U-M's Matthaei Botanical Gardens Helped Give Direction to My Life
Recently, I was the recipient of the Nanette LaCross Student Prize through [U-M's] Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum that "honors the student who best exemplifies the spirit of Nanette LaCross...a lawyer who worked tirelessly for women's rights, animal welfare, and many other environmental concerns." Obviously, I was thrilled and so thankful. Nanette LaCross was an inspiration!
The prize is given by UM's Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum to students who have been affiliated with MBGNA in some way. When I was nominated, I was directed to write an essay about my environmental experiences at MBGNA. The two marvelous summers I interned there will stay with me forever. I hope you enjoy my essay and see what a powerful difference MBGNA makes in the lives of students. Again, I am so very thankful for my time at the Gardens. It changed my life.
I was crammed in the back of a car with strangers as windshield wipers furiously combatted rivulets of grey rain. We made awkward small talk while my stomach turned. I thought inwardly: Did I really have to work out in this weather, with people I don't know? That afternoon was my introduction to Matthaei Botanical Gardens: cold, wet, and a little worrisome. I was a freshman in my second month at the University of Michigan when I decided to volunteer at the Campus Farm that resides at the gardens. I loved the outdoors, so I was excited but didn't know what to expect. My first day, that stormy afternoon, gave me pause. In the pouring rain, my newfound peers and I donned yellow, oversized rain jackets and trudged—harvesting knives in hand—to the fields. Again, my mind wondered: What did I sign up for?
However, in the weeks to come, what began as a foul day became a fulfilling doorway. Matthaei was a portal to an entire college career! It was transformative. Strangers became family; the gardens became friends. While we toiled together, we also discovered more commonalities than I could've imagined—and we learned and grew from our relationships. Suddenly, every Friday was occupied with volunteering at the Campus Farm! I met like-minded peers who were passionate about everything from local food systems and sustainable food production to gathering mushrooms and making hummus. Soon, I was recruiting other volunteers! I also belonged to the service organization Circle K, and my happy stories of Matthaei lured other students to my favorite Friday-night service project.
It's challenging to describe the generative impact Matthaei has had on me. It was so influential that I volunteered throughout my freshman year. Then, sophomore year I applied to be an intern. I was chosen to be a part of the Natural Areas crew! My supervisor was Steven Parrish, and it was his guidance and the work we undertook that made my future path clear: habitat restoration. Hard, laborious work was made enjoyable by the cheeky nature of Steve, but, more importantly, by his deep knowledge and many outdoor lessons. Yes, Steve is the gardens and arboretum's natural area manager, but he is even more: an amateur entomologist, a great photographer, and, at times, the comedian. His enthusiasm was infectious. Due to his influence, I learned to look more closely at nature and have the confidence to pursue ecological restoration as a career. The skills I learned at Matthaei are immeasurable.
I also was privileged to work with David Michener on a special project: the Indigenous Heritage Seed Garden. I had the opportunity to witness Anishinaabe ceremonies and plant seeds alongside people from different Anishinaabe communities. I then collected growth data on the garden's different crops to determine seed viability. Learning and sharing food and stories with Native people was an honor; it reinforced the necessity of natural area preservation I was engaging in that summer. Protecting natural areas necessary for the vitality of Indigenous communities is what I want to do with my life.
I owe a debt to MBGNA and the people who work there. They gave me knowledge, skills, friendships, laughter, and a meaningful direction to my life. And now, whenever I see a bright shiny rain poncho, I smile.
Kellee Byard graduated from U-M's Program in the Environment, the undergraduate program overseen by the School for the Environment and Sustainability and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. This post originally appeared on her Kell.Eidoscope blog.