I Gotta Go Somewhere: On Teaching Environment Ed, Finding Home, and Learning What It’s All About

“I gotta go somewhere/I gotta go/Wastin’ time standin’ here/I gotta go”

I Gotta Go by Robert Earl Keen

For the past three years, I haven’t been able to call any place “home”. Not really anyway. I wasn’t homeless or living destitute somewhere. What it does mean is that there are parts of the world that I feel are more like “home” in than others. I’ve mentioned previously on the blog that I’m a naturalised citizen and in that identity, I do recognize that while I am a citizen of the United States, I originally come from the United Kingdom. While many relatives of mine live in parts of Wales, England, and Northern Ireland, that doesn’t feel like “home”, partially because I don’t live over there anymore, and somewhat because I haven’t had a chance to connect with my relatives as an adult. We always took trips when we were younger, my family and I, and have kept in touch with phone calls, Facebook, visits to each others houses, and even then, the distance weighs on me. Though it bares the roots of my origins, it’s not truly my home.

“So where would you consider your home to be?”

After writing on here for two weeks, I’ve referred to talk about New England, as if the region itself is a character or casual acquaintance in my life to whom I owe a great debt. For those of you unfamiliar with the region, New England consists of the six states in the northeast corner of the United States and includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Out of those six, I’ve probably only spent a significant portion of time in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, and now, New Hampshire. While I have spent the longest amount of time in Massachusetts, where home was has changed for me many times over.

Home used to mean Wales in the U.K., but after we emigrated, it become my “hometown” of Sudbury, Massachusetts. This is where I grew up and went to school before departing for Unity College in Unity, Maine. There, it is was as if I had two homes; my school and my parent’s house with the latter becoming my “official address” at random points in my adult life as well. That’s how it is with us millennials, right? It’s only after meeting my current girlfriend, now fiance, that I have a chance to settle down in New Hampshire. Whenever the question of where home was for me has come up, it was never where I was living for work, simply because that’s where I was living at the time and it wasn’t going to be my future home. When you live seasonally and work seasonally, “home” becomes abstract very quickly.

“What do you like to write about when you get to a new “home” or at least, a new place to live?”

As an aspiring writer, I’ve tried many times to figure out what it is that I want to write about. For years, I wrote posts focusing on a variety of topics including nature exploration, birding, fishing, hiking, wild edibles, and nature photography. They often featured writing from my experiences both as an amateur naturalist and professionally, as an environmental educator. I’m no longer a full-time environmental educator, but I still maintain my passion for the outdoors and nature itself, particularly for the birds and other wildlife, the trees, and the compositions one can find in our landscapes and skies.

Nature hasn’t gone away in my life, as it is present regardless of the attention I pay to it. However, this winter has left me feeling distant. There are times when I cannot ignore it, especially with the snowstorms and cold winter climate we have here in New England. The thaw we’ve been receiving this week has been a welcome relief from the frigid teens that have kept Northwood Lake locked up with ice and snow, providing snowmobiles, ice-fisherman, and the local ice racing association with much amusement and joy over the past three months. I guess I could blame it all on cabin fever, but the winter is only beautiful up until a point. We only have, what I call “postcard snow” for a while, until the shitty slush and grime on the roadsides reminds us that despite our wishes for spring, we are stuck with “still winter”.

“What was it like when you worked as an environmental educator?”

When I was working full-time in EE, you would establish yourself in your new “home”, however temporarily you were going to be there, and gain the expertise of “knowing” an area. While I enjoy hiking and exploring wild places on my own time; professionally I went on these excursions as an “expert” in the natural world, serving as the gatekeeper of knowledge within a specific environment. Whether it was the salt marshes and beaches of North Carolina, the fields and forests of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the wooded hills of the Berkshires, or along beaver ponds in central Massachusetts, I was always seen as the expert, the knowledgeable one that knew the area up and down, left and right, and everywhere in between.

I taught small groups of students from a diverse range of backgrounds and skill levels. There were the outdoor kids from Boone, North Carolina or Albion, Maine who saw the woods and fields and streams surrounding their homes as theirs. I have met kids from more built up areas like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Asheville, North Carolina, and Princeton, New Jersey to whom going into the woods seems more like a punishment than a potential adventure. The woods and green spaces that might exist in their worlds are filled with rabid coyotes and manic raccoons that lurk behind every tree. I led pond explorations and taught classes on stream dwelling invertebrates such as mayflies and water striders. Before I could even get those kids to step into the stream, they expressed fear and worry about menacing snapping turtles that waited in the bottom of creeks and streams for the toes of a new victim to present themselves even when they were covered by a sneaker or hiking boot.

In my spare time, I’ve had the great privilege of exploring varied habitats in 14 states where I have photographed and watched a hundred species or so species of birds, plants, scaled and furry critters, and everything in between. I’ve smelled fresh air tinged with salt from a vast ocean, touched tree trunks, rolled rocks, fingered dirt clods, touched tracks, and let cool water run between my toes. That seemed lost to me in the past few months. I miss many things about not working as an environmental educator.

