Ariel Trahan and Naamal De Silva
Ariel at work on the Anacostia River. Photo courtesy of Ariel Trahan.
Naamal: Waterways help connect us to nature and to each other. During the fall of 2016, as part of my doctoral dissertation research, I spent some time observing and talking to Ariel Trahan about her environmental education work on and for the Anacostia River. This story is adapted from that research. I view experiential environmental education as a powerful but massively underfunded solution to environmental injustice.
Ariel grew up in a tree house just outside a factory town called Bay City, in Michigan. The town had “a number of automobile plants; there's a lot of blue-collar workers. And then the factories closed down, and so it's so now it's really dropped in population.” Her mother, a photographer, and her father, a builder, “are definitely outdoor people.” When they were about 25, they built the house she grew up in. “It's kind of like a tree house. It's up on stilts, made out of wood, and it's out in the woods. Inside, it's really open and there's a lot of unfinished wood.”
Ariel has deep family connections to certain places. After attending a Catholic elementary school, and a public middle school, she went to a boarding school in Troy, New York that her mother, her grandmother, a total of about five generations of ancestors had attended. Growing up, she spent a lot of weekends at her paternal great grandparents’ cabin in Northern Michigan. Her siblings and cousins had a fort in the woods there, away from the cabin, where they would go to play. There was a river where they “would spend hours swimming, fishing, canoeing, just being in the water.” They “would walk across the shallow river and around the island in the middle.”
Perhaps because of these experiences and the influence of her parents, she and her siblings all work within the boundary between environment and education. “I have an older brother who's a teacher; he started a garden at his school. And I have an older sister who used to be a teacher and then went back to school for a master’s in environmental education. And now, she works at a school as their agriculture program coordinator.”
Ariel went to a small liberal arts school, Macalester College in Minnesota and maintained a strong relationship with nature. “We had a big outing club. We would always go up to the north shore in Minnesota, go camping, canoeing there.” She started out as a History major but added Environmental Studies after being inspired by a geology class called “Rivers of the World.” After college, she worked for a few years at the camp she had attended since turning eight, then at a residential outdoor education center in New Hampshire called Nature’s Classroom. She took a break to travel for six months with her two best friends to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, where they worked on organic farms (“woofing”).
After that, she moved to Washington, D.C. to be closer to friends and a more urban work life.
Ariel: I loved living in New Hampshire but it was so isolated. And also, it was great to have these kids come and have this experience out in the woods, but I started to feel more and more that it was perpetuating this idea that nature is separate from you. And then you go back to school and nature is gone, no more nature. That really started to bother me, and so I really wanted to try urban environmental education.
She first applied for a position with another waterway-based nonprofit in Washington, which turned out to have been filled, but the staff there recommended an opening at the Anacostia Watershed Society. She got the job and gained an unusual introduction to city.
Ariel: When I started working here, everything that I learned about DC was from the perspective of the river, which is a completely different way from how most people are introduced to the city. When I first lived here, I knew where the Arboretum was, and I knew where Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens was, and I knew where Benning Road was, based on the river, but I no concept of how to get any of them from the road.
Ariel has been there ever since, and finds her work to provide an ideal balance between community and solitude.
Ariel: My co-workers and I go kayaking in the morning sometimes…I feel like I have this unique existence where I live in the city, but I am away from people and buildings a lot of the time. It's perfect for me.
A Year on the Water: Waterway-Based Environmental Education
During my interview with Ariel in 2016, I asked her to describe a typical workday, and she replied that her work varies over the year based on what is happening in schools and on the river. This summary of her work is in Ariel’s voice.
January and February are definitely quieter months inside: a lot of grant writing, reporting, work plans, and preparing for the year ahead. Starting at about the end of February, we start preparing a lot of materials for class visits.
In the spring, one of our really big initiatives is Rice Rangers, where we put grow lights in the classrooms and kids grow wild rice seedlings. We deliver materials to each school, and when we deliver them, we facilitate an activity with the kids. The other thing we do during the spring is to help kids raise American shad in the classroom. Just like with the rice, we provide them with equipment; we deliver the hatcheries and do class visits to support that work. Every day, we get here really early, load all the stuff in the truck, drive to the schools, unloading all the stuff, set everything up, and work with the kids.
