I've been remarkably blessed to have the wherewithal to pretty much do as I please in life, and although not adventurous by nature, I have done some pretty cool things. I was somewhat depressed at my tenth year high school reunion, listening to everyone talk about their "real" jobs, their spouses and families... Then I realized that other than not wanting those things for myself anyway, these people were looking at me with something close to envy! I left that evening not feeling sorry for myself, but feeling sorrow that these folks, good people, had not really had a chance to live. I can only hope that they are as happy with their choices as I have been with mine.
Rather than start at the beginning, I'll get you up to speed from the point when things started to get interesting: after college. (Yeah, after college; I'm really a very dull person for the most part. Honest.) I spent some few years taking seasonal positions at places I had loved at first visit; I figured a little more time spent at each location would enable me to choose one place to put down my homebody roots...
With a shiny new biology degree and no practical experience, I was miraculously selected to be an intern at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in the fall following graduation—one of the best things to ever happen to me, as I was able to live in one of the most beautiful places in the east and work with amazing people and even more amazing animals…
(This is actually a photo taken from a friend's hawk banding station a few miles farther north along the same ridge as HMS—I may be boring, but my friends are not!)
Over that winter and into spring of the following year, I was a seasonal naturalist at another fabulous location, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a National Audubon preserve about 30 miles inland from Naples, Florida. Sixty percent tropical vegetation—absolutely incredible place! (Could probably have lived there permanently if it weren't for those nasty things called hurricanes… You do get a few days warning, but even so I have too much stuff to get out of their path.)
While still in Florida, my mother found me a job (listed in the want ads in her local paper) to come home to that spring, and I started work part-time as a naturalist with the Delaware State Parks system, mostly at Brandywine Creek State Park. Imagine our surprise when we discovered a gorgeous state park less than thirty minutes away from the home I had lived in nearly all of my life! Funny thing: by the time I left at the end of the year, my brother had started working there and both of my parents were volunteers. In fact, after on and off again employment there over the years my brother is now permanent staff, mom still lends a hand for certain events, and my father put in many thousands of volunteer hours (and the park hosted the wake when he passed). They, of course, blame it all on me.
The following spring saw me heading for Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountain National Park's Institute at Tremont. There's just something about the Appalachians... I worked as a teacher-naturalist there for nine months, living in a little valley (not the one pictured here - that is Cades Cove) tucked into the park itself. The large waterfall a mile's hike away from camp was a nice touch.
Winter of that year found me with time on my hands, so I decided to spend the month of February living in the mountains of North Carolina. In a tipi. With no electricity or plumbing. It was great! Well, frankly there were days when I could not get warm to save my life, but living that close to nature is an incredible experience, and one day I will manage to strike a balance between the extremes of latrines and the internet. I just refuse to give up my clothes washer…
(*gasp!*I don't have any good photos of CNWR. Everything is on video tape. Hmmm, someday I'll just have to take a road trip to rectify the situation!) I landed back at the shore house for awhile then picked up a seasonal job as a naturalist at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (that I had passed on the year before in order to go to TN), yet another phenomenal natural area on the eastern seaboard and (along with Hawk Mountain and Corkscrew Swamp) another one of the best bird watching locations in the United States. I never intentionally set out to work at some of the biggest birding sites in the country, it just happened that way. I think it is simply the nature of wonderful habitat to draw a wonderful variety of birds… They asked me to stay on at Chincoteague for the summer, but having grown up on a barrier island in summer, I refused. Maybe I should have stayed, for I spent part of that summer working at the ice cream store where I spent my summers during college. I knew there had been I reason I had remained a cashier back then and had refused to dip ice cream! Those were the most exhausting two months I've ever worked, worse even than the back-packing trips in the mountains.
I took the fall off to move more permanently into the family house at the shore and just enjoy hanging out. In yet another of the East's most famous birding spots: Cape May County, NJ... I'm not a "birder", truly. (I'm a bird watcher, a much more relaxed and less-experienced version.) The new year came in very cold and icy (but not so bad as this photo of a storm a few years later) and once the novelty of winter at the shore wore off, reality set in (winter is miserable here when it doesn't snow) and I was itching to go south.
So I called all of my friends who were scattered up and down the East Coast, packed up the truck, and took off, stopping to see everyone along the way. Four weeks and four thousand miles later, I had caught up with some folks I hadn't seen in years and collected fond memories of my one and only (and obligatory?) road-trip… Oh, yeah, and I did a little modeling for a photographer friend while I was visiting.
