Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s fall 2023 issue, “How Do We Create Home in the Future? Reshaping the Way We Live in the Midst of Climate Crisis.”
When Nela was little, the outside world was endlessly fascinating.
She was born, as many were, with green hands, green legs, and a little green heart.
She spent all her vacations at her grandparents’ house, or rather, outside their house, to be precise.
There, everything was ALIVE. The walls were flush with mosses, plants, and bugs, some of which looked like they didn’t even belong to this planet.
Nela was cautious at first, but curiosity won over in the end. As she ran her hands across the velvety patches, the small tendrils unfurling their tight coils, shades of brown, green, slate blue, and pale pink, her mind ran with stories and make-believe.
The neighboring field, soil rich and brown, pulsated with earthworms. Her brother said he would catch them and use them to fish, and she was both intrigued and disgusted by their squirming, naked-seeming figures.
Every morning, a man came with lotus buds, and she would unfurl them, petal by petal, feeling the soft papery texture. And then came her favorite part, taking apart the stem and eating the small seeds inside, like her grandma taught her to do. They didn’t taste like anything in particular but something about the process was deeply satisfying.
Back home in the big city, most of her time was still outside, and her green heart flourished. Tendrils of green and brown spiraled all around her, growing with her, becoming a part of her.
For Nela and her friends, every day was a new frontier to be explored. Climbing trees, eating sour leaves and mock strawberries, watching over butterfly pupae in anticipation of their hatching, “cooking” with flowers, poring over encyclopedia entries of dinosaurs and deep-sea creatures, and imagining the adventures they could have.
They all felt so powerful in that dreamlike state, when life was magical and anything seemed possible.
As she grew older, though, time outside was replaced by words, by metal, and by the blue-light glow. Visits to her grandparents’ house became less frequent, then ceased entirely. At some point, the house was sold, and her grandparents moved too.
Nela didn’t mind. To be honest, she didn’t even notice the shift. This was how it was meant to be, after all. We all have to grow up someday. And she wanted to be a good girl, to be successful—to make her family proud and to live up to her potential.
The tendrils and patches of green and earth that had made her, retreated, wilted and disappeared—and her little green heart was forgotten. In their place came patches of metal, plastic, glass—inorganic, sturdy, and more suited to her surroundings.
As Nela changed, so did the world around her, and the bright colors and sunshine of her childhood were replaced with imposing blue, black, and silver structures, towering overhead. Perhaps the world had always been like this, and all that had changed was that now she saw more of it. She wasn’t sure.
This new world, sterile and all-encompassing, blanketed her everyday in tasks. Each morning she woke up with a list of things to do, and she made sure to stay on top of it, for it would be disastrous if she fell behind. An ever-growing milestone, always something new to produce.
Day after day, this went on, but slowly it started to make less and less sense to her.
What were they actually building to? Who was she really doing all this work for?
There didn’t seem to be an end in sight, just a ceaseless, meaningless churning, constructing things that did more harm than good.
She became afraid of how the world was growing—the twisted, convoluted, and intertwined layers of harm. She couldn’t keep up with it and she knew that it couldn’t keep up with itself. Eventually, something would have to give. Something would collapse. And she, and others like her, would take the brunt of the fallout.
She wanted to be what she was supposed to be, do what she was supposed to do. Everyone else seemed okay with it, but somehow she couldn’t bear it—couldn’t sit at her desk all day, and couldn’t stand the blue-light glow.
It made her head hurt, made her feel sick to her stomach, made her feel…empty, so empty.
She tried to convince herself that the things she had to do were important; but try as she might, deep inside she didn’t believe it.
She wondered if something was wrong with her, or if maybe she was depressed. But how could anyone not be depressed by the bleakness of it all? She did everything in a haze of apathy, going through the motions.
It was within this bleakness that she visited the forest one day.
Her limbs felt like stone, all four dead weights, but she made herself walk because her parents were going, and she didn’t want to worry them. Ever the good girl.
She trudged along, oblivious to the scene around her, head still full of numbers and words and the blue-light glow.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
But you can’t ignore the forest for long. It crept into her mind without her even realizing it. It started with the forest path. As she walked, feeling the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot, it occurred to her all of a sudden how so many people must have walked before her to create this path. She imagined the very first person that had walked here. How this became the path and not any other. And now, all these years later, she was here. How powerful the simple act of walking was.
She tuned in then, as their guide told them stories of the forest.
Little things, like how the dock plant grows next to the stinging nettle and how the woodpecker gets rid of termites, made her feel as though there was a sense of balance, of rightness in the world.
She looked up at the sunlight streaming through the gaps in the leaves, dipped her hands in the shocking cold of a stream, and observed a fragile spiderweb spun between two rocks.
When they stopped to rest, she picked up a fallen pine needle and began to make a little bracelet.
Nela felt something stirring deep within her, something growing. A tendril of green: her little green heart she’d forgotten, that had lain dormant all this while, waiting for a time when it could emerge again.
The intoxication of the forest did not wear off, even back home. She started to notice things she never had before. The silhouette of the branches in the sky, the blushing crimson of the Gulmohar tree—and had there always been so many butterflies in her neighborhood?
And leaves, oh the leaves. The unassuming leaves. The endless shapes, patterns, colors, and textures. Not just green but dozens of different subtle changes of shades: purples, reds, yellows, oranges, browns—a veritable mosaic at her fingertips. The delicate veins running across them, patches blooming on the surface, each unique and beautiful.
As she kept observing, she began to see so much where before she had seen nothing. She was filled with a gentle curiosity. Not a need to decode and dissect but rather to enquire—to ask, “Hello, who are you, and what are you doing here?” The same curiosity of back then, when she was a child and full of questions that she asked just because she wanted to know. Not for any purpose, not to produce anything, but just because.
The more she saw, the more she felt the pull to abandon her previous life and embrace the green.
At the same time, she felt too far gone. Her hands were cold, inorganic, her face half metal—she was so far from who she used to be. She wondered, if she died now, would she go back to the earth? Would it want her back?
Her green heart was growing, but she felt like there was no place for her as she was now.
She could…rip out the metal, the plastic, the parts that didn’t feel like her. But this was all she’d known for so long she was afraid of what would happen. The way the blue light was taking over the world. She worried that if she were to turn her back on it, it might destroy her too.
She could stamp out her green heart once and for all, go back to the blue-light glow.
But could she really? She was too different now.
And she was sure that the others would notice. They would be able to tell that she wasn’t one of them.
They would see the green in her heart.
She felt paralyzed by the choice, stuck, in an in-between state. It felt like she didn’t belong in either world. She wondered why she even had to choose. Why did she have to be defined by extremes? She felt angry, then, at the unfairness of it all.
Back at her desk, she tried to work, tried to push the spiraling thoughts out of her mind.
But tendrils of green snuck in through the window, pulling at her, trying to distract.
She smacked them away and tried to focus, focus, FOCUS.
All of a sudden, it struck her. An answer to the thoughts that had been circling over and over in her head. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t about choosing once and for all. Maybe, it was just about the right nows.
Maybe it was okay that she wasn’t sure about the big picture…the whats the hows or the long-term. Maybe it was okay that she had no idea who she wanted to be or where she would go from here.
What she did know was that she didn’t want to sit at this desk for a minute longer. Not when there was sunshine and the outside world calling to her.
Now that she’d remembered who she was, she didn’t want to ignore her heart anymore.
She shut the screen in front of her, got up, and let the tendrils of green pull her away.