Caring for the Planet

  • By:  Dona Sapristi

Stephanie Drzal, a nutrient management specialist for Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, is no stick in the mud. But one day while taking soil samples on a farm in Chesapeake after a heavy rain, her 4-wheel drive Jeep got seriously stuck in the mud. After five minutes of panic and mortification, she said to herself, “Girl, if you have to call anyone to get you unstuck, you will never live this down with your coworkers.”

Motivated by pride, Steph decided to dig the Jeep out herself. She always caries a shovel and plank in the Jeep, so she dug the mud out from under the tires and wedged the plank under one. She slowly drove forward and felt a jolt when the tires hit solid land. “I can’t put into words the relief I felt,” she recalled. She laughed all the way home to Suffolk, she said, covered in thick, black mud from head to toe.

For those who love the outdoors and care about the environment, finding a career where they are surrounded by nature is a dream come true. Let’s meet three local women who have the distinct pleasure of getting wet, muddy, mosquito-bitten, and sunburned doing jobs they adore. For them, it’s all in a day’s work.

Most days on the job aren’t that stressful for Stephanie. The 31-year-old native of Wernersville, Pennsylvania, enjoys soil sampling and tries to work around the weather. “When I’m outside smelling the soil, looking at the sky, hearing birds sing, it’s very meditative for me,” said Stephanie, who has a master’s degree in Soil Science from North Carolina State University.

Manure samples aren’t as much fun, Steph said. She doesn’t mind cow and horse manure, but chicken droppings can burn your eyes. Sampling a hog lagoon is the smelliest. If she does it before lunch, it ruins her appetite. Once a bottle of manure sample exploded on Steph. It was a hot day, and heat put too much pressure on the plastic bottle. “BAM. It just spewed everywhere. I was covered,” Steph recalled. “I took the rest of the day off. Hog manure sticks in your skin. That’s a smell that lingers.”

The soil samples Steph takes are checked for concentrations of chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Depending on these tests, she lets farmers know when they don’t need to fertilize. This reduces the chemicals that pollute the waterways due to runoff. Ultimately, Steph’s efforts help ensure the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

As someone who “loves dirt,” Steph is passionate about teaching others why soil is so important to the health of our planet. “Soil affects every aspect of our lives. It’s where our food and clothing come from; it grows the plants that help us breathe; it’s where we end up after we’re gone. It is truly a living, breathing organism,” she said.

Steph teaches soil basics in a Master Gardener Class for the Virginia Cooperative Extension and loves talking to people who appreciate soil as much as she does. Her one word of advice for home gardeners? “Compost,” she said. “It’s the best thing you can do for your soil.”

Back in college, Stephanie was very active in environmental causes. Her passion for the environment hasn’t subsided, but she said a few years of real-world experience have changed how she sees life. “At first, I was disheartened because not everyone has the fire of change in his/her heart, but the longer I work, the more hopeful I become,” she said. “Grasses regrowing in the Chesapeake Bay is proof that what I’m working for and sweating over is working.”

Erica Ryder, a visitor services specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, enjoyed the outdoors as a young girl and loved exploring the woods near her home. A career in conservation was a natural progression for her, so she attended George Mason University’s Environmental Science program. During college, she read Rachel Carson’s classic 1962 book, Silent Spring, and it profoundly affected her. “Her work jumpstarted the environmental movement in this country,” said Erica, who grew up in Chesapeake. “She persevered when she was told to leave biology to men. She broke many social barriers and paved the way for women scientists.”

Erica joined the Peace Corps in 2008 after finishing college and went to the small community of Alita in Northern Peru, a desert forest region where the temperature can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and rain is extremely rare. In addition, the community had no electricity or running water, a huge challenge for Erica.

Her host family helped her adapt to the new climate, culture, and language, but every day brought a lot of hard work. The family usually woke with the sun and went to bed shortly after dark. Every day Erica and other members of her family retrieved buckets of water from a well near the house.

