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The Wild Heals

At the clever age of six, as a new Greenpeace member, I sat and scratched out a letter to Brezhnev (then leader of the Soviet Union) asking him to stop hunting whales. This should tell you something about my childhood.

Sarah M Origin StoryGrowing up half-wild in Montana and western Washington meant plenty of unsupervised time and freedom to explore. I spent my days running around in the woods and playing in rivers and streams. Our family’s lifestyle was low impact and as close to sustainable as we could make it. These values infused me, though I had glimpses they were not values widely shared by others; neighbor kids enjoyed “candy day” and watched television, while I chewed on licorice root and went to anti-nuke rallies.

I loved my childhood and was eager to see the world. First, I lived in Germany and explored Europe, then went to Massachusetts for college (more foreign to me than Europe), and then San Francisco.

Along the way, I grew out of my hiking shoes, left behind my outdoor gear, and traded the woods for cities and more urban pursuits. During these years, my deeply-rooted values still guided my actions, but I was more of an “armchair environmentalist.” I rode my bike or walked an hour each way to my various jobs—waiting tables, assistant teaching, etc.—and focused on saving funds to travel.

During that decade, I travelled extensively: Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Australia. I soaked up new cultures, nannied for a diamond dealer, and explored many wonders of the natural world.

While I enjoyed myself, I felt like an observer…untethered to any place or community. Looking back, it seems I was on pause or semi-dormant. Eventually I returned to Montana for a month’s visit. Six months later my father was driving his little Toyota pick-up back from California helping me return home to Montana.  

Back home, my bone-deep sense of belonging reawakened my conservation ethic. I began volunteering for environmental non-profits. I explored the Rattlesnake and Selway Bitterroot Wildernesses. On one month-long trip, I hiked a portion of the Continental Divide Trail looking for grizzly bear forage and obstacles to their dispersal from Yellowstone Park.

One particular memory still fills my lungs and takes my breath away. We were hiking along the spine of the continent east towards the Centennial Mountains.  I felt 10 feet tall striding across the top of the earth. In that moment, I knew that I belonged to this place and it belonged to me.

On days when I cannot for the life of me get my bear rope to catch, when my water filter clogs, and my arms ache from pumping, when spider webs spans the trail and catch my face, this is when I am most alive. Sarah M in Morocco's Atlas Mountains

When I look up from the trail, my map, my clogged filter, or my sore feet to smell the wind, revel in the glorious snow-capped rocky crags, or wonder why spiders are so creepy, I sense that I am home. Hearing the clatter of mountain goats, or worrying about how near the closest grizzly is, this is where I know I belong.

Back in Montana, I again fell in love with the wild. I am most truly myself in its wild places. I know now that when I am lost and broken-hearted, the wild can heal. When the blisters shriek at me, when I’m demoralized by a wrong turn, when a storm blows in and turns my tent into a sinking island on an ephemeral pond, or when I miss my late husband, the wild heals.

Today, here at WildEarth Guardians, I litigate to protect what makes me whole. That is why I do what I do, and why I am proud to be a Guardian of the wild. Through the legal process in federal and state courts, I demand more for our wildlife and wild places.

I never did receive a reply to my save-the-whales letter, but I know that my six-year-old self would be thrilled that today I am still an advocate for the wild. That I am a Guardian.  

For the wild,

Sarah McMillan headshot,

Sarah McMillan
Staff Attorney
WildEarth Guardians

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photo credits: cooking in the Anaconda Pintlar Wilderness—Scott Woods; trekking in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains—Morrocan Guide