Where You Can Feel The Earth Breathe

Sienna Joshi

© Copyright 2021 by Sienna Joshi

Photo of a sunrise.

This piece is a series of memories and reflections on my transition to adulthood. It takes place during the time I traveled and studied at Aberystwyth University and includes periods from my childhood in San Diego, California. I learned a lot about myself, culture, and place during this time and it has greatly shaped who I am today. Nature has always been a significant part of my life and I wanted to pay tribute to the ways in which it has helped me feel at home, both in San Diego and in Aberystwyth.

I often wish that my story was simpler. That I had pretty, short answers to the big questions and walked with an assurance passed down through generations and supported by the city that built the road. But that is not my story. My story is a rambling one of a lost girl trying to find her way, and however full of peculiarities it is, it is not unique. What young person isn’t lost? I am no different from anyone else navigating this monstrous, globalized world.

It starts in Aberystwyth where I arrived lost, bright-eyed and breathless. I was starved for happiness and scared to hope that I might find it in this new, beautiful wilderness. If you have ever been young and alone, you might know what I mean. The desperation to make friends and learn everything and become your own person makes you careless and unafraid; a frightful combination. I was just eighteen and had no idea how very little I knew of myself, let alone of the rest of the world. I am still learning and am beginning to doubt I will ever stop. That is perhaps one of the greatest myths of growing up. You will never figure out all the things, because things will always change. We will always be at least a little lost.

I guess I moved to Aberystwyth to be found, which in retrospect was foolish. Belonging is not a place, it’s a feeling you hold within yourself, and I certainly wasn’t going to find it in a foreign country where I didn’t know a soul. The only physical place you might find belonging is nature. Nature is inherently nonjudgmental and inclusive, nurturing and balanced, a suitable home for all living things including humans. And for those of us who have not yet found belonging within ourselves, can always find it there. That is what drew me to Aberystwyth with all its green and glittering sea.

It was always the sea in particular that grounded me. It is perhaps the one of the things that connects me most to my hometown, San Diego. Blue is my color and water is my element. Though the sea and sky will always be connected, sisters hand in hand, it is the depth and solidity and darkness of the sea that I feel rocking in my stomach. Big open spaces and clear skies scare me. Leave me vulnerable and shaking in fear that a great monster might swoop down and gobble me up. I know many feel this way about the sea; afraid of the tides that might drag them out and great white sharks with serrated teeth. But I have never felt freer than I have in the sea. Weightless, small, like a child held in a mother’s arms, looking out to the horizon that never ends. I have always felt prettier in the sea; thinner, my hair longer, my limbs delicate and my breath ethereal. When I was young I wanted to be a mermaid and live in all that blue. I thought I might find more belonging with the fishes’ shining scales darting through kelp forest than I would with my own human friends. Alas, that dream never did come true and instead I moved to a sea too cold to even swim in.

I now know that the sea is a different being wherever you go, always familiar and yet unknowable. Aberystwyth’s sea is as different from San Diego’s sandy shores as the coastal sage scrub is to the Welsh green hills. Its beaches are pebbled and rocky, rolling green hills rising from the wave’s frothing lips. Where San Diego’s sea is mostly the same wavy, blue silk year around, Aberystwyth’s is a changeable beast, darkening with the seasons; roaring in the storms and on sunny days it can become a placid, glittering mass stretching into an equally pleasant sky.

Aberystwyth’s sea is so different from San Diego’s that my relationship to it changed. How to relate to a sea I could not even touch? The sea becomes much smaller when you are not in it. From the lookout in Penglais Woods it feels more as though I am holding the sea, rather than the sea holding me. I became heavy, my feet stuck in the grassy mud and my head lost among the stormy clouds, my hands reaching for sight.

I watched the sea far more in those three years than I ever did growing up in San Diego. Almost every time I left my tiny dorm room to explore or study or dance, I could look West and see the sea. Alone, with friends, with lovers I would sit and watch the waves, letting the wind bite my cheeks and play with my hair. Watching sparked dreams, made me wonder about impossible things. I think it is the immensity of the sea that loses something inside me to wonder about all the things I can never find answers to. Like if my family will ever be okay, if I’ll ever find someone to hold and call my own, and what it would be like to stop trying and just die young. Watching the sea is like sitting with a friend who never speaks and only listens without you having to say a word. The sea watched me grow and I like to think they are proud of me for being alive, despite everything.