Around April, we start taking students out on the water. Our boating season is St. Patrick's Day to Thanksgiving. That is our rule of thumb, but we try not to schedule too much in March because you just never know. We start in earnest in April and we take people out on the pontoon boat and in canoes.
In May, we start doing plantings, so the kids who started the plants in the classroom begin bringing them out and planting them along the river. The planting window for the wetlands is between about April 15th and July 15th. We can only do so many plantings with kids each year because it has to be low tide during the middle of the day, on a weekday. So it's a really small window; there are only about ten days that are school days with low tide between about ten and one. On those ten days, we usually try to have four or five classes out per day. It’s a lot. The kids put their boots on, bring their plants out, and take a nature hike. We try to include a third activity too, so we bring in different partners. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center does a bird-banding demo. Or, we have somebody from the Anacostia Aquatic Resources Center show them different animals. That way, they plant rice, but there's something more too.
The students who raised shad all come out on the same day and release the fish into the river. We facilitate that. In May and June, we also teach the school-based activities for RiverSmart Schools, where students help install stormwater retrofits at their schools and we do lessons with them. We get them to use those installations to study and understand the plantings and make connections to the river. It's kind of this jigsaw puzzle. Some days, I do class visits, some days I facilitate a planting, some days I take students on a boat trip. And, there are always a million meetings.
During the summer, I spend a lot of time on the water, getting people out. We do school-based programs for kids, but we also have trips for the public. That's one of the biggest things with the Anacostia, is just getting people out there. It seems like a small, basic thing, but it makes a huge difference. In June and July, we are on the water almost every day, taking people out.
August is definitely slower, with planning for the school year, but things pick up again in September. In the fall, we do a program called SONG (Saving Our Native Grasslands), where we work on restoring meadows as buffers along the different tributaries and along the river itself. So, we do a lot of seed collection with the kids during field trips. They collect seeds, and then they go on the boat that same day. We will take them to a spot where we are working to restore the meadows, and they spread the seeds. They also build some kind of habitat structures: sometimes it's birdhouses and sometimes we make mason bee houses. And, we also collect wetland seeds in the fall, and bring both adults and kids out to collect seeds.
Naamal: This yearly rhythm of work has stayed with me, and since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve often thought about how 2020 must have been different: a year without the excited babble of young voices on the water, without small hands collecting wild rice seeds.
Naamal De Silva and Portia Sampson Knapp
Screams and Cries blend and transform
BlackBirds sing spread wings
- By, Portia Sampson Knapp, July 2020
Portia in Canada. Photo courtesy of Portia Sampson-Knapp.
Naamal: I first met Portia over a year ago at a Women’s Environmental Leadership (WEL) Initiative dinner hosted by the Anacostia Community Museum. The dinner was in a beautiful and strange gothic room within the Smithsonian Castle. Arched windows framed stuffed ducks arranged as though in flight. A stuffed lynx stared down at us from a warm brownstone wall. The night was warm and felt filled with possibility. I re-connected with friends and met a few new people with whom I’ve stayed in touch, including Portia. Over the past two years, WEL has provided me with abundant inspiration and opportunities to connect with inspiring women. In the midst of a pandemic, it gives me joy to remember sharing a dinner and conversation with 30 or so people outside of my family. In dark times, such inspiration is vital, and I am grateful to Katrina Lashley and her colleagues.
A few weeks after we met, Portia attended a writing group meeting that I co-hosted with Priya Parrotta. In inviting people to the meeting, I wrote “We will discuss how music can shape our stories. I would love for us to work towards writing something - a poem, a journal entry, a song, a blog post. Stories, including music, are a means of inquiring into and understanding life and our place in the world.” During the meeting, we spoke and wrote about music in our lives and related to our connection to nature.
Over the summer, Portia and I re-connected through a series of emails about life during the pandemic and the renewed movement for racial justice. Reading and reflective writing has helped both of us during this time.
Portia: I've been really devastated and also hopeful. There is new attention from what feels like a larger audience in regard to the systemic racism and violence in this country. I myself have increased my exposure and have found two things:
1) Leaning into the grief has me growing and healing and even connecting more with people.
