its resources.

As a conservationist who studies what animals eat and where they spend their time in nature, Kurle grappled for the last few years with ideas of how best to educate and inspire UC San Diego students about issues related to protecting the planet. She found traditional approaches of force-feeding facts, figures and doom-and-gloom scenarios ineffective and lacking inspiration.

Just as her Earth Connection ideas began to take shape, she was approached by Emily Loui, a director of UC San Diego’s Center for Student Involvement Alternative Breaks program, which leads service and learning trips to destinations around the world to help cultivate globally conscious citizens. Serendipitously, here was a golden chance to put her new ideas into practice.

“The whole Earth Connection idea just came to me because, as a conservationist, it can be too overwhelming to try and teach all of the details and facts about all of the changes necessary to save the planet,” said Kurle. “But the thing that’s not overwhelming is to create a connection that people can build upon themselves to take inspired action.”

Last summer, a group of Alternative Break students were the first to plunge headlong into Kurle’s Earth Connection worldview. Their trip to Iceland proved life changing, especially for students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds without easy access to the outdoors, which is the opposite of Kurle’s own upbringing.

Growing up wild

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, the outdoors was part of the fabric of Kurle’s life.

Exploring the Cascade Mountains, hiking through the Olympic National Park rain forest, leapfrogging islands in Puget Sound and exploring the Pacific Ocean coastline while camping, fishing and digging for clams were inherent to her family’s culture.

As she got older, she realized having such an extensive outdoor life was more the exception and not the norm. Throughout her life, connecting with nature was a source of calm and revitalization, and she continues to recognize the importance of that amidst the busyness imposed by typical adulthood.  

“Growing up in those wild places, without an agenda, was something we did as a family and I didn’t know it wasn’t like that for everybody,” said Kurle. “Most importantly it taught me that you can turn toward nature when you need to feel your intuition, when you need to feel recharged and replenished, quiet and centered.”

Kurle was raised in a Catholic household. She no longer practices organized religion but says experiences in nature have become a familiar source for spirituality.

“The same feeling I got in church is the exact same feeling I got in nature,” said Kurle. “Being in nature felt majestic. That feeling stayed with me in nature and also gave me that spiritual connection.”

Icelandic immersion

Last summer, during a life-changing trip to Iceland, Kurle and the Alternative Break students explored ice caves, hot springs and craters, among other natural features of the island nation. They came face-to-face with a glacier that took 7,500 years to form and is predicted to melt away due to climate change in fewer than 200 years.

Such exposures through hours of immersion in the Icelandic wilderness brought home messages of connectedness and sustainability for the students, from clean air and water to resource management.

“Spending time hiking in nature and seeing the natural wonders of Iceland made me reconnect with the natural world and feel a renewed urgency to protect the planet,” said Rey Lautenschlager, a second-year Sixth College undergraduate majoring in global health. Lautenschlager has been designated as a trip leader for the next trip to Iceland. “Seeing in-person caves, hot springs, lakes, craters and glaciers melting before my eyes is the most powerful way imaginable to make students like myself understand the consequences of human behavior and the need for us to dramatically alter our actions.”

More than 70 percent of the trip’s participants came from financially challenged backgrounds, many who work multiple jobs and have little exposure to immersion in nature. Some had never traveled outside of the country.

“The trip was a huge success because, at the end of the day, people won’t care about the environment if they are not inspired,” said Loui, who oversaw the Alternative Breaks trip. “There are a lot of doom-and-gloom stories that are important but this approach was a way to creatively instill inspiration in these students.”

Earth Connection stewards

While a planned return summer trip with a new group of students was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a return trip to Iceland is still an option when such travel becomes safe again.

Kurle plans to keep the scenic hikes in the itinerary, but she and Loui now plan to mix in a multi-day immersion experience on a sustainable farm. With the success of the farm dependent upon livestock, crops and other intermingling operations, it’s a perfect example of how an intact ecosystem functions.

“A biodynamic farm has to have all the pieces working together, like an ecosystem, for everything to work properly and sustain itself,” said Kurle. “Being on a farm is a really good opportunity to make that point.”

While Kurle was overjoyed at the results of the 2019 trip, she hopes to broaden the Earth Connection ideas to more of her students, not just the fortunate 15 who joined the trip.

She’d like to similarly inspire all of her students, even the hundreds who attend her classes in large lecture halls. Someday, her hope is to touch all students on campus.

“The constant challenge is to reach as many people as possible and make these experiences commonplace,” said Kurle. “We’re on this beautiful campus on this beautiful planet so maybe it’s possible to develop curricula with each college having its own nature and Earth Connection course. Hopefully every single one of our UC San Diego students, even non-science majors, can come away with some degree of Earth Connection so their natural inclination becomes one of automatic and active Earth stewardship and conservation.”

More information about Alternative Breaks is available here. If you’d like to support the program, please visit this site.