“What do you miss the most?”

I miss waking up so close to nature every morning. Many places that offer nature education or outdoor skills programming take place in wilder spaces. When I worked in Connecticut this past fall, I regularly woke to the sound of resident Canada geese (Branta canadensis) calling in the mornings, watched red efts (Notophthalmus viridescens) scamper across trails as I walked to breakfast, and when work was done at nine or ten, would walk back in the darkness to the sound of barred owls (Strix varia) groaning about “who cooked for y’all”. When I drove to and from the grounds, I witnessed a black bear (Ursus americanus) run full tilt across the road and only a few weeks later, watched a skinny bobcat (Lynx rufus) do the same! On my days off on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I would walk the property for hours, hoping to get photographs of elusive brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) and shy fiddler crabs, watch as herring gulls (Larus argentatus) dropped northern quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria) on the docks over and over again, and felt the shore get pounded by wave after wave of ocean.

I miss being able to teach students about the wonders that can be found in the natural world, just outside their cabin doors and by extension, just outside their doors at home. I miss the look of awe and wonder when they saw a hermit crab scamper under an oyster bed, the pride they felt at encouraging a team mate during a game or challenge, and the funny stories they would relay to you about their time there. Most of all, I knew that the work I participated in was creating positive memories and associations with nature and ushered in a growing confidence that they would foster and nurture in years to come. Lisa Jhung wrote an excellent article for Backpacker about the importance of an outdoor education trip for students where she touches on the confidence building aspects of these trips, as well as the important role parents and concerned adults can play in helping to propose, fund, and facilitate these life-changing trips. It is well worth reading.

Indeed, there are many more things I could list about leaving the field for now. Working with coworkers with a variety of experience in teaching from Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries, and former school teachers, to recent college grads, transient educators, and many more. I got to collaborate and contribute to lesson plans, activities, presentations, and festivals that promoted the protection of the environment. I helped to raise awareness and foster action about our use of natural resources and wild spaces. My coworkers and I celebrated the local wildlife and habitats we had in the surrounding communities where the organization existed and spread that excitement and appreciation to each life we interacted with. My confidence as a leader, a mentor, and a teacher have grown and without having the opportunity to work in this field, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

“Are there any downsides to working in EE?”

Even though it offers many positives for participants and proponents alike, it should be noted that it’s not all sunshine and roses when it comes to environmental education. Pay can vary depending on whether you’re a college graduate or if you’re a certified teacher and benefits can be few and far between. The average work day is anywhere from 10 to 14 hours and you might be obligated to assist with end of week tasks like cleaning cabins, washing the dishes after meals, and assisting with property maintenance. Above all, (and this might sound crazy, but it needs to be said) if you don’t like working with children or in the outdoors, maybe education, be it traditional or alternatives like outdoor education might not be the answer for you.

“Where can I learn more about EE? Are there any places you would recommend checking out?”

If you’re looking for a chance to change young people’s lives by introducing them to the natural world through hands-on scientific learning, positive mentoring, and challenging them to leap out of their comfort zones, you should consider becoming an environmental educator. At the end of this article, if you would like to look into becoming an environmental educator, I have listed several job sites* and organizations** for you to consider. These are useful if you are just beginning your journey, are in between jobs and are looking for a new place to be, or are simply curious about these organizations and their educational missions.

As for me, I’ve begun a new journey; one that involves staying in one place. At the end of April, I will be living in New Hampshire permanently, although I won’t mention where yet. That will come in time. I’ll be using my time over the next six months to explore, dig deep into the community, and put down roots to become a resident, a local, and most importantly, a homeowner. Of all the homes I’ve had, I’m determined to get to know this one fully and intimately. When I discover something interesting or worth sharing with the world, you’ll be the first to know.***

Thank you for reading and feel free to share and comment below.

*Environmental Education Job Sites

Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Job Board at Texas A&M

Environmental Career Opportunities

North American Association of Environmental Education

Orion Magazine Jobs

OutdoorEd.com

**Environmental Education Programs: A Sampler

Baltimore Woods, Marcellus, NY

College Settlement: Horsham Outdoor School, Horsham, PA

Don Lee’s Coastal Communities and Common Ground, Arapahoe, NC

Echo Hill Outdoor School, Warton, MD

Hart to Hart Farm and Education Center, Albion, ME

Kestrel Educational Adventures, Beverly, MA

MassAudubon, Lincoln, MA

Nature’s Classroom, Charlton, MA

Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Millersburg, PA

Sound to Sea at Trinity Center, Pine Knoll Shores, NC

The Watershed Institute, Pennington, NJ

***The above statements are my own opinions and thoughts on being an environmental educator and working in the field. This is a personal blog highlighting experiences and explorations I have and represents my experiences and interpretations of those experiences only. Thank you

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