However, what I remember most strongly from my time in Aberystwyth and which I now miss most dearly is not the sea, but the green. For those of you who do not know, the town is positioned directly on the beach flanked to the north and south by Constitution and Pen Dinas hills respectively with Penglais hill running up behind it, the university perch at the top. The result is being cloaked in a blanket of green. It’s soothing to the senses; the earth perpetually soft under your feet, the air cool against your cheek like goodnight kisses. The water of the river Ystwyth and Afon Rheidol impossibly clear as they converge and spill out into Ceredigion Bay, lending Aberystwyth its name ‘Mouth of the Ystwyth’. A palpable freshness permeates the air from the continuous rainfall. It is easy to see why it is considered the cultural link between North and South Wales, a refuge and convergence of people.

I could hardly say how I found such a hidden, enchanting town in the first place. I have been asked about this countless times, always accompanied by the same incredulous look. It does seem improbable and a bit outrageous to say the least, but the truth is more surprising than we give it credit for. Life can be adventurous if you make it so. And I wanted this adventure for as long as I could remember. I think I got the courage to actually follow those dreams from my parents who were the sort of people who put their toddlers in gymnastics classes and told their girls they could be presidents. But to say it was mere spontaneity and parental encouragement that launched me into the Welsh countryside would be a gross underestimation of the complexity of life and growing up. To be completely honest, I was a deeply unhappy teenager and I won’t lie and say I wasn’t trying to find a sophisticated way to run away.

The desire to get as far away from my hometown had been burning in my stomach from a very young age. I was a lonely child. Sometimes I think I was born into loneliness. My extended family did not live anywhere nearby and we were never close. We were the sort of family that only saw one another at funerals and weddings. That happens sometimes with immigrants. My mother’s family was still in Argentina and spoke very little English and my fathers’ were scattered across the US and India. We were an estranged bunch.

On top familial distance, I grew up somewhat separate from my peers. I was homeschooled all the way through high school before I transitioned to community college at the age of sixteen. But it’s not what you might think. It was not my unusual schooling that made me lonely. I quite enjoyed the freedom it afforded me to read and write to my heart’s desire and instilled in me a great appreciation for nature. My self-led curriculum included an extensive consumption of English and European literature such as the Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, and Heidi. I was enamored with these stories of orphaned children finding secret love in the woods, gardens, and mountains of green. I grew obsessed with the Little House on the Prairie series which only further deepened my affinity with nature and respect for all living things.

When I wasn’t reading, I was playing outside. I spent an inordinate amount of time outdoors as a child either playing make-believe games in the back garden or camping in the California Sierra Mountains. My father is a botanist and used to take my sisters and I on field days to observe Dog-faced butterflies, fairy shrimp, and California poppies in the San Diego Mountains. These trips tanned my skin and strengthened my legs and made my eyes bright. It buried my bare feet deep in the sandy soil and my heart took root.

I feel that special quiet you get outside when sitting on a boulder and looking at the landscape, feeling the air on your face and I hold onto it for dear life. I have suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember with intermittent episodes of depression, but I wasn’t diagnosed until my early twenties. Understanding the racing of my heart when asked to read aloud in class and the crashing waves of loneliness when cuddled with a friend was as difficult as learning a new language with a different alphabet. Being in nature was one of the only medicines my desperately hurting mind could find.

I wish I had been able to tell someone, anyone, how I felt in those dark days when I was fifteen and just felt so different and thought no one would ever understand. I still feel this way sometimes, but who knows where I would be now if I had started my mental health recovery journey before university. But I did not know what depression or anxiety were, I did not know there were doctors I could see or medicines I could take to feel more at ease in my own skin. All I knew was that I was unhappy where I was, that green hills and rainy days sounded soothing and peaceful (something my burnt-out teenage self was in desperate need of).

Although I feel at peace in all forms of nature, I instinctively know that I do not belong in the San Diego desert. It is too dry and harsh; the dust hurts my sinuses and the perpetual sun scorches my sensitive skin. I have very little connecting me to this land. No grandmothers to teach me the recipes from the gardens of my ancestors. Instead, I learned of someone else’s heritage, the Native Americans and Indigenous Mexican peoples whose land I grew up on. Always knowing deep down that it wasn’t mine.

