Welcome to season two of A Little Green, a podcast from Avocado Green Brands. This season, we invited guests to share stories about how the outdoors have impacted them in positive, life-changing ways. Listen to all eight episodes here.
In episode six, we heard from Virginia Rose, a retired teacher who rediscovered her love of nature through birding and now works to make the outdoors accessible to all.
Here is her story.
Virginia Rose: Sometimes my friends say, “Why do you feel like you need to identify all these birds?” And I always say, “Why would you not identify all the — I don’t understand that.”
Christina Thompson: Meet Virginia Rose. Not only does she have one of the greatest voices for podcasting, but she’s also one of the sweetest human beings you’ll ever meet. Virginia spoke to us from her home in Austin, Texas, and her beautiful story is a reminder that nature really is always there for us and can help us tap into — and find — our best selves.
I’m Christina Thompson, and this is A Little Green.
Virginia Rose: My name is Virginia Rose, and I live in Austin, Texas. I was actually born in Austin, Texas. My dad moved us around; I think I’ve lived in 14 places in 20 years. And then I wound up back here 25 years ago, and I haven’t set foot anywhere else.
I had a geologist for a father who would be gone weeks at a time looking at rocks out in fields all over Texas. My mother was a biologist by heart. We had field guides open all over the house from my very earliest memories: wildflower, field guides, star field guides, tree field guides. We watched her and my dad go to those field guides daily with a question, “What was that?” We watched that kind of love of nature and interest in knowing what they were seeing from the get-go.
My mom always wanted horses; my dad was completely uninterested in that. And so, my mom, in her way, went to her father and asked him to finance the horses.
He financed the stable that was built on our property, he financed the three horses that our family had, and all of the horseback riding lessons that came along with the horses. My dad, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. As they say, “The horses was out of the barn.”
The lessons were so fabulous. I remember walking into that arena, and the smell of the arena, and the thick dirt, the smells of the horses, and the manure, you know, all of it was so rich. I don’t remember any hard hats, at least not in training.
With respect to the horses, they were our priority. There was nothing else. There was horseback riding and school; everything else was about being with our friends on horseback. We were part of a serious community of horseback riding people up in the mountains. The main focus of this group was not to be big fancy show people and not to spend a ton of money on a horse or gear. The goal was to be out in nature on your horse. We were a backpacking family, and by backpacking, I mean outback backpacking. My dad was like a trail master, so we spent a lot of time in the woods catching our breakfast. That’s how it was every morning, so that was all normal to me.
I was brought up with all of this love of nature, and not just love, I mean, a sense where I am ensconced and I’m learning how to be a person by myself in nature. I’m eternally grateful to my parents.
Tune in to Episode 1: Sailing The World to Save a Culture
When I was able to get my new horse, Charlie, I was completely infatuated with that animal. I had the greatest respect for him, and, frankly, I was very intimidated by his beauty and by his sort of scampiness. He was a trickster, but we were definitely a love affair; there was no question about that.
This was in 1973. I had just turned 14 years old.
My last view of him was… after I fell, and he was running back home. I probably couldn’t have known that that would be my last look at him, but it was.
I was lying on the ground. I was having a lot of trouble breathing. I also couldn’t move. I’d broken ribs and punctured my lung. I sustained a break in my spinal cord at T10, so I was paralyzed, essentially, from the waist down. I was in a rehab hospital for four months and then delivered back into essentially my ninth-grade classroom.
I was back in school, and all my friends were there; they had all known me as a walking person. Honestly, they just picked me up and took me with them wherever they went. There was never a question. There was never a hesitation. There was never all of the apprehension. I didn’t know at the time how unbelievable it was.
I kind of think I picked up all of that and just continued through my life with it. Like, “Yeah, I’m here. What? There’s no big deal is there?”
I was raised to assimilate and not to ask for accommodations under any circumstances; that would be imposing. And so, my job was to figure it out to make sure that I fit in socially and that I had the respect as a person in a, in a wheelchair. But, you know, I guess I just didn’t think of myself as a person in a wheelchair for such a long time. As I was living my life, I was in a lot of pretty glaring denial. It took me a little while to figure out who I was and what I was doing here.
