Plants and People: the final chapter

It has taken me a long time to write my final post; I thought that this would be the easiest to compose, but it has turned out to be the hardest. In short, this internship was an amazing experience. It was the best I could have hoped for – I had a great time working with my team, made many new friends, and adventured in the Alaskan wilderness in my free time.

First, a huge thank you to the Chicago Botanic Garden and the CLM internship program for this opportunity. I also want to thank my mentor and co-workers – I had a blast working with you all! And finally, thanks to all of the other great people that I met along way.

Conducting an internship at a national park was an even more complex and dynamic experience than I had imagined. National parks and other protected lands are integral places that are rooted in not only breathtaking landscapes, but also often contain hidden histories and rich cultural backgrounds. Working at Wrangell-St. Elias NPP, I was plunged into an environment consisting of abandoned mining areas, tensions with local residents, and long histories with old homesteaders and Native Alaskans. One of the most meaningful aspects of this internship was the opportunity to interact with so many different people and places.

Thanks to the recommendation from CLM intern Sophie, I began reading “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer towards the end of my field season. I was immediately struck by how applicable the content was to my own experiences during this internship. Her teachings on the inextricable link between plants and people especially resonated with me. I think that the majority of us as CLM interns already understand at least a small part of the importance of this relationship, or we wouldn’t be here today. My time in Alaska gave me room to consider my own relationship with plants and with land. Admittedly it was a very emotional transition; I felt such a strong connection to the natural world of the North, even though I had been there such a short amount of time. My position on the EPMT (exotic plant management team) took me to many regions of untouched backcountry. Rather than experience desolation or panic (which was plausible as I was born a city girl), these were some of the most peaceful times I have experienced.

It is easy to become disconnected from the land that we live on. I have always loved the Northwest and have felt a sense of “home” for many years. But being in Alaska challenged my (in many ways) static relationship with land. So many of the people that I met had such a strong relationship with the Alaskan wilderness that irrevocably changed not only how I see natural systems, but broadened my perception to how my own relationships could be. The symbiotic dynamic between people and land often becomes grossly uneven, resulting in much more “take” from the land. Kimmerer and many of the people I talked to reminded me of a much healthier and prosperous relationship where there is much more even distribution between what is taken and given. Largely as a culture we need to remember our connection to our ecosystems; our forests, deserts, etc. In order to enact and perpetuate efficient and effective conservation, people need to shift how they perceive the land they occupy.

I remain passionate for conservation, and certainly have a broader and more well-informed notion of the complex mechanisms that go into it. Working for a national park and preserve allowed me to be at a fulcrum point for people and plants. I hope to continue to work towards further understanding this dynamic relationship, and I want to continue to do this by working for similar organizations such as the park service. I don’t know exactly where I want to go from here, but as long as I am among plants, I will be happy.

Signing off,

Natalie Balkam

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

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