From Backyard Daydreams to Boundless Destinations

How did you explore nature growing up? Where do you find it now?


By Joseph Walton on April 10, 2017

When I think back upon my childhood, my thoughts immediately travel to memories of the outdoors and my insatiable penchant for exploration. Most children generally enjoy playing outside, but I took it to an extreme.

I remember going on “expeditions” in my large backyard where I would collect different flowers and weeds, that at the time I assumed were flowers (I’m looking at you, dandelions), and categorize them by different specifications. I would let my imagination run wild and go looking for different kinds of animals that would coincide with the different types of ground and soil, and when I could not find any I would make up my own.

We had a clearing where we dumped our compost that led into the forest that was surrounded by thorn bushes and blackberries, and I remember picking the berries to see how many I could collect before getting sliced on a thorn. I was always told not to go into the woods because it was where dangerous animals lingered.  That backfired on my parents, as it only made me want to go in there more.

There was one occasion where I remember hearing a story on the news of a bear that had been spotted in the area; while most sane people would stray away from such things, my unbound desire to be connected to the natural world led me to go looking for it. I crawled my way over our compost pile and started into the woods only to find myself in a marshland and started sinking in mud (that my young mind at the time thought was quicksand). Needless to say, when my parents heard my screams and came running to save me they were less than pleased.

When someone asks me how nature has influenced me, I suppose that is why I always have a hard time answering. It would be like asking me how my blood keeps me alive. I do not have a specific answer; it is just part of my being and that is the way it has always been.

Although it may seem like it from the way I describe it, I did not live in the countryside or anything close to it. I had an ordinary suburban house in Muskegon, nothing special except for an extra-large backyard. I never felt that way though. I felt like I lived in nature, and I sought it out in all my travels. 

My grandma would bring me to all the parks in the area in what seemed like a 25-mile radius and I would always be much more interested in the layout of the land than the actual playground equipment. I would look for trails leading into the woods or any water sources or anything that made it stand out.  I recall rabbit burrows scattered across my aunt’s property. She brought me to see a young baby bunny once and less than a foot away from me a crow came down and snatched it up.

While all the adults were worried I was scarred for life, I simply thought the crow was helping the little rabbit to fly. However, hearing the mother rabbit cry out in agony soon changed that notion.

I fondly remember getting extremely excited to go to my uncle’s home in Freemont because he had all kinds of farm animals. It was like a vacation to me. I would get to walk along a path to see all the different animals and ask him questions about them, and then at the end of path were enormous sand and clay mounds that I was convinced were mountains. I would be so proud of myself for making it to the top of them.

Consequently, the real vacation was when I was able to travel to northern Michigan to a small town called Tustin. My grandpa lived there, and he had an immense property with numerous acres of land. We would always stop along the way at Paris, a salmon hatchery where I got to feed fish and different kinds of waterfowl; it would make me feel like I was a real zookeeper.

At my grandpa’s multiple trails for walking, quad riding, and car driving made me feel like I really was an explorer. I finally saw the animals I would look for back at my suburban abode. I would see deer, beavers, skunks, muskrats, porcupines, otters, and countless species of birds that I learned to identify by looking through his bird books.

My affinity for all things nature related did not stop with actual nature. Even in the entertainment industry I would seek out more information about my favorite topics. Most kids would be reading short stories in elementary school, and I would be reading nonfiction pieces about animals. Most kids would be watching family movies, and I would be watching documentaries. When I would have birthday parties or got to pick where to go for a weekend getaway I would always go for the beach or zoos and aquariums.

This culmination of feelings has traversed into my adult life as well, as I have geared my education so far in the direction of working with nature and animals. I always thought I wanted to be a marine biologist as a child because my favorite animals were marine creatures. However, as I grew older I realized I would not feel right moving to California or Florida and leaving the Michigan wilderness that I have always known. I then planned on moving to Chicago because it was not as far from home, and I could work at my favorite zoos down there.

All that changed when I saw a documentary called “Racing Extinction” that portrayed the way journalists exposed animal trafficking agencies and illegal traders. Nature has always been my calling, but I have a strong passion for writing as well, so seeing them come together in a way that saved animals and the natural world really changed my entire perspective. I realized I wanted to do that more than anything – give a voice to those who do not have one, to those who have shaped my entire life thus far.

I began to take writing and journalism classes along with my zoology classes in college. I am currently researching the role that travel writers play in educating people about the natural wonders in places other than their own backyard. Like most people I think it would be quite a lavish lifestyle to travel the world and document your travels for a career. While I certainly plan on doing that at some point, it still creates a sense of uneasiness that I am not paying my dues to my own Michigan environment.

That is why I am currently looking into a specialization of travel writing known as place-based writing that focuses on the nature and wildlife of a specific location, usually where the writer is staying or has stayed. I am also researching some of the things that The Nature Conservancy here in Michigan does and trying to find a way to work with them at some point as well. I figure I need to fulfill my duties to the ecosystem that has raised me before protecting others, especially at such a critical point in the fight for environmentalism.

While my backyard may not seem as expansive now as it did when I was a child, my outlook on nature has not changed. Nature is everywhere when you look hard enough (trust me, I have spent my whole life looking), but the natural ecosystems of Michigan are unlike any other.

I know that when I do finally travel to far off-locations with exotic flora and fauna, I will not be able to forget my Great Lakes home. I do not live in this state; this state lives in me.

Until that day, you can find me walking the woodsy trails at Hoffmaster State Park back home in Muskegon, at the breathtaking beaches of Grand Haven on a weekend getaway, or strolling along the banks of the Red Cedar River at Michigan State University in East Lansing. I’ll probably be talking to a member of my zoology fraternity who, like me, has been molded by dirt and leaves instead of cement and metal and who understands that nature does not influence us; nature becomes us.

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Joseph Walton attends Michigan State University and is a member of MSU’s Zoological Fraternity, Zeta Theta Omega.




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