Jessica Seto

2023-2024 Live Deliberately Essay Contest

Jessica SetoJessica Seto, 15

Winner, 14-16 Age Group

Brooklyn, New York

For most of my early childhood, I have been surrounded by nature. In New Jersey, roads stretched forever, acres of farmland and forest surrounding a few small towns. I spent my afternoons in the woods, the distant drumming of a woodpecker ringing through the air as a stream gurgled through the earth. I loved playing with dandelions and pretty river stones, or climbing a copse of pines to get closer to the cloud-studded sky. On autumn nights, a beaver moon hung warm, yellow-white against a backdrop of a thousand stars. A soft breeze whisked leaves across the street, gathering them in crunchy piles to stomp through in the morning.

I moved to New York City in second grade.

Black asphalt replaced green grass, warm trees turned to cold, glittering skyscrapers. Cars whizzed past at all hours, roaring and sputtering plumes of exhaust. Manhattan was the worst offender, filled with vents that leaked clouds of steam to shroud the streets in a vague, foggy haze.

The first summer was unbearable, sun scorching concrete and asphalt ten degrees hotter than I was used to. My apartment did not have an air conditioner, and the fan did nothing but blow hot air around. There was nothing to do but wait for the heat to wane. I now spent my afternoons lying on the sticky couch, longing for the cool grass and refreshing pools of a forest. Even when night fell, it was still excruciatingly humid. I slipped out of bed to pry the window open another centimeter.

I paused, my hands glued to the glass.

The world had died.

There was no other explanation, because the heavens were a dull yellow, stars blotted out by a faintly glowing haze. The moon was absent, my west-facing window at the wrong angle to catch its comforting glow. The primal fear of a fly trapped beneath frosted glass filled my stomach, fluttering and frantic and absolutely terrified.

I slammed the blinds back down and made a point to never look out my window at night. Winter came and went. I waited for snow, but the few flakes that fell did not linger.

In March, a pileated woodpecker paid us a visit.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The tapping rang loud and clear over the hustle and bustle of the city.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

I ran to the window, scanning the streets for the source.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

My jaw fell open as I caught sight of white-black feathers. I had never seen a woodpecker before. The trees in New Jersey were too tall, foliage too thick to catch a glimpse of a bright red crest. Yet here I was, in the city, face-to-face with a bird that belonged to the woods.

The woodpecker flew away, but I lingered at the window, my gaze fixed on the patch of sky it had disappeared into. I reached out a hand. If only my body could shrink, grow feathers, wings, and a beak, turn into a bird so that I could join the woodpecker in the open sky.

That being impossible, I did the next best thing. I set out a birdbath.

Over the course of the next spring, mourning doves, common sparrows and the occasional catbird stopped by for a splash. Summer rolled around, and things were completely different. The heat was scorching, but I found shelter beneath the emerald-leafed trees lining each street. Wildflowers grew in abandoned lots, bursts of raggedy color poking up from gray gravel. Although the stars were shrouded by yellow haze, the moon shone bright in the living-room window. It was now obvious I was standing beneath the same blue sky, breathing the same air and drinking the same water as I had inside the most rural of forests.

I became more conscious of the impact my actions would have on nature. Setting out a shallow saucer of water allowed birds to stay clean, whereas using insecticides on the potted flowers killed them. And likewise, nature has an influence on me. When Hurricane Ida hit, the streets and subways of New York flooded like everywhere else. When summer heat waves washed over us, I took shelter in cool basements like everybody else. During the wildfires last June, I breathed the same toxic air as everybody else.

From distant mountaintops to bustling cities, nature is everywhere. It is a force that humanity cannot escape, leaving us humans with only one option: take care of nature, so nature can take care of us.