Lonely Conservationists

Cameron ( Defying setbacks and settling)

Written by Cameron Foster

Hello all, my name is Cameron Foster, I’m 28, I am a nature photographer, a birder and currently pursuing my undergrad in Environmental Studies, I have been meaning to write one of these for a while so here we go.

I grew up in the greater Columbia/ Lexington area, in my early childhood my mother raised me and my older brother on her own, so money was tight we couldn’t really afford to go anywhere nor did my mother have time to take us between work and attending college. I always found myself drawn to books about nature, at school when we would go to the library I would find myself drawn to those books, in second grade I even got to participate in a local program called “Champions Of The Environment” for a project we did on storm water runoff,  we all got medals, which features a Great Egret walking through a marsh.

My mom finished school and soon after met my stepfather and we moved from our rough neighbourhood in Columbia to a nicer area in Lexington. I always had trouble fitting in all throughout elementary and middle school, so moving wasn’t very hard for me. However, this meant when I wasn’t in school I wasn’t doing much on weekends, so my mom reached out to my aunt and asked if I could spend my weekends with them as she was working a lot and didn’t want me just doing nothing.

My aunt of course agreed, now my aunt and uncle had inherited a lake house and my uncle would take me and my cousin fishing every Saturday. We would get up at dawn and head out on the boat and fish all day, some of my favourite memories are the ducks and geese flying overhead and the sound of them landing on the water. I loved the night sounds in the spring the frogs and insects, there was even a nesting platform for osprey built on top of a telephone pole which the Osprey used every year. Watching them and the great blue herons is always joy.

At this time, I was watching at ton of Nat Geo, Animal Planet, and Discovery Channel programs so my love for nature was at an all-time high. This love wasn’t shared by everyone and my family was always kind of picking on me for my obsession, except my grandfather and grandmother who were always interested in what I had to say.

Eventually I made some friends and I stopped going to the lake with my family because I had grown apart from them ideologically since I had found my second obsession, music – specifically punk and hardcore. I spent a lot of my high school years going to local shows, my mom always kept my interest in nature with bird feeders in our back yard. I remember a red-shouldered hawk picking off a plump squirrel in our backyard once and I remember when there was a hunt for the ivory-billed woodpecker when it was thought to have been rediscovered.

She got a camera for her birthday one year and she would take pictures of the hummingbirds at her feeders. This fascinated me and she allowed me to use the camera from time to time. I struggled a lot in high school. I have been diagnosed with ADHD but wasn’t being treated and along with a bunch of other things, they led to me dropping out. Eventually however, I got my GED but I never thought I could get into college and during my time in high school we were still being told you could either go to college or go straight to work but I can tell you after working many different jobs from dish washing to welding, you face low pay or decent pay but with no job stability. A lot of welding work in my area is contractor based so you could be at a job a month or three months but when the jobs done, you’re done.

I eventually landed a job at a hospital and I worked that for a while, but I became so depressed at that job because I just hated it and in the long term, that wasn’t good for me or the other party. I just wasn’t happy. I can’t remember what triggered it but I really got into hiking and camping while working at that job, I now think it’s because of my subconscious yearning to get back into nature. One day I remember asking my mom if I could borrow her camera and she said that I could have it. I was taking terrible photos of every bird plant or animal I could haha.

After work one day I got home and visited this little wetland heritage preserve near my home at the time that ha these lovely aromatic atlantic-white cedar trees. It was here in one moment with an eastern tiger swallowtail that I decided that I wanted to do something to protect places. This butterfly who normally would not be interested in me getting near it allowed me in its space and I took my favourite photo I’ve ever taken. I wanted to go back to school but when I brought this up to my significant other at the time she said:

“I don’t think you’re smart enough for college.”

This really put me down for a while. This moment was short lived because after this my relationship ended, I moved in with some friends and rediscovered myself a little bit. I was still taking photos and loving it until one unfortunate evening my camera was stolen along with all my old lenses. This was tough for me. Eventually me and my friends had to move to different houses and I had nowhere to go and I couldn’t afford to live on my own so I had to move back in with my mom and stepdad, this was really upsetting for me because I felt like I had failed in life.

It was at this time I got really serious about getting into a career in conservation, it was always something I was thinking about while living with my friends but I was spending a lot of time healing and really figuring out me and I still felt like I wasn’t smart enough. As I was researching careers it became apparent to me that I would need volunteer experience. The places to volunteer that kept coming up were national parks and the one nearest to me is Congaree National Park, a beautiful old growth bottomland hardwood forest full of towering bald cypress and tupelo. I fell in love with this place, this place helped me further heal myself and volunteering here was an absolute joy and I only wish I had more time to continue.

At one point during this time I was going to Congaree every weekend hiking or kayaking the drawling waters of Cedar Creek. I was reading books like Sand County Almanac, Silent Spring and a myriad of others. However, at this time I was really trying hard to get into school but it was really tough trying to get into a school by myself, I was trying to figure out what paperwork to do, what financial info I needed. It was all very frustrating and I stalled out a few times.

I eventually got into a tech school so I could get my core classes out of the way and I should only have about a semester left before I transfer to a four year school. I met my now girlfriend of two years who has been the absolute biggest champion for me in school and in my photography, she has given so much support to me that has been so crucial, and I love her dearly.

Shortly after we met is when I got really into birding beyond just a curiosity and to boot I got a new better camera with better lenses and I have been upgrading my kit slowly over time, I try to use my photography to tell the history of the subject and get people interested in nature and educate people about the plight of species on this earth.

I have been really pushing my photography to get better and better and as such I have made a lot of really good friends and connections through Instagram. I have been featured by Audubon SC for my prothonotary warbler photos and I look forward to doing some stuff with them and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation in the future. I work in retail at the moment and I love the people I work with they are incredible, I worked briefly at a wildlife rehab and I work at a park part time in the summer though I was absent this summer because I was promoted to supervisor at my main job but I plan to be back next summer. I’m also working on a birding walk at Congaree which I’m super excited for.

It has not all been easy though. I must work full time and I attend classes full time and that’s been tough on me mentally. The hardest thing though about being in school right now though is the political and physical climate, there have been more than a few times that I have broken down from sheer climate anxiety. Sometimes it feels like there won’t be anything to study or save when I get out of school. I feel like I’m trapped and watching things fall apart, but I had a really interesting conversation with a man today while out birding, we were talking about climate change and he said, “unfortunately people your age are going to have clean up the mess that people my age made” this thought has crossed my mind many times and this upset me because it seems like he’s already given up and that really fired me up.

I told him that I know there are a lot of motivated people who are working on steering this ship in the right direction and I believe that we are going to save this planet because we must. When I have kids, I want them to be able to go fishing and see those magnificent flying Vs in the sky and hear the splashing swoosh sound of ducks landing on water. I believe we will fix this because I must.

If anything is apparent from what I have written above, it is that despite all the setbacks (be them minor or major), I will not just settle. I nearly did just that when I was working at that hospital in that bad relationship and if I had it would have been the death of me, but I will not settle to just clean up someone else’s mess. I’m going to do everything I can to make this planet better.

For more of Cameron, check out @birdsorbust on Instagram


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