2) My own self-confidence increases the more I observe and learn about my own history.
It's been painful and healing all at the same time, and I'm grateful that it seems the majority of our country does have some understanding of the injustice and wants to see change.
Naamal: Soon after this email, she sent me a poem.
Portia: It's been very hard, despite the lack of time constraint, to focus long enough to delve into my feelings and use them to create. I was able to squeeze enough creativity out of me for a single haiku. Hopefully this is the start of more.
Screams and Cries blend and transform
BlackBirds sing spread wings
Naamal: We also did an interview over email, where I asked some questions about her relationship with nature.
Naamal: Where are you from? What was your relationship with nature like as a child?
Portia: I'm from Philadelphia, PA. Despite growing up in the city, I was raised with a love of nature. Both of my parents are career environmentalists who took me camping and sent me to an elementary school in the woods. I loved sleep away camp and eventually attended and then worked for a wilderness canoe program. I can remember when I was VERY little, of all things, having a real love of earthworms. Though they elicit a strong "ick" factor, I was drawn to their gentle nature. After rainstorms, I picked drying worms off the pavement and tossed them lightly into the grass and dirt in an attempt to save them. I held this habit heavily up through high school, and I still do it on occasion today. Because of this and other examples, I think it was a love of animals and a desire to connect with them that opened the door for me to the natural world.
Naamal: I love the story about the worms! I’ve seen so many young children in programs like FoodPrints be drawn in by disgust and then, at least in some cases, switch to fascination and care. Even when they stick to disgust, there is a connection to nature.
What inspires you to protect nature?
Portia: What inspires me to protect nature? Where to even begin? There is something very healing about being outside and in communion with the woods, water, mountains, desert... Every day, our culture invents incredible technology that serves a purpose and simultaneously pulls us away from this medicine. Nature allows us to be present, to slow down, and listen and feel, to confront our traumas and demons that, like it or not, make us who we are today. Being in nature is centering.
Protecting nature is also about survival. My Dad once told me that being an environmentalist was not about saving the planet. "The planet will take care of itself," he said. "Protecting the environment is about the survival of the human species."
I also believe we have a responsibility to preserve the land and creatures around us to the best of our ability, and we often fail them when serving ourselves ease and luxury.
Naamal: How do you protect nature? How would you like to do so in the future?
Portia: I vote. I try to share my love for the outdoors with others. In my 20s, I led wilderness canoe trips for young people. In the future, I would like to find ways to spread this kind of exposure. I think there's no better way to teach appreciation than to take people outside and teach them about it, be it for 10 minutes or 10 days.
Naamal: What renews you?
Portia: There is nothing better than being still outside and just listening, feeling, smelling, and observing nature. I LOVE a multi-night deep wilderness camping trip. Overcoming moments of discomfort is an essential part of the process.
Naamal: What worries you?
Portia: That our love for technology will pull us so far away from the outdoors that we will no longer appreciate nature. In the process, we'd lose an essential part of ourselves.
Naamal: What gives you hope?
Portia: The fact that there are so many people under the age of 40 who have grown up during the era of the internet and social media that seem to love rustic, outdoor experiences. I hope that we teach our children the same.
Naamal: Who inspires you? Personally? Professionally?
Portia: Jane Goodall has always been a huge inspiration for me. What a humble adventurer whose love of animals and their habitats became her life's mission. She defied the perceived odds for an English woman who at the time had no formal scientific training and changed the face of science as it relates to animals, primates and humans in particular. I think we'd be well served to have more people with her tenacity, confidence, passion, and respect for the natural world.
Naamal: I have so many more questions, but this is a start. Each piece of what Portia spoke of could have been a blog post, but no single story can create a portrait of Portia in this moment in time. No single story could possibly capture her over time. Nevertheless, I love the idea of an accumulation of stories that, when considered collectively, help us to understand ourselves and each other.
Even in the best of times, I focus too much on wounds to society and nature. Since the spring, I have cycled rapidly through hope and despair. In this time, I find myself leaning even more than usual on the stories of people working to heal our collective wounds. I gather these stories mostly through confidential interviews for consulting work. I hold on to the stories and think with them. It’s a pleasure to share one more publicly.
You can connect with Portia on LinkedIn.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.