While in Peru, Erica taught families organic gardening and assisted at the elementary school. The students tended fruit trees and spent two hours a day hauling buckets out of the well to water them. When electricity came to the community during Erica’s second year, an electric pump was installed in the well, so that a drip irrigation system could water the trees. She remembers that getting electricity was exciting for everyone. Once the families had electric lights in their homes, they no longer ate dinner by candlelight.

The most important skill Erica gained while in the Peace Corps was to learn from her failures and try again. She also discovered she could adapt to challenging conditions. This has helped give her the courage to try new things and persevere when times are tough.

Today Erica loves inspiring others as she leads tours at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Her mission is to share this beautiful environment with the public and teach them the importance of providing a protected habitat for wildlife. During visits to the refuge and on Erica’s tours, many visitors experience nature in a way they never have before. Maybe they’ll see dolphins frolicking in the ocean or pelicans sailing in formation above the shore. They might spot a cottonmouth snake swimming on the water or view a peaceful sunset at the end of the day. “I love seeing a person’s face light up when they see something new,” said Erica.

Another responsibility Erica has at the refuge is assisting with the sea turtle conservation program. When left to nature, most baby turtles are eaten by predators. Refuge staff and a group of volunteers try to turn the odds in favor of their survival.

When the sea turtles lay eggs on the beach in summer, a cage is placed over the nests, so the eggs won’t be eaten. Then close to the time the eggs will hatch, volunteers sit beside the nests all night and wait. The volunteers remove any ghost crabs and cover any ghost crab holes because they are the greatest threat to the baby turtles.

When dozens of hatchlings emerge from their nests and crawl to the ocean, refuge staff and volunteers scurry around trying to keep track of them. It’s a big feeling of relief and excitement when the hatchlings reach the ocean, Erica said, though they are still vulnerable to sea predators. “We always hope for the best and wonder about their fate,” Erica said.

Grace Saunders, 25, is a woman on a mission. She’s the Eastern Branch lead scientist for the Elizabeth River Project in Portsmouth, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to restore the health of the Elizabeth River.

What motivates Grace most is the excitement she feels when she revisits a project site and sees more plants and animal species than were there before, a good indication the river is getting healthier. “The improvement is quantifiable,” Grace explained. “We’ve seen six species of fish increase to 25 species. Native species of marsh grasses are repopulating the marshes. And these increases in biodiversity are happening so quickly.”

Currently, the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River has a D score for water quality. Its two tributaries, Indian River and Broad Creek, earned F scores for bacteria. Much of the bacteria is from dog feces. “The big challenge is to change people’s minds, to move people from indifference about the environment to caring,” Grace noted. “Some people don’t feel motivated to recycle or pick up dog poop. It can be hard to believe that little actions improve the health of the environment, but the little things really do add up.” This summer Grace will be running a “Scoop the poop” campaign in Indian River neighborhoods and hopes residents will become more mindful of their pet’s harmful impact.

Another aspect of Grace’s job is flood control. Because Norfolk is so close to sea level, flooding is always an issue. After a heavy rain, the water has nowhere to go. Grace attends civic league meetings with Norfolk homeowners to discuss the issue. One way homeowners can help reduce flooding, said Grace, is to create a rain garden with native plants, which allows standing water to naturally sink back into the groundwater table.

Flood control is also aided by what Grace calls ditch retrofits. Ditches are excavated and re-modeled so that rainwater can easily drip down into the groundwater. Stone, woodchips, and compost are layered within the new ditch, and native plants are planted on the surface, improving water quality and resolving the nuisance of standing water.

Grace, who grew up in rural Suffolk, is proud of her work in the community. She loves it when she goes to a civic meeting and gets 30 homeowners on board with rain gardens and other best management practices. She has gained the trust of these people, and, as a result, they install living shorelines and build oyster habitat to prevent erosion and to improve the health of the Elizabeth River. The more people that participate, the more successful the project will be.

Grace said she’s grateful to be part of this project and remains hopeful we will have a cleaner environment to leave to our children. “The future of the Earth does not have to be so grim,” Grace said. “Humans are an innovative species and caring towards others. If we work together, I believe we can find harmony with our ever-changing environment.”

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Dona Sapristi is a freelance journalist and poet who lives in Newport News. Her interests include health, spirituality, nature, and women’s issues.

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