The Science of Nature – The Nature of Science

Today at work I spent the day with 80 young girls from Project Scientist, a summer camp for girls interested in STEM fields. We went on a nature hike, built model buffer zones as water filters, made leaf rubbings, and played field games. At the end of the day the girls had a chance to ask us questions about our jobs and interests. The questions were sweet and thoughtful and generally fell along the lines of “who inspired you to become a scientist?” “what’s your favorite part of your job?” and “when did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?”

I spoke about my love of being outdoors and the mentors I’ve had both at school and in my work without too much deep thought, but as we wrapped up the day and the campers loaded onto their buses, water bottles and lunchboxes in hand, I was struck with the realization that I had, at least to a certain extent, achieved my childhood dream. While many of the goals I had as a young girl have absolutely not come to pass (everything from competing in the Olympics to starring in my own musical show about how much I love snack time), I had just told 80 young women that I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember and now I am. I had told them that my childhood idols included Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson and now I too hold a degree in environmental science. Of course, I have a long way to go – many more years of school ahead of me and countless frustrating research projects still to come – but I had never before stopped to call myself a scientist and bask, even momentarily, in that achievement.

I feel pretty lucky that I get to apply all the knowledge and skills that I spent four years collecting at Davidson to my work every day. Many of my peers left Davidson to enter worlds of finance, consulting, and business that may or may not be completely unrelated to their fields of study in school. Of course, that’s the magic of a liberal arts degree. We learned the skills necessary to succeed anywhere. We learned to write, to think, and to be critical so that we could go on to be leaders in anything we chose to pursue. There’s nothing wrong with that. For me though, there’s something special about being able to explain the process of eutrophication in simple terms to a group that’s come to spend the day paddling with us on a Thread Trail Blueway or to teach a school group how to identify native plants and remove invasive ones. When my co-workers talk about forest management techniques, I can lean on my ecology classes to help me keep up with their conversation. I have the daily opportunity to take my theoretical knowledge, gained in the classrooms and labs of Davidson College, and put it to work in the field as a Carolina Thread Trail Impact Fellow. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I don’t know at what particular moment one becomes a scientist. Was it when I received a microscope kit as a birthday present and took to examining every leaf, blade of grass, and insect I could find in minute detail? Was it when I walked across a stage in front of Chambers and someone handed me a piece of paper with the letters B.S. stamped on it? It was probably somewhere in the middle of those events. I can’t point to the exact moment but somewhere in the midst of tromping through the woods to collect data, creating endless excel spreadsheets, and this moment now so close to the end of my fellowship, I became a scientist.

I am a scientist. And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of that.

Landscapes of Gratitude

Although I still have many months left in my tenure as an Impact Fellow with the Carolina Thread Trail and Catawba Lands Conservancy, I’m already starting to feel the slight tug of nostalgia for my time here. It’s that same feeling I got in my final semester at Davidson; the one where there’s still so much work ahead but you can’t help wanting time to slow down just a little bit.

But that wasn’t necessarily how I thought I would feel about wrapping up my time here. To be honest, when I began my fellowship I wasn’t sure quite how I felt about sticking around the Charlotte area after graduation. I had always imagined jetting off to lead backpacking trips in New Zealand or teach in South America after leaving Davidson and instead I was moving 30 miles down I-77 to help protect the same landscapes I had lived in my whole life – the Southern Piedmont. Don’t get me wrong, I love the rolling hills and sprawling farms of the central Carolinas, but in my dreams of post-grad life I had always imagined myself a little farther from home.