I went back to North Carolina that summer to help a friend with computer work, and find out how living at his camp in a warmer month would differ from doing so in the dead of winter. What a difference! Although the creek for bathing in was probably little warmer than it had been in February; the rivers there are fed right off the tops of the mountains and from springs, so they are cold no matter the season. A dip in the bathing pool on the way to work was certainly an effective way to wake up in the morning! But I sooo looked forward to my first hot shower in over a month that summer, and was utterly floored to have found myself afterwards wishing for the creek…
More time passed. I was still coming back to NJ, because I couldn't decide among the riches of Appalachian PA, Appalachian TN, slightly farther south seashore... As I was also beginning to feel horrible about not having a "real" job, I decided to take a stab at sales. I figured since I lived in two houses full of a particular type of furniture, if anyone could sell it I could. Hah! That job lasted four months before the 45 minute one-way commute and the depressed economy of the region took its toll and I quit. (Hard to be a salesperson when no one is buying...) Another summer saw me back once again at the ice cream store, cashiering again. At the end of it I vowed that was the last time.
The next summer found me investigating a new area of public education: history. Incidental to having family working with the DE state parks, I discovered the world of re-enacting. I already had several costumes for the Civil War period (my mother loves to sew) when I realized that there was an outdoor living history museum, Historic Cold Spring Village, just down the road from the shore house. What fun to get paid for playing dress up and playing house! I learned how to weave that summer, and still do. I was the weaver there the following year as well. (In this photo, I'm taking a stab at quilting. It was the end of the season and I had woven the rugs off the loom.)
During one of the special-event weekends at the museum, a local wildlife rehabilitator happened to have a baby crow in the village with him, and let me borrow the bird for the day. I had so much fun teaching everyone about birds (instead of weaving) that day that I knew it was time to get back into a naturalist position. So I dropped my resume off at The Wetlands Institute, a nature center a mile from my house, and started teaching school groups there in the fall. By the end of the year, I was getting anxious for a full-time position, and by happy coincidence, the manager of the gift shop was leaving. So I talked my way into that position, which I held for almost two years (a record for me at the time!) when the lack of mission statement follow-through (not to mention my inevitable boredom once I have mastered a job) made it very difficult to go in to work every day.
One spring--when my mother threatened to come live in what was, after all, her house--I found and purchased the perfect house for myself. (For someone who had traveled so much, I had acquired a lot of stuff. I had the new place filled all by my lonesome in three months. It's only gotten worse.)
Another summer found me once again at the living history museum, working in a big house with a cooking hearth. As I said, you can't beat getting paid to play dress-up and play house! And having once cooked French toast over an open fire (without burning a slice) for dozens of people on a camping trip, using this hearth and making lunch for a few coworkers was a piece of cake... Er, piece of pie: I made a sweet potato pie in a Dutch oven in that hearth, and it was delicious. (Oh, look! You can just make out some samples of my weaving—the blue-check cloth of the table runner and that bit on the bottom right of the shot.)
Another spring at the shore found me helping out once again with an international team of shorebird banders on the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project. (I had first found out about the project in 1999.) For four or five weeks in May and early June every year, you can find people from the US, Britain, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and Argentina—pretty much from anywhere in the world—on our local bay beaches, putting colorful little plastic "bracelets" on the legs of unsuspecting avian participants of the shorebird study.
Horrible photo of me as a hoity-toity bank teller. Yeah, I finally had to try working as a "professional" again. I had to find some way to support my cat habit... Yes, that really is La Wren wearing stockings, heels and ruffles. ::shudder:: But only occasionally; this is the seashore, after all: very casual at the best of times. (And yes, the hair, once waist-length, really was that short--much shorter, in fact--at one point.)
I finally discovered what I love doing most when forced to work for a living: I'm an office…assistant? Manager? Whatever you call it, I do most of the paperwork: maintaining databases, creating forms, sending letters, etc. and so on. Love the work, hate the job if you know what I mean… I took a couple years off from that to (finally) work for the local branch of the state Audubon Society, but it didn't pay the bills (damn health insurance) and the director wouldn't let me hide in the office on a computer because he said I was too good with people. (Which I am, but I don't have to like it enough to want to do it all the time.)
Yet I still feel the need to find a permanent where to do the work. As much as I love the acres on which I live, they are, rather disagreeably, located in the most-populated, most-expensive state possible. And I've vowed that one day I will make it back to the mountains. Not sure which ones, or how I'm to possibly pack up the current household to make such a move, but some day... Some. Day.
I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. *sigh*
Oh, other events of possible interest that have occurred to me over the years have been finding myself making a brief appearance in a well-known nature writer's book (right place at the right time), a longer appearance in another famous nature writer's book as a result of a research trip to the Carribean that he let me tag along on, having a photograph of my hand releasing a banded bird featured as the title shot (2 page spread!) for an article in an issue of Smithsonian Magazine (yikes--it's too old to be archived at the website) and surviving a 50mph head-on auto collision which gave me some spectacular first-ever broken bones. (Do you really want photos? I have them somewhere... Sorry, I don't travel enough anymore to know if I set off metal detectors.)
With many apologies to my writer friends, but no links to the books. If you really want to know what they are, there are now more than enough clues to my identity on this blog for you to find them quickly. ;o)
In retrospect, I suppose that life, no matter what you do with it, is rarely boring!
All photos ©wrensnestdesigns