Instead of attempting to reconnect with my own heritage, I sought something new and that happened to be Aberystwyth. I wasn’t so naive as to think the U.K. would be a Lewis Carol novel and I guess reality met me halfway. The green hills were there and Cornish pasties and scones. But the girls’ miniskirts and the pubs and societies at uni were a surprise. The particular nuances of North and South, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish were rather lost on my crude understanding of geography. I had thought I could start anew. Remake myself from scratch in a new country with new people.

It wasn’t until I arrived that I realized I didn’t want to let go of myself. I wanted to understand who I already was. I found little commonality among the perpetually drunk and art thirsty students of Aberystwyth University. I had never realized just how much of who I was, had been built by the sand, salt, and spice of San Diego. I made friends mostly with international students, easily bonding over our mutual confusion, but it wasn’t the home I had hoped for. It was just a transition, a massive tornado of moving parts and changing minds that only landed me exactly where I started, albeit a tiny bit older and a tiny bit wiser.

At the very least, I’m grateful I followed my heart and stuck with the sea. I don’t know if I would have made it without the sea and trees and to calm my nerves and ground me to the earth among all that chaos and change. As a highly sensitive person with chronic fatigue and pain, life itself is often too much. Too much to study and worry and memorize and think about. Too much on top of lessons and assignments and groceries and rainy days and hangovers from missteps no one caught me from. Nature is one of the only things that helps when the mountains feel too tall to climb. It is my place where words are meaningless and I don’t have to try at all. Where the voices of the wind and sea sweep my mind clean.

Whenever the screaming in my head would get too loud, I used to walk through Penglais Woods to the outlook with the view of the town. The trees’ silent presence always listened to my hurt. Emerging from the shade of the trees and into all that blue was like stepping into another world completely. My world turned miniature, into tiny streets and Lego block houses nestled against the sea and the hills. From up there, nothing seemed to matter and the hideous thoughts in my head were so much smaller and quieter and seemed nothing more than silly quibbles, easily forgotten in the face of such immense, effortless beauty.

Penglais is a small and forgiving wood located just across the main road and the university, tucked away behind the neighborhood that lines the town’s north side. Little entrances dot its outskirts where the trees part to reveal a dozen or so trails that zigzag up and down and across the small hill. There are a few official entrances marked by weathered signs on nature preservation, but most are half hidden away behind alleys and between 19th century buildings converted into student housing. They allow for easy access to the trees, passageways into a secret world.

Aberystwyth is a quiet town by anyone’s standards, but there is a different kind of quiet in the woods, even a stone's throw from the main road. You can feel time between the trees’ sturdy trunks and ancient roots, among the grass and the animals and the wind. Here in the dappled shade it is easy to imagine all the people who have walked these paths before me. Humans have roamed these hills since as far back as the Mesolithic hunter gatherers who used flint for weapons deposited at the foot of Pen Dinas hill by retreating ice from the Ice Age. Later, before 700 BC, the Celts erected a fortress at the top of the hill where a singular tower still stands, a looming reminder of those who have passed before. And of course there is the castle itself, made by Edward the First in 1277 on the current castle hill, unifying Wales as part of the United Kingdom. Its crumbling remains create a park on which I sit and look out to the same sea people have looked out on for centuries. The Victorian Tourist boom brought with it the Royal Pier, Funicular railway, and giant glass arched Cambrian Railway station which once stood glittering and new and which are now faded and dusty. These remnants of the past are scattered across the town like sentries guarding a secret, reminding you that you are never truly alone.

There was a particularly hard time in my second year when I did feel totally alone. The stress of university life became too much and my mind just turned off. My heart too. All feelings left; all thoughts dissolved into fuzzy white noise. It was so bad at times I forgot where I was, what I was doing, even who I was. Nothing mattered during those cloudy hazy days. Those were the days I would go on long walks and sit on rotting wooden benches until I could not feel my fingers and toes. I would listen to the crunch of my shoes snapping branches and crushing leaves to the damp earth and feel as though I were flying. In those quiet spaces between the trees, the sea, and the sky I never needed a single word. Not even a smile. I could simply breathe that cold fresh air of the ancient Welsh hills. For seconds or maybe hours and days and years I existed in that space and felt the earth spinning.

