Written by Sabine Henderson, a Conservation Science resident, pictured above.

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do / we have come to our real work, / and that when we no longer know which way to go / we have come to our real journeywrites Wendell Berry in the six-line poem “Our Real Work.” All summer long, that’s what I’ve found myself doing. Real work. Instead of checking off a list of familiar office job tasks, I’m standing outside in unfamiliar forests and fields and riverbanks, paying attention. Staring at the contours of a waxy leaf to identify its family and place of origin, listening for one voice in a mass of unknown bird languages, wading through murky pond water trying to navigate to a randomized point on a vegetation map. Mulling over what life path to follow and how to walk it when the season turns. 

Every week this summer, we’ve strapped on backpacks with equipment and stumbled through dense grasses at the peripheries of local farms and other sites along the Little Campbell River where the A Rocha BC conservation team has, in past years, conducted habitat restoration work. These efforts primarily involved working with interested landowners on the removal of invasive plant species and the planting of native species that would typically have grown there had the ecosystem not been disturbed by development, clearcutting, harmful (agri)cultural practices, or the introduction of prolific plants from other continents. Improving habitat conditions and increasing biodiversity are essential to returning the watershed and its dwellers to the path of health they were once on—but it takes consistent attention and maintenance to keep things from veering off-course in the early years. So in this precarious in-between, we seek out a way through pollen and prickles for a visit.

More often than not, time has set loose a new host of branches, leaves, vines, blossoms, or woody debris. Invasive or not, plants are always taller, denser, and more abundant than they appeared in the years-old original sets of photos, making it difficult to navigate to the UTM coordinates on the map without berry brambles catching on our skin or getting preoccupied by stands of sweet-smelling yarrow. How do you find your way to a place you don’t know? Wondering at its growth, we fold back towering reed canary grass or waist-high horsetail and test each step, the ground obscured by leaf litter and dead branches, moving closer to that one spot where the imagined north and east lines converge. With bright flags, two meters across, we mark our circle of attention, look closely, and begin our count. The abundance and diversity of species is always variable, but what never seems to change is finding ourselves faced with some we know and some we don’t. Oceanspray, pacific ninebark, a rose shrub (what kind?); silver beach weed, common vetch, a fescue (which one?). How do you act in the face of uncertainty? I observe the stem and flower, search for some distinctive smell, feel the texture of the leaf on each side, look closely at its shape—it brings me fully into my body. We talk together and flip through field guides and recollect what we can, thinking back to the plants that accompanied our pasts, looking for resemblances.

I’ve found it grounding, seeking out these places and plants, as a stranger yet as kin, trying to get to know them and care for them. Seeing the path of recovery that a place was set on and the strange spot it’s found itself now. Knowing that at the turn of the season, when I’ll have come to the end of this residency and will be in a place now still unknown to me, this place will have shifted again. To Berry, this in-between is what’s most real—it’s the place we may live most fully: “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. / The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Find out more about our Tatalu Conservation Residency program here, and get in touch with us for more information.