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A Sense of Place

After living in California my whole life, I spent six months working on a research project in Panama immediately following my graduation from college. I’ve always loved adventure and living in another country only heightened my desire to see more of the world. When I returned to my hometown in Southern California, I immediately started to dream of my next ecology escapade; perhaps it would be to Chile, or Europe, or Alaska or the East Coast! The possibilities seemed endless and while rumors of a wildly infectious disease circulated in January of 2020, I spent nearly every day typing out cover letters, filling in online applications, and furiously hoping that I would find a job that would let me leave California.

On a whim, I applied to a local internship in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to do plant surveys, figuring that I could temporarily work there while continuing to search for other open positions. Little did I know, this internship would permanently change my perspective on what adventure can mean.

Padre’s Shooting Star

Even though this position wasn’t in the far-off land that I had dreamed of, when I started a week later, I was still excited to be working outside, and in the mountains I had grown up loving no less. My childhood home is a mere five-minute walk from the trails that I would now be working in. In fact, I spent much of my younger years going on family hikes and daydreaming about how I could survive off of the land. I even went so far as to research which plants were edible, which offered medicinal effects and others that could be used to make baskets, sewing needles, and shelter.

As I grew older my fascination with the nearly infinite resources in the nearby hills dwindled, and even though I still loved my mountains, I stopped paying attention to them; I often ran several miles without taking a single second to enjoy the complexities of life all around me. While in college, I had even less time to recreate, and on the rare opportunities I had to hike I often chose to spend it on new trails in new places.

My internship gave me not only the opportunity to spend significant time in the hills every day but more importantly forced me to look up close at the intricate details that made up the world around me. Under the tutelage of two incredible botanists, I learned more about the mountains in two weeks than I had in the previous fifteen years. By giving names to the plants lining the trails, the ecosystems suddenly came into sharp focus, as if putting glasses on for the first time in my life. What previously had been a blur of green with punctuations of color, slowly crystalized into a diverse and intricate array of habitats and food sources.

I started to develop a relationship with the land. Little seedlings of my favorite plants give me the same warm fuzzy feeling as seeing a puppy does. And when I stumble across an invasive plant deep in an otherwise well-preserved ecosystem, a quick hatred rolls over me and I feel compelled to remove it. Most importantly though, now whenever I take the time to sit and watch and listen, my chest swells with the same pride, belonging and calmness that a particularly poignant song or movie scene may evoke. The world seems to be saying “This your place, you are a part of it.”

Makenna Brown

When COVID-19 arrived full force in California, and eliminated the possibility of moving far away, I felt no sense of loss. I had found the adventure I had been so desperately seeking right in my own figurative backyard. In fact, I fell so deeply in love with the plants and ecosystems of Southern California that I no longer had any desire to leave. I pivoted my focus to finding a job in California. Lo and behold, several months into applying, I was offered the opportunity to be a restoration technician at Laguna Canyon Foundation. Here, I get to help restore diversity to areas that once were fields of invasive plants, and I couldn’t be happier. Every day is its own adventure, a foray into the minutiae that make up a healthy ecosystem and I am lucky enough to be part of it.

So, as we enter into what seems like the millionth month of COVID, I implore you to take a closer look at what’s around you. Maybe plants won’t be the thing that connects you to your surroundings, maybe it will be birds, or clouds, or mosses, or insects, or mushrooms. Maybe it will simply be being still and letting the world go about its business while you observe and enjoy. Whatever it is, I hope you can find adventure in the details and while doing so also discover a sense of place and a feeling of contentment.

Feature photo by Makenna Brown; Humboldt’s Lily (endangered)