On a warm spring night in California’s Palomar Mountains, a young man named Richard Preston stood beneath a sky full of stars. Slowly, he wandered toward a small white dome that stood out against the night’s cloak of darkness, lured by a combination of curiosity, elevator music, and laughter. Pausing in front of the astronomy dome, Preston knocked once, waited a few moments, and then knocked again—louder this time, as to be heard over the music. After a few moments, a voice emerged from inside the dome. “Hey, somebody’s knocking!” Preston stood still. “Aw shitsky, Carolyn,” the voice continued. “What do they want?”
With that, the door opened, and out of the dome stepped Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker, astronomers who were searching the night sky for asteroids and comets that could slam into the Earth—or, as Preston describes them today, “the only astronomers whose work could have a real impact.”
That night, as Preston sat beneath the brilliant spring sky, he realized: somebody has to write about this. Now, standing behind a Princeton University podium decades later and reflecting on a science writing career that has taken him all the way from Ebola labs to redwood treetops, Preston refers to this moment in the mountains as his “calling.”
I, too, have experienced such a calling.
Inspired, as Preston once was, by the stories of John McPhee, I set out for Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way last summer, eager to capture the essence of the 2,500-km coastal trail. Equipped with a notebook and camera, I scribbled down my daily adventures (which included everything from sea cave kayaking to scaling subterranean waterfalls) and the vibrant characters—the sheep farmers, fishermen, naturalists, and fellow wanderers—that I met along the way.
Enraptured by the people of Ireland’s undeniable passion for their island nation, by the idea of an unrelenting fight to remain wild, I committed to memory just what it is that’s being saved and why it will always be worth saving.
One day, I paddled alongside a Kerryman who canoes to Killarney National Park’s various islands each week and takes GPS-tracked photos of invasive species in hopes of capturing the attention of park rangers and saving Ireland’s largest national park. Another day, I shimmied through subterranean passageways with one of the Ireland’s few certified caving instructors and listened, awestruck, as he recounted the history of a world I had never before laid eyes on.
Then, on August 5, 2016, I experienced my “calling.” At 10 AM, I walked over to the fishing docks in the sleepy seaside village of Portmagee and boarded a boat to Skellig Michael, a craggy, 715-foot island that rises from the Irish Sea seven miles off of the southwest tip of the Iveragh Peninsula. The ride to the UNESCO World Heritage site was accompanied by breaching Risso’s dolphins, stray puffins, and an impossibly blue sky—a rarity in the country that gifts its western seaboard with 225 days of rain each year.
Once on Skellig Michael, I climbed 600 primordial limestone steps to the island’s sixth-century monastic beehive huts. Ascending the island was an act in time travel, each step transporting me further back into the annals of wild Ireland. At the peak of Skellig Michael, a seabird sat perched on a ledge, as if guarding the history of his island. Gazing out from atop the monastic settlement, I watched the world unfurl around me. Down below, miniature red fishing boats bobbed up and down in the Atlantic’s endless expanse of blue; up above, seagulls spiraled madly, squawking secrets of years gone by. And there I stood, the midpoint of the two: on top of a verdant green landmass that defied logic. On top of the world.
I know the chronic curiosity that inspires those like Preston to dangle from 300-foot trees. It is the same curiosity that has propelled me towards waterfalls, through caves, and up the steps of Skellig Michael. It is a desire to know the Earth we tread on its most basic level. It is a desire to look up and get lost. It is a desire to live, fully.
Shakespeare once wrote, “The Earth has music for those who listen.” There is something so sacred—so serene—about moments when it is just you, the trees, the sky, and the sea. From the top of Skellig Michael that summer day, every seagull’s squawk, whistle of the wind, and crashing wave filled my ears. Beneath me, the ground hummed with mysteries unspoken. Listening closely, I could hear it—louder than I ever had before.
The Earth calling.