This was a serious miscalculation of the experience on my part. When I’m at work, walking through a sunny patch of woods or making my way up a headwater stream to monitor a conserved property, I am in awe that I’m lucky enough to have a job that puts me in contact with so much beauty. Sure, there are days when it’s 30 degrees and raining and outside is not first on my list of places I’d like to be. There are also days when I find tire dumps and piles of trash out in the woods and natural beauty doesn’t exactly come to mind. But almost every day I find at least one moment when I feel profoundly grateful to be exactly where I am. Sometimes it’s something as simple as making it through a briar patch and walking into a beautiful clear patch of pine trees in a section of woods otherwise choked with invasive plants. Sometimes it’s leading a bike ride or a hike and seeing families taking the time to be together and enjoy the fresh air. And perhaps best of all are the times when those moments of gratitude come when the people I work with manage to make even the most mundane tasks enjoyable – when I’m writing our e-newsletter or responding to questions from volunteers on social media and one of my co-workers makes me laugh so hard I think I’ll cry. These are the moments for which I already feel nostalgia and these are the people, the ones who make me laugh until I cry, that I know I will deeply miss when it comes time for me to leave in August.

I don’t yet know where I’m headed when my fellowship ends, but I know that wherever I go I want to find a job that makes me feel grateful to be there. The best career advice I got while I was at Davidson was this: find something you enjoy enough that you’d be willing to do it for free, and then figure out how to get paid for it. I’ve learned a lot while at the Conservancy from trail building to beer canning, but I think the most important lesson I’ve gained is just how true that advice is. My fellowship has strengthened my ambitions to pursue a graduate degree in geography and my dedication to outdoor and environmental education but more than anything I’ve learned what it feels like to be passionate about my employer’s mission and engaged in the work I do. And now that I know what that feels like, I don’t want to settle for less.

The World is Melting! Do Trails Even Matter?

When I talk to people in the community about what the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) does, their response is often something along the lines of “trails? I don’t do that.” But after talking for a few minutes, I almost always discover that they, in fact, walk their dog along a greenway that is part of the Thread Trail or take their kids to a riverside park we helped to fund with grant money as part of a project to establish blueways or paddling trails. These types of conversations have driven home for me the way in which we often interact with the built environment and use environmental resources unconsciously. This lack of attention to modes of habitual contact with the natural world can mean that many people don’t make the connection between their quality of life – their ability to spend time outside with their kids or grandkids or to walk safely to the store or a friend’s house – and the need to conserve the environment.

I have learned a lot in my first few months at the Thread Trail but one of the most important lessons has been the importance of identity in gaining community support for environmental conservation. The Thread Trail puts a name to the small trails and greenways across North and South Carolina – it allows the people who use those trails every day to connect to a larger regional identity. Establishing this connection with nature has been an integral part of the  mission of the Carolina Thread Trail since it was created out of the Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) in 2007. The Thread Trail still works closely with CLC and both organizations do important work in environmental protection. I think that the Thread Trail, however, is a uniquely important tool that provides something the Conservancy cannot. CLC protects large areas of land, providing critical wildlife habitat and sequestered areas of forest where native plants can flourish, but all that land, all the native flora and fauna, is not accessible to the public. CTT preserves smaller areas of land, often in unglamorous habitats on floodplains filled with scrubby bushes and briars, but every inch of that land is open to the public.

This type of community-focused environmental effort is what I believe will make the difference in rapidly developing areas like the Piedmont of the Carolinas. While monumental conservation projects like Yosemite or the Great Barrier Reef often serve as emblems of the environmental protection movement, they are not representative of daily modes of interaction with nature for most people. When I think back to the conception of my own interest in the environment, I remember weekend walks in local parks with my family and days spent exploring the scrubby woods in my neighborhood with friends. These outdoor spaces of my childhood are not glamorous by any means, they are the in-between spaces carved out around neighborhoods and stores and schools. Such spaces are not particularly significant individually, but if we can make it possible for every child to have access to open space in which to run and explore, however unspectacular that landscape is, we will likely have far more environmentalists in the coming decades to combat global climate change, biodiversity loss, and the plethora of other large-scale issues we face. The in-between spaces that sparked my interest in conservation are invisible to many but are transformed into places – into landscapes of wonder – to those who care to look closely and spend time in them regularly.

This transformation is what the Carolina Thread Trail facilitates. The Trail opens up these invisible spaces and invites people in – people, hopefully, like me, who will one day look up and realize that their little slice of nature, the small trail behind their house or their local park, is a piece of something so much bigger and so much more significant than just themselves.

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