What I first noticed about Durango, Colorado was its deep silence and brightness, a sea of sky as I stepped out of the small county airport. It was mid-June, and I would be spending two weeks in this small city bordering desert and glaciers, as part of my internship with Earth Law Center (“ELC”), an NGO that advances and advocates for ecocentric laws. Whilst most of my internship was remote, divided between Montreal and New York (where my partner lives), I planned a two-week sojourn at our office’s humble headquarters in Southwestern Colorado. My boss helped me find a host family through a neighbourhood platform called “Nextdoor”, and Ellyn, one of ELC’s Durango-based interns offered to pick me up from the airport.
Although I have worked many different environmental and climate related summer jobs and internships in the past seven years, it had been too many years since I worked in person, let alone somewhere more remote. The trajectory of my work, and the confinement of COVID, led me towards research-based gigs on my laptop, caved in middle of the city. Now, driving through beautiful green, yellow and purple hills with the wind showering my face, nature finally felt close to me again. And when Kim and Scott, my host family, opened the beautiful copper gate into their lush garden and home—peaceful, gently chiming, cats wandering—I wondered if I had stepped into a paradise on Earth.
Over a delicious dinner in the backyard, Kim and Scott told me how it had been an unusually wet year in Durango—the abundant snow in the winter gave way to abundant blooms, painting the landscape with fresh colours that outlasted their usual lifetime. They had lived in Durango for several decades, adventuring through all four seasons, raising two sons, fostering hundreds of kittens. As for my boss and Executive Director of ELC, Grant, he had been living in Durango with his wife Katie for two years, drawn to the sheer beauty of its nature, a living example of what the Center was fighting to preserve. Grant and his dog Sabre picked me up the next morning, helping me settle into the office and showing me around town. I was gifted Katie’s bike for two weeks and after a full day of work, meandered back North on the bike path along the beautiful and high-flowing Animas River.
And so, my days gave way to a peaceful routine where I found myself balancing work and play with an ease that previously eluded me. Cool mornings biking along the River; hours spent on engaging research, writing and meetings with like-minded people; lunches nearby enjoying tacos and fresh salsas; breaks thrifting outdoor clothes; evenings relishing home-cooked meals by Kim and thoughtful conversations, small outings, basement movies; and bedtimes falling asleep to purring Lucy, snuggled on my chest. Then, during my two weekends, Grant and Katie or Kim and Scott would take me to incredible hikes and sights, in the red desert of Sand Canyon, across the cliff-dropping roads between the mountain towns of Silverton and Ouray, along trails in Mesa Verde where dead tries resembled Dali paintings in their white and black shadows.
One late night, I turned to my side on the bed and start sobbing big tears. Earlier, Kim and I had watched Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and it seemed now my already sensitized emotions flooded into a more fundamental feeling, which was that I was so remarkably overcome with gratitude for my time in Durango. If humans are indeed an indiscernible outcome of both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’, then I was being gifted the best of what nature and nurture (in the broadest sense of these words) had to offer. Tucked under a quilted blanket, a light breeze settling in from the slightly ajar window, I felt safe, refreshed, and soothed from sufferings of time past. My initial impression had been confirmed—I was indeed on an Earthly paradise, and although it felt too good to be true, it also felt too real to be an illusion.
And that was the thing—this true, real tenderness of my life in Durango left me no choice but to fully embrace the goodness of my experience, an act that had been for me increasingly difficult to fulfill because of constant considerations of contemporary contradictions and my own intertwined privileges. It was the consideration that travelling and exploring Durango required high amounts of fossil energy, a resource that actively damaged the fauna and flora I was enjoying. It was the consideration that I had the special financial means to afford such a trip (my school and scholarship program provided funding), and that I was socially allowed on land that Indigenous peoples were once displaced from, moved to nearby reservations including the Ute Mountain Reservation. It was essentially the consideration that the beauty I was experiencing was neither absolute nor universally accessible nor straightforward—a perspective I absorbed in the years I have tried to find footing in the climate activism space. But the care and inspiration that I encountered in Durango strengthened a thought in my periphery, which was that the reason I’ve often thrown myself in these ethical binds was to shame and belittle myself, and that in reality, ethical binds do not denote an irreparable moral fabric, but rather complications to remediate and critically reflect upon.
I’m not sure if what I’ve said makes sense and connects, but perhaps this little story can better elucidate my thought. Soon before I left Durango, Kim received two new foster kittens, several weeks apart in age but inseparable. Kim learned the hard way that the older kitten, Pop, was aggressive when frightened, as she received vicious scratches and bites the first time she tried to pick him up to give him medicine. But she continued to care for him nonetheless, wary but calmly determined to create a better bond with him. One night, probably my last night, I sat beside Kim as she gently stroked Pop and whispered to him, “You’re not a bad kitten, you are just frightened. You were probably hurt before, but we’re going to get you better…” I was, and still am, incredibly moved by Kim’s comforting, a gesture that reflected the essence of her character. As she nurtured this tiny cat, so did she nurture me, reminding me of my intrinsic goodness, the essential wholeness in my nature, in nature. In this moment, I did not feel guilty for receiving a goodness that not everyone received—I felt purely inclined to embrace it, so that I may believe it and share it and spread it widely. Outside, in the dark, I knew the stars were shining in multitudes, and I knew I would sleep well.
The next morning, Scott drove me to the county airport. After we said goodbye, I took in the deep silence and brightness of Durango, the sea of sky that expanded beyond the horizon of snow-capped mountains. It was the end of June, and the sun was hotter, earlier. In a few hours I would be battling a delayed flight and missed connections, but for now the ground still held, the wind still soared. My time in Durango was a small moment in my life, but I felt like it would become an infinite arc, bridging the vision of paradise to the Earth I love so dearly.