Inclusivity becomes reality at a Maine camp
September 6, 2022
An Atlantic puffin stands next to its burrow, marked No. 47, on Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine. PHOTO BY MEGHADEEPA MAITY
This is a story about how one organization’s exemplary commitment to inclusivity helped me realize a dream. I’m a queer, disabled, South Asian immigrant, an avid birder and an activist in the North American birding community. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to see an Atlantic puffin.
It’s often easier for organizations to publish a statement rejecting marginalization in the wake of racial reckonings, than it is to take concrete steps to welcome those of us who have historically been excluded from outdoor recreation and conservation. But the National Audubon Society followed through, and I was a beneficiary.
I first proposed camperships for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other People of Color) youth as an action item on a local inclusion committee two years ago. This summer, I was incidentally awarded a fully funded Audubon BIPOC scholarship that led to a transformational experience at the weeklong “Puffin Islands” camp at Hog Island, Maine.
It was deeply validating to finally experience firsthand the immediate and sustained effects of inclusive practices that I have long advocated for. At camp, I watched the staff and the program embrace the values that they preached.
We looked at the science, but we also had raw conversations about how we can each take seabird conservation into our small, far-flung lives. The week at camp eroded away my lifelong belief that social class and philanthropy were prerequisites to participating in bird conservation.
Before a hike, Eva, the camp director, told us the story of the land that is now known as Hog Island. A land acknowledgement is so often only a gesture. But Eva’s thoughtful presentation on the history of human use and stewardship began thousands of years ago with the Abanaki people and continued into the present.
The dining staff ensured no one’s needs were left out. Carter, the sous chef, stood by at every meal to make sure there were options for each individual. Given my religious and medical dietary restrictions, I wondered if I’d have to eat toast all week. But the menu was phenomenal. Growing up in India, food insecurity was all around me. So I was grateful that they prioritized reducing food waste. Even breakfast on departure day was an eclectic collection of leftovers that had been expertly recycled into bread puddings, and we were encouraged to pack up extras for the road.
Lack of detailed and accurate information about outdoor programming is an accessibility barrier that I face every day. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was terrified that my traumatic brain injury would prevent me from making it to camp. I’d already had to cancel an earlier trip to the Maine coast because of my health.
Hog Island staff allayed my fears by being responsive to campers’ health prerequisites. In consultation with my medical team, I was able to plan ahead and make safe choices. Most camp programming was optional, and I paced myself so I was well rested for the parts I was most excited about.
The “Puffin Islands” camp is the only way that visitors can land on Eastern Egg Rock, the home of the world’s first successful seabird restoration project, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for the day trip to the island. But without any beach or jetty, going ashore would be tricky, especially with impairments that affected my balance. Our instructors stood by me when I expressed my limitations, and provided the support I needed to safely alight from the dory amid the turbulent ocean and rocky shore.
It’s hard for many of us to identify social privilege, especially in the moment, because it isn’t defined by the presence of an advantage, but rather by the absence of barriers. My glorious summer escapade to Hog Island stood out because by removing a number of identity-based obstacles I typically encounter, it allowed me to focus on the present and to take home the memories that mattered the most.
How could I forget the thrill of being the first camper to spot an Atlantic puffin that week, even before we’d reached the open ocean where they feed? At Eastern Egg Rock, I chose to eat my soggy lunch on the roof of the “Hilton” — a tiny shack that’s the only building on the tiny island. The breathtaking view of hundreds of roosting puffins was worth enduring the blazing sun and screeching terns.
It feels like it was just yesterday when I listened to a gurgling stream of notes — the most beautiful sound in the world — that echoed through those Hog Island woods. Enchanted, I’d waited until the duetting winter wrens I was hearing flew right up to me.
I’ll always remember the celebratory dinner on the final night of camp. I was transfixed between disgust at the many appendages on the too-lifelike crustacean that appeared on my plate, and cluelessness about how to crack open a lobster shell. But the companions at my table rallied around me.
Even Dr. Steve Kress, a globally renowned scientist and the founder of Project Puffin, narrated instructions as he positioned his nutcracker on my lobster. In what should have been the most triumphant moment of that demonstration, we realized just how hard-shelled and impossible-to-crack my dinner specimen was, but I didn’t dare laugh. I’ll never forget the embarrassment, gratitude, absurdity, horror and hilarity of that moment. But most of all, I’ll never forget the feeling that I belonged there.
Meghadeepa Maity grew up birding in India and now lives in western Massachusetts. They have been a persistent voice championing safety, accessibility and inclusion in birding spaces across North America. Meghadeepa serves on the board of directors of the Feminist Bird Club, is a Birdability captain, and more locally, has been involved with the Anti-racist Collective of Avid Birders, Mass Audubon and the Murmuration Project. You can follow them on Instagram @meghadeepa.m.
Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 13 years. Amid the pandemic, the Hitchcock Center adapted its programming and has a sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. To help the Hitchcock Center during this difficult time, consider a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.
to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.