There comes a time in the life of every New York City–dwelling millennial with an Instagram where one takes a “trip upstate.” The advent of Airbnb has made light, Thoreauvian travel easy: gather a few friends or a devoted partner, rent a car or take the train, and bake pies and go on small hikes around a remote, well-designed house decorated with mid-century-modern furniture. Light a fire if you know how, cuddle under a Pendleton blanket, and come back to the city refreshed, having taken in necessary gulps of the kind of clean air you simply can not get in the city.
From the comfort of my Brooklyn apartment, I watch all of these bucolic trips unfold with only one sinister thought: these people have no idea that they’re about to get murdered.
I didn’t realize that I was afraid of nature until about two years ago, when I camped for the first time in my adult life, at Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, a national park in Colombia. I was with a close friend, an experienced camper who came prepared with a tent, bug spray, and an incomprehensible fearlessness about sleeping among teeth-gnashing monsters in the great outdoors. The park is vast and preposterously stunning, and, because it is situated on the northeastern coastline of the country, during the days visitors relax on the beach with agua fresca, and during the nights visitors relax on the beach with spiked agua fresca. I liked those activities a lot.
But when it came time for bed, I slept with one eye open.
Contrary to popular understanding, meditative silence doesn’t exist in nature, and Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is no exception. There are 108 species of mammals and 300 species of birds, as well as 70 species of bats. At night, the sounds of all these creatures become the soundtrack to a visitor’s rest, a blend of summer crickets and bird calls and alligators slithering into bay waters. To some people, these sounds are the ideal sort of lullaby — a tableau that communicates the meaningfulness of coexistence.
To me, these sounds indicate a terrifying unknown, one where a world of hurt lies just beyond my tent. When combined with the darkest of nights, the kind untarnished by city light poisoning, I was amazed when my friend’s breathing deepened and she fell quickly into a peaceful rest. How was she not terrified of our certain fate?
I did eventually fall asleep. But the thoughts of a creature unzipping the front flap of our tent and dragging me back to its den never left. As I pulled a loaned sleeping bag up above my shoulders, an imagined NY1 broadcast seeped into my dreams. An anchorwoman solemnly announced, “And she was never heard from again.”
Apparently, this kind of fear has a name: biophobia. According to research by environmental psychologists, originally reported in the LA Times, we are seeing a rise in biophobia sufferers — people who have a “prejudice against nature.” It’s causing panic among environmental scientists and national-park rangers who worry that we are turning into car-work-and-home-bound robots who can’t even stand the sight of a dying leaf in our midst. The Times reported on this phenomenon three months after I returned from Colombia: “Statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that adults, too, spend 93% of their lives inside buildings or vehicles, living under what nature writer Richard Louv calls ‘protective house arrest.’ ”
With no disrespect to Mr. Louv, I call bullshit.
I love to be outside. I love to get in touch with the world beyond my front door. I don’t even own a car. Patches of grass and trees and flowers are all beautiful gifts to the world that I like to gaze upon frequently. I even love the lulling sound of crickets outside my window in the summer and have made eye contact with many squirrels, some who stood poised to attack. I’m not prejudiced against nature at all — that nature just has to be within the confines of my urban dwellings, where the suffocating closeness of both people and buildings functions as my security blanket.