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The definition of serenity. Photo by Hannah Richter (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Finalist), Indonesia Semester.

Finding My Inner Tree Hugger




Cardboard signs littered the floor. We mixed paints in old plastic water bottles that had been given to us on the bus ride over to Survive! Garage, a community space that supports young artists in Jogja. Even with a language barrier, their energy was contagious and connecting us through each paint stroke. Although I grew up in a homogeneously progressive area and a regular to protests, these activists were able to create a feeling, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. In the moment, I couldn’t quite place why.

Each of the hands that had painted these signs would only be armed with their cardboard posters as they could be met by violence, imprisonment and potentially death. This wasn’t a cute Instagram post. This was putting their lives on the line for justice. If it weren’t for Bridge Year policy and that my VISA prevented me from protesting, I would have been alongside Survive and countless other students in the fight for environmental justice. A few weeks ago, I’m not certain I would.

In the US, I beckoned community initiatives to fight for justice. After all, I could see climate change happening. Hail in Chicago in April? A week of 80s in Jersey during October? We talked about it but we also canceled school or turned on our AC. We bought neglect, limited edition.

Most of Indonesia can’t afford that band-aid solution. Instead, the start of rainy season remains an impending mystery. The dry heat knocks out hours of daily routine. The diminishing coral reef is starving local fisherman markets in beach communities. The palm oil plantations are driving up carbon emissions.

As a western citizen, our demands, consumption, and continued support of environmentally unconscious companies are injuring these communities. It’s only a matter of time before we can’t pretend that our towering concrete jungle gyms and blissful suburbia remain unaffected. And beyond where we live, every natural beauty we attempt to preserve is falling to ruin.

In the past three weeks, our group has hiked Gunung Api Purba and Ijen, trekked through Baluran National Forest and Alas Purwo, and snorkeled in Bangsring, on the coast of East Java. I will never trade the feeling of attempting to memorize every last detail of panoramic views of mountains, deserts, rainforests, mangroves, beaches, underwater reefs or hearing all the birds, monkeys and tokek (spotted gecko commonly found in Indonesia) and waves crash around me or even smelling the salt-stained air, the fresh breeze or the humid yet green scent. I am lucky to be able to breathe it all in and to feel alive.

These are feelings are so powerful that they wash over you. Because they’ve been locked behind a constant schedule for the past eighteen years. Now that I have the time to reflect, I have never felt so much love, rage, and vulnerability.

Call me a hopeless romantic because I’ve fallen in love with something that’s being destroyed by my own kind. Yet I feel alive knowing that something I love is being mistreated and I have the ability to change that.

I can make environmentally conscious decisions. I don’t need 4 devices or to drive the short walk to school or to flush gallons of clean drinking water daily. Yes, in terms of quantity of impact, corporations and their lack of government regulation hold the biggest responsibility with their decisions. Yet as individuals, we can’t give up. As consumers, we still are powerful. We too can put morals over money and shift markets. We can learn to love where we live— not just the concrete and metal maze of buildings but genuinely appreciate the natural beauty underneath. And of course, we must take care of where we live so it takes care of us.