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Going a long way out of my way
by -- October 13th, 2011

I arrived in Durham in August, and by the middle of September I find myself standing in the warm North Carolina rain, in a swamp on the side of a strange highway, wearing a blaze orange hunting vest.

My professor is gesturing at the ground and going on about how Taxodium distichum have knees. The mosquitoes are not only not deterred by the rain, but are gulping my blood as if I were an all-you-can-drink soda fountain.

Such is my life at the Nicholas School. And I’m loving every moment of it.

If you’d told me a year ago that by this point, I’d have uprooted my life in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved across the country to look at strangely named trees in the rain, I’d have responded with complete incredulity. At this moment though, I can’t help but feel this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

A brief interlude:

A few days ago, a friend of mine relayed a quote. It was a quote I’m both familiar with and fond of, having seen the particular Edward Albee play in question. As is true of most Albee plays, “At Home At The Zoo” is a barely believable fable about human nature and modern existential crises. In the second act, the protagonist meets a young man who lives on the Upper West Side but has taken the subway all the way down to Greenwich Village, just to walk back up 5th Ave to the Central Park Zoo. This key piece of information is accompanied by a particular line that gets repeated throughout the act, becoming a resonant theme of the play:

“Sometimes you have to go a long way out of your way, just to go a short distance correctly.”

Here I am, on the other side of 30, returning to graduate school. I’ve studied religion in college, worked on HIV in the Peace Corps in Africa, and managed environmental justice campaigns in Israel and Thailand. In between I’ve managed a coffee shop, made an ill-fated false start at theology graduate school, and even worked as a paralegal on a huge federal criminal case. This isn’t meant as a pompous recitation of my resume, but rather as the basis to say that I’ve gone a long way out of my way, just to go a short distance correctly.

Every day here in Durham, I know that I have finally found my vocation. I love trees and forests. I know that my real work (akin to what some clergy perceive as their “calling”) is conserving forests in the face of all of the incredible stresses and pressures they face. I didn’t have a sudden epiphany that this is what I wanted for my life. Rather, it’s been a more gradual awakening, made possible by following my intuition.

I’ve held many jobs and had many pursuits, most of which had nothing to do with ecology and conservation. (Heck, I wanted nothing to do with science as an undergrad, so much so that I met my science core requirement by taking Ancient Astronomy because it counted toward a Classics minor.) I found my way to this place through archaeology and air quality activism and growing up in Colorado. And yet, the “how I got here” matters much less than the fact that I’m here and loving life and learning about the things I’m passionate about.

If there’s one thing I’ve figured out thus far, it’s that there is no such thing as a “typical” Nicholas School student. While applying to environmental graduate programs, I felt somehow inadequate because of my lack of in-the-classroom experience in ecology and biology. But several community college pre-requisite classes later, I’m here. On the side of the road. Looking at a Baldcypress grove. My entire Forest Measurements class is wearing blaze orange vests because it’s hunting season. And I’m loving life.

1 Comment

  1. Peter Rau
    Oct 19, 2011

    I hear that.

    Justin, I loved reading this and I feel exactly the same way. I was a theology major in college…

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