Feeling that sort of deep connection with the earth was one of my favorite parts of living in Aberystwyth. You can’t feel it as clearly in a place with no seasons, like San Diego. But in Aberystwyth I was constantly aware of the Earth’s changes and cycles. I used to love watching the seasons shift, spinning around me, kissing my lips and swallowing me whole. They reminded me what was real and true when I was most confused. Feeling the air change from cold to warm and back reminded me that I was just a person. A girl standing on a dirt path walking for the sake of walking and listening to the birds sing.

Wherever you go in the small town, the birds are there, singing and cleaning rainwater from their feathers. I adored the birds and often dreamed I was one of them. I longed to join them in drawing figure eights above the sea through fiery skies before coming to roost in the wired belly of the pier. They felt like friends with their watchful eyes and out-spread wings. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them in this remote corner of the world though I only know a few of their names. The shrieking gulls and tiny sparrows, magpies pecking at the ground and the crows and ravens hawking from every branch, windowsill, and light post. And of course, the iconic starlings swarming, black and flittering against magenta sunsets. I used to watch them murmuring as I walked home after class, hungry for my dinner. They move as one like a beastly, black cloud swooping over the waves and through the castle ruins.

The birds are part of the enchantment of the town. Most people flock to the Welsh country in the summer when the sun is high and the hills are bright with colorful foliage. They trundle down the brick roads, backpacking gear strapped to their shoulders and cameras swinging from their necks. But as a student, the majority of my residence in Aberystwyth took place during the darker months of the year. Like the starlings, I migrated to Aberystwyth and enjoyed the comforts of the sea in the dark winter months, though for different reasons. Over 50,000 starlings make their migration each year from other parts of Europe and Scandinavia seeking the milder Oceanic climate of the U.K when the ground begins to freeze in the East. They come to Aberystwyth especially for the pier, to roost over the rolling waves, thus protected from predators. As though to escape the heat and loneliness of California, I returned each year to my few close friends, my books, and of course, the sea. We are endangered species, seeking refuge, seeking a home.

I could sit in those woods or on those beaches for hours with just the trees and the birds for companionship; even in the cold, in the night, alone in the winter. And I did. It was one of those places that made me feel infinite. Nature has a way of reminding me of the pure vastness of existence, of time and of all the beings who have come before and will, inevitably, come after. This sort of thought will often scare me, but among the trees it is comforting. It makes me feel more at home than I ever have in my own bed.

I miss that feeling dearly now that I have left Aberystwyth, Wales. It used to always be just within reach, a short walk away or glance out the window. Practically inescapable, a touch of blue visible over my shoulder and green guaranteed. The sweet earth sustained me and made me strong when I felt most alone.

It was a bit like family, like the trees were my aunts and uncles, waving their arms. The flowers and ferns, my cousins and the sea and sky, my grandparents. Always there, comforting, familiar, beautiful and loveable, even in the rain. The unkempt land provided an irrevocable sense of safety that I cannot forget and have never found again.

The cool weather and greens and blues of the United Kingdom suited me much better than the warm colors of San Diego ever did. So I guess ancestry isn’t everything when it comes to finding a home. Perhaps there is no finding involved at all and it is more of a making you must do yourself. Of course, it will be different for everyone and some might be born in the homes and with the people they will love forever. But I was not. As I said before, I was born into loneliness. My time in Aberystwyth and wandering Penglais Woods taught me what it feels like to be at peace with yourself, with others, and with the earth. I might not have found all the answers and the home I had been hoping for, but it brought me closer to the person I want to be. It was one piece of the puzzle I am slowly building and might never finish.

My most sincere hope is that we do protect this precious earth and save and restore the wild places we have trampled for generations. Only then might I have the time and peace to finish my puzzle.

I was born and raised in San Diego with my three younger siblings, stay at home mother, and botanist father. I always had a deep desire to travel and thus chose to study in Aberystwyth, Wales where I received a first-class honors BA in Creative Writing. I am now living with my sisters in Seattle working with children as an afterschool teacher and writing in my free time.

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