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.

Dirty Jobs: Land Conservation and Environmental Management

My time at Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail has been split in many different directions, doing many different types of work, and working with all types of people. You can really learn a lot about the society we live in behind stands of pines and hardwoods, in the riparian lands along our creeks and rivers. Last week I went on a site visit to a Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) property (I won’t specify the exact location so all landowners may remain anonymous). This conserved land is separated by just a few parcels, and as many landowners from our most popular natural surface trail in the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) network. To make this connection, would add about two miles onto our existing trail, and is a very tangible goal depending on landowner cooperation. That being said, I and two others went to the site to walk the corridor and assess trail possibilities. What we were met with was both exciting and discouraging.

Our walk started off through a managed forest of loblolly pines, which make for a great trail because of the relatively clean understory and forest floor, and then shifted down to the creek bank where the walking got a bit more laborious, but still had great potential for a trail. The creek wandered through the forest, large native pines and hardwoods on the east bank, and an intimidating wall of invasive privet on the west. Eventually the forest gave way to a wide, beautiful wetland area fed by a creek (name undisclosed) and the flood waters of the lake (name undisclosed). This area was quite pleasant this time of year, but would be a breeding ground for mosquitoes in warmer weather. The wetland area would require a series of bridges or boardwalks to implement a sustainable trail (although bridges and boardwalks would be a nice amenity for users, it can be a very expensive obstacle for us). Back into the woods we went for a short distance until we reached an untouched pool of the lake. This water body encompassed about ten acres, but was only about two feet deep and littered with trees, fallen branches, and exposed islands of grasses—a heaven on earth for wood ducks and other waterfowl. As we approached, sure enough, we bumped up a pair of wood ducks, a blue heron, and three Canadian geese. This was a beautiful sight, and rare to see on a commercialized lake such as this one. Our admiration, unfortunately, soon turned to dismay as we made our way around the water and saw the disgusting scene on the other side.Dirty Jobs: Land Conservation and Environmental Management

As we circumvented the pond, we came upon a litter pile of glass and plastic bottles, plastic toys, beer cans, tires, Styrofoam, and old household appliances. This was the largest and most dense litter pile I have ever seen in an undeveloped area. It was amazing amount of trash, and we soon came to realize that to make a trail a reality in this area we would need to have multiple volunteer workdays with many hands working diligently for hours, filling several dump truck loads of trash for removal. Trash pickup is not the most glamorous work in land management, but one that is necessary in many cases. This is one of the “dirty jobs” in land conservation work, and frankly, a job that can be over-looked or brushed under the rug because of the limited resources in small land trusts and other environmental organizations like ourselves.

As a conservationist, this is extremely frustrating to see. Trash is a serious problem in our society and a major concern for the environment through its impacts on wildlife, water quality, etc. Action needs to be taken on this front, and I’m not exactly sure what that will look like. Is it local, state, or federal policy changes? Or is it an effort made through corporate responsibility initiatives from companies producing these products, maybe an effort at the grassroots level? I’m not sure, but if something isn’t done about this soon, the increasing global population combined with the societal obsession with Dirty Jobs: Land Conservation and Environmental Managementon-the-go products, fast food, and plastic products will be the demise of our natural environment as we know it today.

Seeing is believing. It is hard to wrap the human brain around something of this magnitude from anecdotes and photos, so it is important for organizations like us to get people outside and facilitate this conversation. But remember, non-profit environmental organizations love volunteers and would fall apart without them. So please look into spending some time researching and finding places to get involved in the conservation efforts wherever that may be.

Introduction to Non-Profit Environmental Conservation Efforts in a Diverse and Developing Region

I am currently working for Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail in Charlotte, NC. Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) is a local not-for-profit land trust dedicated to preserving land to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, and farmland. The final tier to the Conservancy’s mission is to connect lives to nature in Introduction to Non-Profit Environmental Conservation Efforts in a Diverse and Developing Regionthe Charlotte region, and this is where the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) project comes into play. CTT, a separate 501 (c)(3) organization with CLC as its lead agency, is dedicated to weaving communities together through a regional greenway and blueway network. While we are two separate organizations, there is little to be seen of this outside of formal documentation. We share staff, resources, office space, ideas, passion, dedication, and excitement every day.

