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Runyi Liu

Newark Charter School, 12th grade

2024 RENEW essay contest Honorable Mention

Rolling in the Mud

“Dress as if you were going to roll in the mud with a dozen little piglets.” Those were my instructions for the National Youth Science Camp (NYSC), which for the past fifty years, has invited two delegates from each state, D.C., and some foreign countries for a 3-week STEAM-ing experience. I departed from home only knowing a packing list and a train ticket, left to imagine what adventures might ensue. 


It is midnight, ten days into camp. I found myself standing in the Monongahela National Forests of West Virginia, silently thanking the night sky for masking my egregiously mismatched pajamas. Around me, infinite fireflies flash their lanterns from light to dark, each typing their own messages of Morse Code. The soft clay squishes underneath my sandals as the chilling breeze hardens the thin layers of earth that coat my feet. The endless sky is saturated with the shimmer of stars as if someone had spilled their innumerable collection of shiny pearls into the night sky. 

Looking up, I wonder what Earth looks like from those stars. Are we just as small as a single star, a mere glistening speck in the infinitely deep sky? Standing in this pristine untouched wilderness, I think of the nature in other places on Earth. The wildfires of Lahaina, Hawaii and the floods of Derna, Libya, were they means of destruction to human life or were humans the means of destruction to nature that now seeks revenge? 


Can the degradation of our planet be seen from afar? Do the foolish crimes we commit against nature even deserve a fair trial in a universal court? How can it be that we, such an insignificant speck of the world, can inflict so much damage on our planet to the point of our own demise? 

This must be what Oliver Burkeman meant in his theory of insignificance. We are merely one insignificant planet in one insignificant solar system in one insignificant galaxy in one, possibly, insignificant universe. Human existence could mean no more to the intricate inner-workings of the universe than a single fiber of ash is to the family of five devastated by the wildfires of Lahaina, Hawaii or a single droplet of water is to the widowed pregnant mother trapped by the floods of Derna, Libya. 

Humans were not born to be pitted against nature and neither was the reverse. If we, being so insignificant, have somehow managed to change the natural balance of the environment, then we, being just as insignificant, have the ability to reverse that impact and its implications. 

That night I learned why to love my planet. Before, of course, I knew environmental degradation was real and imminent, but it was always a mere parallel to my life. Standing under those shiny pearls, however, that parallel became the plot. The beauty of those illuminating pearls penetrating the darkness of the human suffering we witness every day is becoming the theme of my plot. 

Born and raised in Delaware, I’ve grown accustomed to the seasonal monotony of a generally humid and temperate climate. Some may say “Nothing ever happens in Delaware.” We are rarely hit with intense wildfires or blanketing floods, yet we’ve braved many environmental struggles of our own. 

As the lowest-lying state, Delaware is at an extreme risk of essentially disappearing from the map of the United States, erased by rising sea levels. In recent years, we’ve also experienced drastic climate change and tumultuous temperature patterns; we are breaking historical records easily. 

“Nothing ever happens in Delaware,” they say, to which I respond, “Actually, we are framing the environmental challenge, fostering collaborative action, innovating creative solutions, and advocating for our own future.” 

Through my experiences in the Delaware Youth Environmental Summit (YES!), I’ve advocated for environmental awareness for years, and it all comes back to the theme of my plot. I love nature; it’s my fuel and motivation for the work I do because how is one supposed to protect something they have no love for? 

YES! is a student-led environmental advocacy group that hosts an annual state-wide summit with keynote speakers, exhibitors, and workshops. In the past two years, we’ve influenced over 800 students in more than 30 schools. I worked closely with Chief Coker of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware as a member of the plenary committee and was also on the communications committee that handled social media and news publications surrounding our work. This year, I am serving as the chairperson who oversees the work of all committees and represents YES! to public media and influential attendees. I also dedicated my plenary speech to encouraging our attendees to find their own love and motivation for their environmental work. 

As the direct victims, the younger generation must be ready to address the increasingly severe climate change, the depleting ozone, the environmental degradation, and more, but before we can do any of these things, we must learn to cherish what we aim to preserve. We must love what we will come to protect. And if everyone can love our planet, we will undoubtedly find a true purpose in the future of our environmental journeys. 


Camp wasn’t just about the science we were doing, it was the science we were feeling. Or maybe it wasn’t science at all. It was philosophy, and now my philosophy is one of rolling in the mud with a dozen little piglets. 

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