I stood in front of a group of teenagers huddled under the tent canopy, giggling among themselves as they got settled on the tarp to listen. Each of them wore rain jackets and ponchos, it had been raining off and on all morning. I could tell by the looks on their faces that they were curious about the activity we’d be doing, some more interested than others. After giving a brief introduction about myself and SAWS, I asked, “are y’all ready to go for a short hike?” hoping to get them rallied up to explore the damp understory at the Arboretum. “No!”, one of the students quickly responded. I couldn’t help but laugh and appreciate her honesty, although I half-expected that response. She followed up with, “well, do you want me to lie to you?” to which I responded jokingly, “maybe just a little bit.” She responded with sarcastically playful excitement as we made our way to the trail. We started slow on the trail discovering a millipede and a few mushrooms along the way. Over the next half hour, we eagerly explored the trail searching for mushrooms, critters, and animal scat.
As we approached the end of our hike, the same student approached me and extended her hand to offered me a small, shimmery rock she had found on our hike. I’ve received a few unique stones over the years, often a small token of appreciation and connection with participants. My goal for the hike was simple: help the students connect and explore the flora and fauna of the Asheville Arboretum. Throughout my time working and living in different communities, I’ve learned the importance of meeting people where they are and creating steppingstones to positive experiences in nature. The Arboretum is a great location to connect and become familiar and comfortable with nature through cultivated gardens and user-friendly trails for visitors to explore.
The hike at the arboretum was one of several outreach opportunities I’ve been able to participate in this year, a refreshing change from pandemic isolation. When I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, I hoped that we would resume life in an almost-normal way including in-person interactions. Naturally, one of the challenges I faced transitioning into my role as the Partnership and Community Outreach Coordinator for SAWS was quarantine restrictions. Having limited opportunities to connect face-to-face, the pandemic has challenged me to think creatively about how to get to know the community and stakeholders in my new home.
As a new transplant to the southeast, I have the advantage of having fresh eyes to what the landscape has to offer in the form of nature and public lands. As an employee of an organization that specializes in the stewardship of wilderness, I realize the importance of understanding the wild spaces that we protect. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore our footprint and connecting with communities throughout Southern Appalachia. As I become more familiar with this landscape, I aspire to create opportunities for communities to connect with nature and the surrounding public lands, whether it be mushroom hunting at the arboretum or seeking solitude in the backcountry.
A Photo Gallery of Our Hike at the Arboretum