Nirmala Young on Being Humbled by Nature
This story was a collaboration between Nirmala Young and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.
I always knew I was lucky. I took it as a blessing. I never fully understood this until two years ago when I returned to the place I had once come from. Going through customs and seeing the faces of people who looked like me, who assumed I was one of them. I didn’t understand their frustration when they realized I couldn’t understand what they were saying, when they had to speak a language foreign to them that was so ingrained in me. They kept saying “but you are Karki,” and I had to explain I did not share their homeland.
I did not understand my privilege until I stepped foot into the place it all began. I was finally able to fathom that one American woman with a longing for a daughter changed what my life could have been. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of gratitude for the opportunities that the circumstances of my life had presented me.
I was able to embrace my Didi, who was my caretaker until I turned 6 months old. Together, we looked at photos of herself when she was younger, holding the infant version of me, smiling at me. I still see her face when she realized who I was to her. My vision blurry as tears flooded my eyes when I told her who I had become and in return her saying how proud of me she was.
It wasn’t until the moment I held a little girl at the orphanage and saw myself in her eyes that I truly understood the gift I was given. How priceless my education, the adventures I’ve embarked on, and the simple ability to speak English. Moreover, to have grown up in a white family with the resources to provide these experiences. Understanding that this differentiated this little girl and I.
The story you are about to read about my love of nature does not include hardships. It does not include fear nor struggle. This story is indicative of a white experience within the out of doors. I hope that when you read this story you can understand the stoke and the passion I have for nature. I hope you can feel the love I have for my family and community who helped provide these experiences. I hope you can join me in helping communities who do not have the resources I’ve had find a safe space in the outdoors. Experiences I could have never had if I hadn’t been adopted from Nepal.
“When I caught my first wave, that married me to the ocean for the rest of my life.”
That transformative moment happened while Nirmala Young was a high schooler studying abroad in Spain. It was late May in Cádiz and she had been passing a surf shop on her daily runs for months. She finally asked for and received a set of surf lessons as a birthday gift from her mom, and learned to surf that spring.
“I remember paddling out into, like, white water waves that I was surfing. I remember the first time I stood up and caught a wave, I was so freaking stoked, I had like the biggest smile on my face. I just never want to leave this feeling, this is such a cool feeling. It feels like you're a part of something bigger than yourself, and it's very humbling.” said Nirmala. “I've been chasing that feeling ever since.”
Seconds before kook slamming, Australia
Growing Up With Nature
Young Nirmala on Peaks Island, Maine
Though Nirmala’s first surf experience was a continent away, her love of nature began at home, and much earlier. Nirmala grew up on Peaks Island in Maine. There she spent time at the beach near her house, playing in the sand, clamming, and swimming.
“I would go to the beach almost every single day in the summer with my friends. We would build sandcastles when we were younger, as we got older, brought coolers and just chilled out, brought frisbees and had a lovely time. Ever since I was young I have loved the ocean, and the water. My mom always called me a mermaid because I spent more time wet than I did dry,” said Nirmala.
“I had such a community of people around me, I had the out-of-doors right outside my door. We had a big backyard, that had a lot of elements from an old playground, we had a seesaw, we had a treehouse, and a zipline,” she added.
Interwoven in her upbringing on Peak’s, was family. Nirmala’s mother was a major influence in her love of the outdoors.
“We were always building things together, whether that was building a new porch on our house, building a treehouse for me, or we put up a zipline together. We built so many things back in the day–you know, doing hands-on work, being outside, we also loved to garden together and just get our fingers right in the soil.”
Nirmala was briefly homeschooled in high school, and also found joy in the freedom to spend time how she wanted to outside of a traditional classroom setting.
“I was a horse girl growing up, so for gym I went for a ride, so I went down to the barn, tacked my horse up and would go on a ride for an hour or two hours and ride around Peaks Island. It was so therapeutic for me. I was able to spend time by myself and outdoors, and I had a really nice companion to talk to and spend time with while I was outdoors.”
