Fostering the growth of nature and the environment in Georgia
“It’s spring break. I should be sleeping.”
That’s the thought I had every morning around 7:30 a.m. last week as I fumbled my way down a rickety bunk bed ladder and into the lukewarm-at-best shower of a modest cabin in middle-of-nowhere, Georgia.
This time of the year, most college students fly south for the winter. They soak up a few rays on the beach by day, and a few drinks at the bar by night, or so that’s how the stereotype of spring break goes.
However, not every coed spends their one-week of freedom in a haze of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Some actually choose to give up their time for the greater good, by volunteering on an Alternative Spring Break.
This college program gives students the opportunity to travel while giving a little something back, and in my case, taking a lot with them.
On Friday March 9th, 10 students met in the back parking lot of the student center with seemingly little in common but a serious hankering for a new adventure. Nerves were running high.
Most of us were strangers and if personalities clashed we didn’t have much choice but to grin and bear it for the next 10 days.
Marianne Keith and Jared Peters, the leaders of this motley crew, pulled around the mini van and the monstrous black beast known as the Yukon (which proved later to be all bark and no bite).
We split up in half, loaded up our luggage, and settled in for the long haul.
It was evident fairly quickly that any apprehension about getting along, was a complete waste of emotion. We came from different majors and different backgrounds, but all that was just fuel for the chattering fire.
By the end of our long first day’s drive, our group had taken route (excuse the pun) and we began to flourish as the Georgia Peaches, a team so green the Planeteers can’t even compete.
We watched the sunrise over the ocean before resting up, then spent our first day exploring Virginia Beach in the off-season.
The next morning we piled back into the vehicles and set a course for our final destination, George T. Bagby State Park, Fort Gaines, Georgia.
At this point, I need a minute to rant about the absolute awe of the southern landscape. Being from New England, I thought I had bragging rights to the most gorgeous views, and eye-boggling scenery that only four full seasons can provide.
Fall leaves and white Christmas’s are great and all, but literally for the entirety of my time in the south, I could not believe the diversity in the terrain.
From the rolling mountains of the Appalachians to the quiet mystery of the marshy lowlands, there was no view that wasn’t a thousand plus calories of eye-candy to this environmental junkie.
I could instantly see why the people of The Nature Conservancy worked so hard to preserve the natural essence of this area.
It was breath taking.
None of us really knew specifically what we were getting into. All we knew was that we would be working with The Nature Conservancy to conserve nature. Imagine our surprise when we learned on our first day that we would be helping to prep a large acreage of land to be set on fire.
Purposefully setting flame to a poor defenseless forest seemed like the exact antonym to conservation, but our Nature Conservancy reps, Lisa and Jeff, passionately explained to us the benefits of fire management.
Forest fires are a natural part of the ecosystem.
A fire can wipe out invasive species that have taken over the land and nutrients of commonplace species, and, when managed properly, can encourage rare and endangered species to grow and recover.
We learned that human actions helped shift the behaviors of fires, which has caused more intense wildfires to get out of hand.
This does more harm than good, which is exactly why fire and the environment have been labeled as a bad combination.
In the company of our new Nature Conservancy friends we spent the majority of our hours in Georgia preparing a few different sites for future controlled burns.
In one area, we cleared areas of brush to create halt lines where the fire wouldn’t be able to pass.
Leaves and brush create the fuel for fires, so by raking the earth down to the soil, a fire can be directed.
At our second site Erick Brown, another member of The Nature Conservancy we had the privilege of working with, had us spraying herbicide on invasive trees.
Their leaves resisted fire and had blanketed the ground, suffocating any future life from growing through.
Our third day was spent at yet another site with Jeff and Lisa.
Here we sawed down small invasive trees from a natural trail halt-line.
They feared that these trees would burn too hot around the edges and jump the halt lines, spreading out of control.
By the end of our third day, we had become experts at evicting unwelcomed trees.
This was definitely not what we had expected to do, but everyday we heard the mantra, for the greater good.
Sacrifice a few trees, so that the overall ecosystem can flourish and maintain.
On our final day with The Nature Conservancy, we were taken to an old Indian burial ground known as the Kolomoki Mounds.
All we learned in the last few days would come together here in a last fiery hurrah as we were invited to observe an actual 30-acre prescribed burn.
Smoke billowed out from the small acreage of trees and descended upon a quiet road in Georgia.
We expected a leaping blaze to engulf the landscape like so many action movies had illustrated, but as Erick, Lisa, Jeff, and their team serenely walked the land setting fire from their drip canisters, no flame reached higher than three or four feet.
The amount of control they exerted on such a fickle element rivaled that of the Human Torch, and their placid expressions made it seem like it was just another day at The Office.
After the business was done, and the flames subsided, we were sent to actually plant a few trees in another area of the park.
This was the first nurturing assignment we were given all week.
This is what we had assumed we would be doing six days before, but after having our eyes pried wide open with the reality of the many elements that make up the giant operation of conservation, it seemed like such an ignorant action.
Not to say that it wasn’t important, because of course it was, but as I was patting the soil down around a small bud, it hit me that not many people actually know the complexities of Mother Nature, how much we rely on her, or what it takes to keep her ticking.
I haven’t had an experience yet at Keene State College that was quite as life altering as my time spent on Alternative Spring Break.
It’s impossible to adequately express the amount I learned on both a social and educational level.
When I first heard about ASB, I was excited to show my gratitude for my privileged life by giving a little back, but it seems that I’ve taken so much more.
I’d like to personally thank the Georgia Peaches for the last 10 days (may you guys always live like a squatch), and I think I can speak for everyone when I say, thank you to The Nature Conservancy for all the time you spent with us and all the knowledge you imparted, and to Keene State for giving students such an amazing opportunity to see outside our little bubble.
Chelsea Nickerson can be contacted at