Tune in to Episode 2: The Power of Hiking for Mental Health
I think what I finally determined is my strength is in helping teach. So I started teaching in 1986 and pretty much taught for 28 years. It was really hard, and I loved it, and then, after I retired, people said, “What are you going to do after you?” I said, “I’m going to sleep for a year, and I’m calling it recovery. And then I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Actually, I think I asked, “Do I have to do anything?”
I was driving home from school on a Friday night looking for something fun to do, and I heard that there was a birding seminar at a nearby church. And so, I thought, “That sounds interesting.” I found myself there, and that was it. I immediately signed up for all the birding classes. It didn’t dawn on me that a person in a wheelchair couldn’t do it.
I showed up, and all of those field trip leaders just took me with them wherever they went.
[Birding enabled me to explore in nature, and I had not had an opportunity to do that since I was 14. I absolutely was not accessing nature from age 14 to 44. You don’t know when you don’t have it, and then, when you get it again, you’re like, “Oh, I see now.”
For those 40 years, I was struggling to be something or someone, and then the minute I stepped away from that and into nature, I’m delivered. I realized it right away, and oh my gosh, it felt like a homecoming. I felt like I’d arrived to my real life.
My love for it was instant. I was birding alone in an East Texas forest, and it was springtime, and it was so aromatic, and I was on a beautiful bridge in the Big Thicket National Forest. It was like maybe 6:30 in the morning, maybe 7:00, and I was surrounded with bird song. The wood thrush. The hooded warbler. The yellow-throated warbler. And that high, sewing machine song of the pine warbler. All of them were singing at once; I was just spellbound.
Tune in to Episode 3: How Camping Saved a Marriage
I sat there and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is my very best self. And I am happier than I have ever been.”
I was the only person in a wheelchair birding. I never, in 20 years, saw any other person in a wheelchair birding. I thought, “Where are all the disabled people? Where are they?” And so, my mission statement came, which was: find disabled people and bring them to birding so that they too can have that experience of being on the trail, recognizing their best selves, and achieving a happiness that I did. And we need to be very intentional about finding these folks and bringing them to birding so that they’re able to see the nature as I did.
One of the benefits of birding is you can get the community, should you want it. Or you can go alone. And as long as your environment is safe, you can be alone and experience that by yourself. And the importance of being alone with self is key. Both are key. When you are out birding with a group of people, there’s a communion.
There’s an understanding that you are all paying attention. You are watching intently, and you are listening with every ear muscle you have because the vocalizations are going to give you the ID.
It means watching a branch move, and it means watching grasses part, and it means watching the way other birds behave because they may be letting you know that there’s a hawk next door. It’s all of those things, and I don’t know how else you get that kind of camaraderie. It is so magical.
Tune in to Episode 4: How an Endangered Butterfly Inspired Hope and Healing
I started Birdability sort of on a whim, not having any idea what would happen, and, as it turns out, the world was just waiting for someone to bring it to the forefront. The mission, first and foremost, is finding and bringing disabled people to birding. The second goal is to make sure that birding locations are physically accessible.
It meant then that we had to create a welcoming and inclusive birding community, which means helping people — field trip leaders, chapters, park rangers — helping everybody learn how to be welcoming and inclusive for people who are neurodivergent, or for people who are blind, and/or for people who are deaf, or, you know, people like me who have a physical disability.
So it’s a lot of work, and now though, the world picked it up. We created the Birdability Map. There are over 1,000 sites on that map now and in 11 countries.
When I think about what we’ve done in such a short amount of time and that this is a legacy. I mean, this is not going away, and it’s only going to get better and better and better and better. And people who are disabled are going to have an opportunity to access nature in a way that maybe they never thought possible.
On a lot of my bird walks, people will come up to me and they ask me, “What about this is so satisfying? What is so wonderful about this? Why am I so drawn to it?” And basically, I said, “You are having to pay attention to what’s happening in front of you in nature.” Birding gave me a reason to be outside again with a purpose.
Tune in to Episode 5: Using Poetry as a Form of Climate Activism
Christina Thompson: Through Birdability, Virginia shares loads of fantastic resources for anyone interested in birding. From guides and maps, to events, check them out and spread the word. Visit birdability.org.
A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast.
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