Kelsey Sucena has been drawn to nature since they were a child. Growing up in Mastic Beach, Long Island, New York, they would walk across the bridge to Fire Island National Seashore nearby and take refuge in its dunes. "My family financially struggled a lot and we didn't have access to very many luxuries, but we did have access to this," Sucena recalled, standing on the wooden boardwalk that snakes through Fire Island's sandy hillocks.
The 27-year-old, who identifies as transfeminine and non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, also relished the freedom and anonymity of being in the National Seashore's parks. "I was closeted for a long time, and it was not something that I felt super comfortable about. All that baggage can dissolve when you're at the beach," they said. "A deer is not judging you based on what you're wearing or what you're doing."
By the time they were 16, Sucena was already working at the Fire Island National Seashore as a ranger over the school holidays. Today, Sucena is a full-time guide here and their favourite corner of the 32-mile sandbar that makes up this barrier island is a 50-acre patch of trees known as The Sunken Forest.
Nestled in the island's centre and accessible via ferry from the mainland, the Sunken Forest is located close to one of Fire Island's historic queer communities, Cherry Grove. The surreal, fairy tale-like cluster of trees that's sheltered by huge sand dunes and appears to grow under sea level – hence the name – is one of only two such coastal ecosystems anywhere in the world. Today, it's cherished by champions like Sucena, but it wasn't always so beloved. In fact, the Sunken Forest was almost destroyed in the 1960s, a sacrifice to urban sprawl. But locals fought back against plans for a motorway across Fire Island, toting the Sunken Forest as an eco-talisman that helped resoundingly defeat those plans. The vocal and ferocious LGBTQ+ contingent here was fundamental to that success.