My fellowship has been splitting time between CLC and CTT: monitoring conservation easements and preserves, performing forest and trail stewardship duties, leading volunteer workdays, organizing three Regional Round Table discussions around trail development, and much more. I have been in the Davidson Impact Fellows program for almost eight months now, and my understanding and outlook on non-profit work, career development, environmental conservation, community intricacies, and personal goals have been sculpted by the ebb and flow of my fellowship. I spend much of my time working with our Community Coordinator, visiting government officials, trail implementation partners, advocates, and adversaries to discuss trail opportunities and issues. This has exposed me to many things that are impossible to emulate in an academic setting. The diversity of our 15-county region has challenged me in many ways and introduced me to the subjective aspects of environmental conservation across the globe.

Introduction to Non-Profit Environmental Conservation Efforts in a Diverse and Developing Region

Struggles are plentiful in our daily work, only to be masked by the few great successes that make all of our efforts seem worth it. Months of headaches and creative problem solving only to conserve a small tract of riparian land, or to implement one mile of natural surface trail, seems a bit disproportionate, and admittedly can be frustrating at times. I’ve asked myself if all of this is even worth it. The answer is yes. Being in the workplace every day with a passionate group of people has allowed me to gain an understanding that our work is vital to land conservation and appreciate the efforts of our counterparts elsewhere. Months ago my answer may have been different. Without overarching support it is sometimes hard to see the good you are doing; however, many battles won around the world can amount to a big victory for the common goal. This position has allowed me to develop in ways that I could have never imagined. Yes, I am gaining technical knowledge of trail development and environmental conservation, but there is more than just that. My fellowship is allowing me to become comfortable in the workplace, participate in real-world land conservation deals in a predominately conservative part of the country, develop my own opinions on how I can make a difference through an environmental career, and gain an appreciation for the work that is being done by organizations just like us all around the world.

I have recently been admitted one of the most prestigious environmental management and forestry programs in the country, and I have this fellowship to thank for it. The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University seeks tIntroduction to Non-Profit Environmental Conservation Efforts in a Diverse and Developing Regiono develop global environmental leaders through their Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry programs. A year ago, this task seemed very intimidating and frankly impossible for me. My time at CLC and CTT has allowed me to gain confidence in my knowledge, capabilities, and ambitions because I feel like I have been able to have the experiences of an environmental conservationist of 5 years. Yes, many times I have been completely lost in a conversation or overwhelmed by the complexities of a project, but simply having those experiences has motivated me to be more persistent in my education and career development. Without this fellowship, I would not know what I wanted my next steps to be for graduate school or for starting a career.

My main focus project at the Conservancy and Thread Trail is to help develop and organize annual “Trail Round Tables” for our implementation partners around the region. We will host three of these in the upcoming year, where we divide our region into three sections and focus on issues in a more localized manner. I have been working very closely with our Community Coordinator and Outreach Coordinator to organize these three events and our first Trail Round Table will be on March 16. This is a pilot event for CTT, but we are hoping to integrate it into our annual regime of Thread Trail gatherings. Our staff and I hope that these Trail Round Tables will be another touch point with our partners who are in the trenches of trail development and will be a catalyst for progress on our active projects in the respective areas. More to come on this later, but hopefully this will be a successful addition to our normal practice, and something that can grow through, and alongside the Davidson Impact Fellowship at Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail.

