by Maria León, AP'19

I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly urban creature. I grew up in Mexico City – one of the most densely populated regions in the continent -which meant that the nearest patch of forest was at least an hour’s drive from my house. My comfort zone has long been limited to the concrete streets, the smog, the artificial landscape, and the few parks of my native city. I’ve also grown used to the issues that come with urban sprawl: spending hours in crowded public transportation services and wading through streams of people to cross the street. I thought Mexico City was where I felt most comfortable, because it was the place I knew best.

Spending the summer in the mountains of North Carolina felt scary and important for that reason. I wondered what it would feel like to sleep in the Appalachian shelters, vulnerable to rain and bugs, or to walk down a trail all by myself without really knowing where it would take me. I thought I would feel afraid most of the time. I’ve been surprised to find that the opposite has been true. In the woods, I feel free and safe.

This week, a few of us went on a hike up to a meadow near Celo Community. We wandered up the complicated trails that branched off every few kilometers and I didn’t even think about it. I enjoyed the surrounding beauty of the forest, the view from the summit, and the cheerful descent back to eat brunch. I didn’t have to watch my back as I walked home with my pepper spray in my pocket and my GPS location activated as I do at home. It is very much a privilege to be able to wander around without fear of what might happen to you, and something that I don’t regularly experience. I didn’t have to think about the systemic violence that seems to be present everywhere back home. After all, it turns out that rain and bugs don’t feel like such a threat to me.

I’ve also really enjoyed proximity to the process of producing my own food. I’d never even seen how tomatoes grew, and now I’ve learned to prune and trellis them (this is one of my favorite garden activities). We will eventually eat a few of them, and I’ve heard that they are sweeter and juicier than any store-bought variety can ever be. This area and this land allows for something beautiful to happen: being at least partly responsible for the food you consume and the process that precedes it. I want to try to replicate that on my roof in Mexico City, but the conditions are certainly not the same.

The experiences I’ve had so far at Arete feel like a direct challenge to what I know about the world. Isolation, and the chance to be close to nature feels like a gift. This also makes me even more aware of how problematic cities are. It is a privilege to be able to retreat away from huge monsters such as the threat of violence and industrially produced food. I’m trying to come to terms with all that I’m learning and experiencing, while recognizing that access to these sorts of spaces where you can be safe and more self-sufficient does not feel possible for me and for many folks in the near future.

Maria León is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Mexico City and studies political science at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.