Column: A winding path from kitty litter to conservation

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 11, 2006

By Andrew Waters

For the Salisbury Post

I was at a party the other night and someone asked me why I became interested in a career in land conservation. I admitted I fell into the field somewhat unexpectedly (but happily).

It was not the career I envisioned for myself after receiving an English degree in college, but then again my vision at that time was cloudy about many things, not just career aspirations. The thing I did know, and still believe, was what I’d learned from the Romantics: that the natural world is the physical manifestation of God on earth. And that feeling of awe and wonder and connection we experience when we look upon a mountain peak or a storm-tossed ocean is the emotional experience of God.

What followed was a moderately successful if somewhat incoherent career as an editor, first in book publishing, then magazines. A lot of people in editing will tell you the same story: you get into it to become the next Maxwell Perkins and one day find yourself editing copy about the latest advances in kitty litter technology. Well, maybe not the exact same story, but you get the point. Something was missing.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches us the secret to a happy and fulfilling life is meaningful work. By my early 30s, I had become involved as a volunteer with a nonprofit community development corporation and had grown interested in the field of nonprofit real estate. Here was the greatest business in the world — after all everyone needs shelter, their own piece of earth, a place of sanctuary — twisted sideways so, to me, it incorporated the Gita’s guidance on meaningfulness. A few twists and turns later, I found myself working at a land trust. The End.

But not really, for three years later I still find myself, at times, baffled and overwhelmed by the nature of what we do. Of course we conserve land, and this is the payoff, but there is also the constant need to raise money, the emerging issue of land trust accreditation so our donors and supporters can be confident we are spending their money judiciously, and the awesome goal of building the “right” relationships necessary for furthering our mission. My journey has only just begun.

I like to tell people that “land conservation is action.” We are not participating in the culture of blame. We are not out there blabbing on NPR about why other people or the government should protect farmlands and natural landscapes. We are doing it, buddy, and how’s that for putting your money where your mouth is? I like the people I meet in this job — devoted, intelligent, passionate people. I like spending the day looking at beautiful places then coming back to the office and trying to figure out a way to preserve them forever.

A few weeks ago, I got to spend the day walking in just this sort of beautiful place. One of the members of our party was Mark Lewis, a herpetologist at the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro. Someone else asked Mark how he spotted snakes in the woods — they admitted they could spend days in the woods without seeing a single snake, while he seemed to find them all the time — and he responded that it was all a matter of what you looked for. Some people look for different types of trees in the woods, some look for wildflowers. Mark looks for snakes, and that is why he sees them. Being an English major, I look for God. And sometimes, during the course of a normal, routine business day, I see him. And sometimes I get to make sure your children will have the opportunity to see him, too. I am a conservationist.

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Andrew Waters lives in Salisbury and is operations director for The Land Trust for Central North Carolina.

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