By Dr. Kevin Jansen
The flash of spots and nearly perfect prints in the wet sand left little doubt about what I had seen. After a short search, it was clear the jaguar had followed me for several hundred meters as I searched for nesting sea turtles. The simultaneous joy of seeing such a secretive animal and concerns about my own survival had lasting and powerful effects on me. That field experience, and many others like it, influenced my view of life and focused my professional path on understanding how nature works.
Aside from my father, I have encountered my more typical mentors in places to which I was already drawn through my love of the outdoors. A seventh grade biology teacher, an undergraduate herpetology professor, and several graduate school advisors inspired my thoughts and affected my views of life and my professional trajectory. But I would argue that nature itself has been my most significant and lasting mentor. I frequently contemplate the meaning of life while studying the many complex and curious interactions among species in the mountains, marshes, rivers, prairies, and rainforests of the world. I have been forced to mull over the exciting and tenuous nature of life while nervously watching (and feeling) a handful of amorous cottonmouths untangle themselves from each other and my legs while wading in a remote marsh. And I briefly saw myself through the eyes of a jaguar on a lonely beach in Costa Rica. Engagement with nature has always provided me with perspective and inspiration to understand the world and my place in it.
My opinion on mentors in general tends toward noted public speaker Frank Bucaro’s, when he says, “Don’t wait for someone to take you under their wing. Find a good wing and climb up underneath it.” If the great outdoors can be a mentor, then I surely followed his advice. The majority of my life has been spent chasing something outdoors. To me, the natural world inspires questions and simultaneously begins to hint at life’s answers. What better mentor can there be? I urge you to find the people and places that inspire and drive you to be your best. It is time well spent.