Wondering in the woods | Catawba Lands Conservancy
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Wondering in the woods

Bigleaf Magnolia trees surround a pine tree at Redlair

Catawba Lands Conservancy’s Program Coordinator reflects on how his relationship to the outdoors has changed throughout his life, and how he shares his sense of wonder with others.

By: Jon White

The outdoors have been a part of my life since childhood. Beginning with summer camps around Durham, NC, where I grew up, at the age of five I was introduced to the Piedmont’s creeks and streams and the magical creatures that might live there. At eight I learned to build a fire, and at eleven I went on my first backpacking trip. When I was stuck at home my senior year of high school without a driver’s license, I would ride my bike to the Duke Forest and search for crayfish and salamanders. This past summer I worked at a camp at the base of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. I concluded that the snow capped mountains were impressive, but the dank, swampy forest of the Carolina Piedmont is where I belong.

During college I was introduced to a wide array of social problems set against the constant political turmoil of the past few years. Global issues of deforestation, education, and incarceration, for example, made my boyhood enthusiasm for the outdoors feel insignificant. Yet coming to work as program coordinator for the Carolina Thread Trail has challenged me to reconsider how “environmental problems” fit into a diverse society, and what it means to follow a calling.

My return to environmentalism–now in the “real world”, the world of creeks and trees but also a cubicle and fundraising goals–has required the crude reconciling of my romantic high school self and the socially-conscious, intellectual edge I gained in college. From the reforestation of untended family farms to urban stream restoration and greenway construction, land conservation cuts across many demographics and different issues in unexpected ways. This new perspective enables us to see an extra 50 acres of protected trees not only as habitat for wonderful critters, but also as an investment in the county’s water management infrastructure, and a new opportunity for the public to make healthy choices through outdoor recreation.

As Program Coordinator, it’s my job to take people onto the land we’ve conserved and trails we’ve built. Though the program content is always informally educational, my primary goal is to foster a feeling of connection between people and places. Every time I’m out on the trail, my boyhood enthusiasm for the outdoors bubbles up again as we find a tiny toad or look up at the leaves in the trees. My hope is that this feeling would be contagious for each participant on the activity, and inspire that same sense of childlike wonder at any age.