“I consider myself very, very lucky to have these experiences, because I know that, that's really not the case for a majority of people,” said Nirmala.
Nowadays Nirmala lives on the mainland, in Portland, and gets outdoors whenever she can. School experiences and travel have taken her all over the world, but she finds that she can experience connection with the natural world on a daily basis, through the simple act of stepping outside.
“My definition of the out-of-doors is very different from some others. There is a conception that you have to have the Subarus, the kayaks and the paddles, and the sneakers to go on an adventure…For me the out-of-doors literally means outside your door. Literally, we have a really lovely deck attached our apartment right now and it is really lovely to sit out there when it is sunny. I drink my coffee out there, I read. When it's nice out I'll go sit out and do my work throughout the day,” said Nirmala.
Nature with Nirm, New Zealand
Community Connections & The Outdoors
When she was younger, Nirmala dreamed of being a marine biologist. For a semester in high school, she attended a program in Freeport, Maine called Coastal Studies for Girls, that fostered this vision.
“That’s when I really found my love of marine biology and found the sciencey aspect behind the love of nature. Learning why things work, learning the scientific names for seaweed, and snails and starfish. Just having 13 other girls who loved nature and wanted to be outside was mind-blowing to me.”
Though Nirmala did not ultimately realize her dream of becoming a marine biologist, she used her connection with nature to further her connection with herself. After changing majors in school, she also used her love of nature to connect with taking photos. “I’ve always loved photography, especially the works of Ansel Adams.”
She used inspiration from his photos to forge her own path. “I would bring a camera everywhere with me and snap photos while hiking, surfing, or hanging out at the beach with friends. I was able to capture the beauty around me and the smiles painted on my friends' faces”.
Moonlighting as jungle jane - Chitwan, Nepal
After going to college in Hawaii, Nirmala worked a job in outdoor adventure youth programming, at Rippleffect in Portland.
“I worked with a lot of youth who don't have the same resources that I have. They don't have the right shoes, they don't have the right boots. And I have been fortunate enough to have those resources, and to have the right to the things that I need to adventure,” said Nirmala.
“That's one part of the outdoors that disappoints me at times…that not everyone has the same experiences that I do, and hasn't been as fortunate enough to have the resources to have the experiences that I do. I consider myself so lucky to have had the opportunities and experiences that have led me to roam the surface of our planet.”
While Nirmala sees real value in programs like Rippleffect and gear libraries that can start to remove some barriers to accessing nature, she also firmly believes that experiences with nature don’t have to involve specific clothing, gear, and equipment.
“You don't need all of these huge resources. You can walk down to a local park and take your shoes off and run around in the grass and play tag, all you need is a couple of friends, if you don't have any there's probably some out there waiting for you to befriend them.”
Inviting Others Outside
Nirmala’s current goal is to become a life sciences teacher, where she hopes to provide the opportunity for young people to create their own connections with nature.
“Just creating safe spaces where kids can be outdoors, that’s huge. Unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of that in high school, because we didn't have the opportunity to be outside and to go outside, so working that into a classroom curriculum is so important.”
Nirmala feels a sense of comfort in nature– “who’s gonna judge you? The trees? They don’t care,”– and likes to share that with loved ones when she can, even if it can be difficult because the default is often to spend time indoors.
“The outdoors has helped me deepen my connections and relationships to people, whether that be with my family and my mom, or my friends.”
A few years ago, she took her friend out for the first hike of her life, to Bald Peak Preserve.
Nirmala shared, “She texted me when she got home and was like ‘that was so fun, we should do this again, –but a bigger mountain!’”
“There is nothing like getting to the summit of a mountain, drenched in sweat, looking out at the potential 360 view, and just sitting there and soaking it in,” said Nirmala. “It's feeling so unbelievably small, in comparison to the grand scheme of not only the height you're doing or the view you’re looking at, but the world in general. Everything.”
A selection of photos Nirmala has taken on her various travels and adventures outdoors
This story was created and published in May-July 2022