Written by Macie Edwards
A friend recently sent me an article about an online community called Lonely Conservationists, a group that I was surprised to have never heard of before, as the name itself was immediately relatable.
I read this article with a tight throat, choking back tears. It is so reflective of what I have been dealing with in this field and the challenges that I am still facing. And while it is relieving and encouraging to know that I am not alone in this deepening state of loneliness and frustration, it does not change the reality.
I decided on this career path in high school. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I loved animals, the outdoors, and Steve Irwin. I wanted the privilege and honour of being a National Park Ranger. I wanted to make a difference and do something that felt worthwhile. I wanted to contribute to the protection and better understanding of our natural world. I entered this career with a passion that has since been slipping farther and farther away.
I interned for the National Park Service for one season (May-October), and in that short time had my rose-tinted view of the institution completely wiped away. I made roughly $3.25/hr, and worked a second job for a couple of months to earn some extra money. I wasn’t the only one who did this. Others in the program collected food stamps to help pay for groceries. In this time, the park didn’t even bother to give us the dignity of a uniform that would have made us recognisable as park employees to the hundreds of visitors we came in contact with on a daily basis. “Do you even work here?” was a question we frequently answered.
I also came to realise how political the institution is, how difficult and confusing the hiring process can be, and how competitive it is. It can take years of seasonal work to even qualify for a permanent position. I have met many underpaid, undervalued, and jaded employees. “We get paid in sunsets” is a phrase I’ve heard or read many times now, more often than not with a sharp tone of cynicism behind it.
I have since given up on my dream of wearing the NPS uniform. It feels unattainable and no longer worth it.
The majority of field jobs are seasonal, each typically lasting for six months. This vagabond, rootless, constantly fluctuating lifestyle is one I wish that I was better at. But if I’m being honest with myself, it is a way of living that is slowly eating away at my well being. I live in six month increments. I work in the summer, then live with my parents in the winter, taking whatever part-time, table-waiting job I can find until another summer season starts. All of my friends are long distance, scattered around the country, because most are in the same line of work I am. I know that it is very unlikely that I will ever see many of them again as life continues to pull us in different directions.
I feel like a failure because I am unemployed (again). I am uncertain of my future. And I am so sick and tired of having to answer the same three questions over and over again. “How’s the job search going?”, “Find a job yet?”, “Why don’t you just get a permanent job?”. People even wonder why I don’t just get a seasonal job in the winter, somewhere down south. I have to explain that it’s not that easy, and that, believe it or not, despite the stress and anxiety, I feel blessed to have that kind of quality time with my family while I can.
Not many people know about my first ever panic attack. It happened last winter, while driving home from my brother’s house, one week before I left home again for another season in North Dakota, 2,000 miles away. I was already crying, upset about my career, leaving my family again and everything I miss out on when I’m gone, the uncertainty of where it is all going, the chronic stress from months of unemployment, feeling like a failure for living with my parents in order to save money while I look for the next job…and then I started hyperventilating.
My entire body began to tingle and go numb. There was a black vignette forming around my vision. Now, mind you, this was all happening while I was speeding down the interstate, still thirteen miles away from my exit, and trapped in the left-hand lane next to a semi. It was not ideal, to say the least.
I come from a family of police officers and public servants. My grandfather, parents, uncles, and now brother and brother-in-law were and are all cops. My aunt was a 911 dispatcher, and my grandmother was a nurse. It is a family legacy that is so ingrained into who we are and how I was raised. My parents never pressured me to join the “family business”, but now that I haven’t, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider among the people that I’m closest to. My parents and my brother have a shared experience and connection with each other that I will never have. And it is hard for them to really understand my work and all that it entails. I’m lonely when I’m with them, and I’m lonely when I’m away from them. They wonder why I cling to my phone, the gateway to every connection I have with all of those long distance friends and social media groups that I lean on for understanding.
From the moment I graduated college, I applied the policy of walking through whatever doors opened to me. I take the job that I’m offered. That’s how I ended up in North Dakota, where I will soon be returning for my third season. The article talked about good and bad supervisors. I may not know where I am or where I’m going, but I do know that I wouldn’t have gotten this far or be the person I am today without the mentors I’ve met during my brief time in this career. I feel very lucky in that respect. One of the few reasons that I am going back to North Dakota is for the supervisor that has guided me and taught me so much over the last two summers. I owe him a lot and will be very sad when the time inevitably comes for me to add him to the list of people I’ll probably never see again.
But I still feel stuck, stagnant and uncertain in my future. I am considering a master’s degree because I feel like I have to, even though I have no desire to live on a college campus for another two years or put myself into another $25,000 of debt. I am considering a career change, simply because the longer I do this, the more I crave stability and a physically present community instead of just a virtual one. I’m tired of feeling like a failure and ashamed of barely earning enough money every year to support myself, of still being single because I’m never in one place long enough to establish a relationship, and feeling emotionally exhausted from the constant cycle of goodbyes to people I care about. This all isn’t to say that I don’t feel incredibly blessed for the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, the places I’ve seen and lived, and the stories I’ve accumulated. But I’m not sure that’s enough.
I don’t know how to find my passion in conservation again. I question what the point even is to the work that I do and how much longer I can do it before I completely lose sight of the bigger picture. Even the guidance of my mentors, friends, and this beautiful new community hasn’t given me the clarity that I feel like I need to move forward.
For more of Macie, visit @macieedwards94 on Instagram