If you could think of a place where you feel safe to be your most authentic self, where would that be? This would be your querencia. Your querencia can be a physical place, or it can be a metaphysical place – in a dream, memory, fantasy or experience. It can be a chapter in a book or a type of food. Maybe, your querencia is a place in nature; next to a river, on top of a volcano, a type of tree in your backyard or camping next to a lake.
A few of The Watershed Project staff share some of their first memories of their querencias in nature. The Spanish word querencia doesn’t have an exact translation into English, but here is one version that staff used to reflect: “The place where one’s strength is drawn from; where one feels at home; the place where you are your most authentic self. The verb “queer” means to desire. Querencia is a favorite spot, fondness.” The term also stems from the Spanish verb querer, which means to love, to want and to desire.
The following are stories of places of desire, renewal, curiosity, and identity.
It was the middle of midterm season my junior year of college at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and I was feeling pretty burnt out. Maybe I was subconsciously getting ready for my final year as it approached, maybe it was because I was steadily replacing all the liquid in my body with macchiatos from the library cafe, or maybe it was the anxiety over what the future holds for me as I felt like I was just treading water to just turn in assignments and study for whatever came next, and likely a combination of all of these reasons, overall I was pretty tired. The library tables became more familiar to me than my own dorm room. One day my friend and I found out that there was a meteor shower that night and on a whim we decided to take the hour drive out to Mauna Kea to get the clearest view as an impromptu study break.
We were over four thousand meters above sea level, high enough that light pollution couldn’t touch us, and far enough that exams didn’t feel like a reality. The air was crisp and the mountains were dark but somehow also more than just dark; they were every shade of deep purples and blues and silence and protective energy. I spent hours up there, talking with my friends about everything and anything though it really just felt like ten minutes. When the silence fell, I felt so calm. My thoughts were only centered on enjoying the next shooting star and taking in the pauses of darkness in between. I was present, watching the moon wade across the sky.
At that time there was a lot of pressure from everyone to enjoy our youth, to make smart moves, to go to school, to get a great job, but to also have fun while doing all of this despite the responsibilities inherently attached to life. Looking at the falling stars from Mauna Kea, miles and hours away from everything, breathing out my warm breath into the chilled air, I felt authentically me in all that that means. I felt small, I felt at home, I felt this fondness for the world and it seemed like if I waited long enough I could almost feel the world’s fondness for me too. This wasn’t the first time I noticed my querencia in nature and I don’t think I could pinpoint that first moment if I tried, but this is a special memory that comes back to me when I find myself in the same space of silence even if it’s somewhere new every single time.
My first year as a transfer student at SF State, I took a geography of water resources class and part of the class was to go on a weekend trip to Shasta Dam. We made so many amazing stops along the way that showed us water bodies, we learned about salmon and fisheries, we saw ranches and estuaries, and we even camped by Lake Shasta and the Oroville Dam. Being exposed to so many different nature spots and activities gave me an “a-ha” moment: the moment where I knew I have and always will have a home in nature’s embrace, beauty and gifts. I’m so grateful!
That being said, my conscious-intimate connection with nature was never immediate. Getting to a place of genuine querencia para la naturaleza was gradual and steady that built up throughout my years of life but for as long as I can remember, I knew I loved the peace I felt when I spent time outdoors. Nature views that take my breath away give me a feeling of excitement to live and a sense that there is limitless abundance waiting for me outside with mother earth.
I remember my first overnight camping trip with my school in the 4th grade to the valley of the Iguaque River in Colombia:
I am excited to be joining the school tradition of taking all students on an annual overnight excursion. Every class gathers their large canvas tents and massive cooking pots and gets on a bus for a few hours heading towards a mountain or river valley. Each class goes to a different destination. My class gets off the bus for a few miles hike to our camping destination. We take turns along the way carrying the tents and cooking pots between two people, using a pole to hang the items so that they could split the weight.
Once on site, we work together to set up the large canvas tents and set up a fire pit where we will cook our meals. We, the students, will cook during the trip, and even if we cannot predict the results, we relish the opportunity. That day, we gather water from the river so close to where the river was born, and as I tend the pot with that water in it, my brain works hard to try to understand its origins. A day or two in, I walk along the “herreros trails”, which had been laid in stone during the time of the Spanish colonizers. I imagine the trails being there before horses and mules traversed the Andes carrying Conquistadores looking for El Dorado’s gold, and that at some point it may have served as trails for the original people of the Andes as they trekked to their sacred meadows and lakes.
After that year, I became an avid adventurous kid and over the rest of my school years I joined the group of teens and young adults that will spend their free time exploring the untouched Paramos and high mountains of the Andes. Over the years, I helped inventory glaciers and plants in the highlands of the Andes from High School until I graduated from College with a Bachelor in Biology.
My querencia comes from the place where water comes from — up in the high altitude meadows and glaciers of the Andes; I wanted to know more about the birth of a river and the paths of my ancestors. I felt entangled in the origin stories of the land.
I owe my discovery of this passion to my professors Manuel Vinent and Marta Bonilla, both fantastic educators and mentors from the Liceo Juan Ramon Jimenez.
Growing up in Lafayette, I learned to tell the seasons not just by a calendar, but by the buckeye tree in our backyard. It bloomed in the spring as deer began to bring their fawns to graze in the back field, and developed a thick green canopy of leaves just in time to provide shade from the summer heat. As the intense dry heat of the summer sun baked the ground dry, blackberries would ripen in the thick, wild brambles, and we would pick them and make them into cobbler. We had a tall cedar tree in the front yard, and my neighbors and I spent many hours climbing as high as we could, watching the turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks soaring overhead. We played hide and seek as the sun disappeared and yielded to clear nights filled with sparkling stars and bright moonlight. As the buckeye’s leaves dried and fell to the ground in a crunch, and the big round orange seeds developed, we kept an eye out for turkeys, quail, and even the occasional fox traveling through the backyard thicket. And as chilly mist and fog shrouded the hills and trees in the winter, we would venture out into the cool, damp weather to build miniature villages out of mud, sticks, pebbles, and fallen leaves.
I can’t point to the moment this place – this feeling, my home, mi querencia – became entwined with my identity, but somewhere along those many seasons, it did. I carry it with me wherever I go, quite literally–the photo on the lock screen of my phone is a view from the back patio on a summer’s day under the shade of the buckeye tree, looking out toward the golden hills, blackberry bushes in full view. It has been a grounding force through many of life’s twists and turns so far, and for that, I am immensely grateful.