Introduction to Non-Profit Environmental Conservation Efforts in a Diverse and Developing Region

The Carolina Thread Trail: A Collection of Unfinished Thoughts

On my desk, there are at least four scrapped, partially written blog posts. Sentences scratched out, pictures scribbled on, quotes highlighted, bullet points listed. None of these drafts have made it past my legal pad (sorry Jeff) because I felt that they either didn’t properly describe my experiences, focused too much on one aspect, or weren’t focused enough.

After five months at the Carolina Thread trail, I’ve realized that a blog post will never fully encapsulate my experiences, no matter how many drafts I write. Basically, I need to stop being so selective and post something already. So here you go. A blog post that’s been five months in the making but was written in a single afternoon.

First, my general spiel. I’m technically employed by the Catawba Lands Conservancy, a land trust that permanently preserves land to improve water, protect wildlife habitats and local farms, and provide connections to nature. The connections to nature part is where I come in-I primarily work with the Carolina Thread Trail, an initiative spearheaded by CLC to connect 15 counties in North and South Carolina through a network of over 1500 miles of trails, greenways, and blueways.

Things get a little more complicated when I start to explain exactly what it is that I do. Below is an excerpt from Blog Post Draft #2

‘Job Title _______________________’

I stared at this seemingly innocent question on a grant application for a few minutes before popping my head into my boss’s office.

“Hey Tom, what’s my official job title”?”

We bounce around a few ideas (Marketing Assistant, Marketing and Outreach, CTT Fellow) before deciding on Research Fellow- the broadest and yet most accurate description that we could come up with.

This post then just turned into a multi-paragraph list of things I’ve done (which is why it never made it online). I’ll subject you to a few things from that list.

  • Write grant applications
  • Research peer trail organizations
  • General trail maintenance (aka kill invasive species)
  • Create social media posts
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Blog Post Draft #4 focused on the theme “collaboration”. In my 16-person office, no one has just one responsibility.

Our work is a giant, multi-year, multi-decade group project that everyone is actually invested in… because there is a lot more than an ‘A’ riding on it.

Deep, I know. This post was scrapped for obvious reasons (I was trying too hard to be clever and match the quality of my peers’ blog posts). However, I stand by the core of that post.

One of my major goals for this year was to figure out what aspect of non-profit work I want to focus on and pursue as my career. I’ve realized that non-profit work isn’t that simple, especially in small offices. Everyone’s responsibilities are tangled together and, in order to be successful, you need to be well-versed in teamwork.

The title of Blog Post Draft #1 is “The Davidson Bubble Never Bursts” and was written two weeks into my fellowship. Because I had just started at the Thread Trail, it is about the community that exists outside the physical Davidson College campus and doesn’t really offer anything of value.

Blog Post Draft #3 is really just a jumble of thoughts written on post-it notes and in the margins or grant drafts.

First time I overheard someone talk about the Thread Trail outside of work

Day on trail vs day in office

Trails not just environmental- political. Healthy. Social. Transportation. Economic. -> look at things from diff. perspectives

Before I started to work at the Carolina Thread Trail, I saw it only as an environmental non-profit. We help build trails, plants species, and take people on hikes. What else would it be? But one day as I was talking to Tom Okel, the executive director of CLC and CTT,  he mentioned that the Thread Trail doesn’t identify as an environmental non-profit because it is so much more. Trails and preserved open spaces improve air quality and protect native species, sure, but that’s only one aspect. We’re a community development non-profit and a health organization. Trails bring jobs and tourism to the region. They act as transportation alternatives. They are gathering places and recreational facilities. They lower obesity rates and increase home values.  CTT doesn’t fit into one category. Our mission is to get people to support trails for whatever reason because in the end, we all benefit.

So there it is. My five months consolidated into one post. Hopefully I’ll get around to expanding / explaining things that I alluded to in this blog post. The important thing is that it’s out there and  I can throw away the jumble of papers littering my desk.

*I realize that I used a lot of different names and abbreviations to refer to the Thread Trail but, in the spirit of this post, I’m just going to leave them. The Thread, CTT, Carolina Thread Trail, Thread Trail… they’re all the same.