Written by Sebastian Moreno
You would think having a gun flashed at you while doing field work would get you to pack it up, go home, lock yourself in your room, and reconsider your career choices. I won’t pretend to be brave and I will 100% admit, I did finish field work that day, go home, and have a good long cry. I thought nothing could go wrong becoming an urban ecologist since it was a perfect blend of nature and city.
I was born in New York City and I wasn’t really exposed to nature growing up. When I was twelve years old, my family moved to northeast Pennsylvania. I had never seen that many trees before! It was beautiful! Our backyard led into the woods and my parents were always imagining my demise if I went outside. As an adult, I still get the occasional “cuidado, qué se lo come un oso! / be careful that a bear might eat you!”. I started hiking in my teenage years and didn’t really get involved in ecology until halfway through my 3rd year of college.
After completing my undergraduate degree, I felt like I lacked experience and knowledge, so I went back to school to pursue a master’s degree. Knowing I liked working with birds, my advisers and I came up with a project looking at a vacant lot in St. Louis, Missouri and how they impact wildlife. Before Missouri, the furthest west I had ever been was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I knew nothing about St. Louis and Missouri except for what I heard on the news.
For those not familiar with this city, let me give you a QUICK history lesson. The city of St. Louis succeeded from St. Louis county in the late 1800s, creating fixed boundaries. Fast forward a couple of decades and we have a fluctuation of socio-demographics due to racism and segregation. In 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed in a town right outside of St. Louis that only further split an already torn city.
My research took place in the north city, in two neighbourhoods with the highest concentration of vacant lots. I was tasked to identify vegetation structures on these lots and conduct bird counts. Once or twice I did have some company but for the most part I did everything alone. Being a person of colour and from the city, I thought this would be easy.
Day 1 was a bit of a cultural shock for me. I had never seen, first hand, the injustices occurring. I was in the middle of an area of high crime and neglect. During my time in the city I stumbled upon lots of birds, as well as dealers ranging from sex to weapons and everything in between, and plenty of crime scenes. Though the rest of the city had forgotten about them and labelled their home a war zone, there were still plenty of residents who hoped for the best and wanted change.
Summer of 2018, I was doing my bird counts. Just a regular morning walking around the neighbourhoods with my binoculars and clipboard, scribbling any bird I could identify. After two years of walking around the streets, I had developed a small reputation as “Bird Man”. Most people knew that I wasn’t a threat if they saw me walking the streets. A kid comes out of his house and walks down the middle of the street with a roll of money in his hand. I don’t know where he is going, and I didn’t want to find out. Unfortunately, the path he was taking was the same path as my transect. To add to the series of unfortunate events, it looked like I had been following him for the last 50 meters. One of us had noticed this, the other was too busy staring at birds.
The kid turns around and lifts his t-shirt and, on his waistband, sits a gun. My mind goes blank. I just remember his high school’s “Class of 2019” t-shirt and thinking “I’m going to get shot by a 17-year-old who thinks I want to steal his money. When all I am trying to do is find out how many freaking birds are on this block!” My mom always warned me that being outside would lead to my end. Had she been right?
That moment I perfected my elevator speech about my project. Rattled it off in one giant breathe and hoped this was good enough. It was. He let me walk away and I was going to be able to bird another day.
I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t grow slightly jaded after that. I was upset I was conducting scientific research in an area where science was pretty low on their priority list. But the show must go on. I needed to collect data so I can get my degree.
One morning, while doing my counts, I came across a kid waiting for his bus outside his apartment building. Don’t worry, there was no gun involved here. He was about 8 years old. He remembered me from the last time I was around and said he had been waiting for me. He was hoping I would come around again so he could show me the different birds he had spotted around his complex and the various nests he had found.
Through all his excitement, I only thought it was fair that I asked him to join me conduct my count that was in his complex. After our bird count, we had a pleasant nerd off about birds and I walked him back to the bus stop.
That small moment had a big influence on what I want to do. I realised how important it is to reach undeserved communities and provide them equal opportunities and access to nature. I know what sparked my interest in ecology, I’m sure all of you can also recount your tales. I want to be able to provide these moments to young individuals. This fall, I will be starting my PhD and will tailor my dissertation to work with undeserved community members. These kids are our future and we need them to continue our work, and frankly, our fight to save the planet. I would be proud and happy if I am able to influence just one child to pursue a career in science and not follow the same path that others in their neighbourhood have taken.
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