by Yvette Yuan

When I first signed up for this trip, I signed up for an alternative break that addresses sustainability in a state that I have never been to. After the week-long stay deep in the forest, I am fortunate to have gained much more than what I envisioned, in particular, a unique relationship with people and nature.

The Big Cypress Branch out trip primarily focuses on restoration of natural habitats, although I did not completely understand the nature of the root cause before my departure. This can be vague and misleading for a person who is unfamiliar with the needs of the preserve. In fact, to me the significant issue seemed to be reforestation until I actually talked with park rangers and experienced the tasks. National Preserves, compared to National Parks, are less controlled and developed. For humans, this means hunting is allowed, campers and hikers welcomed. For the nature, this means that it is left more as the way it naturally is. Therefore, when some campers visit, they leave behind materials, possibly hazardous to the environment. And it is good to take out those traces, to restore the habitat to the way they were before.

While it is necessary to learn basic facts about the community partner and the fellow trip members before departure, I have always believed that we learn the most when we are actually in the community. Communication is the key, and in this case, with the employees at the Big Cypress National Preserve. We met Josh, a young intern just of our age, who spent the past six month in the preserve; we also met two maintenance persons who spent decades working in the preserve. And it is from those two groups of people, representing different perspectives, that we learned the most about the nature and the root cause of our tasks. Josh introduced to us the history of the two habitats that we restored, one is a burned down private residence house, the other a deserted camp site. While we were laboring in the field, we understood that tar paper and metal are extremely toxic to the earth. Shattered glass can wound animals. When we spend hours digging, pulling and dragging out tarps out of the ground, we saw how intact they were, and it was a clear lesson that how lasting an impact plastic can impose on the nature. The two maintenance persons, in contrast, after the many years with the swamp, are naturally very familiar with every bit of its facts. They were telling us about the panthers, the deer and the crocodiles they know so well, about their habits, as if the animals are old friends. They were literally the trailblazers: the trails that we drove hours along towards the heart of wilderness were made by those men. It is interesting to hear a conversation between the two groups over invading species. While the young intern argued that the park needs to eradicate the exotic plums, the maintenance person expressed that he does not understand why to get rid of those plants while they grow well and feed the birds. Such disagreement represented the conflict between new and conventional attitudes towards forest restoration. To the former generation in the swamp, knowledge of the forest are mostly derived empirically; restoration does not directly connect with biodiversity and threats from invading species. This attitude is changing and we can see potential that the environment can be better treated when we are equipped with both empirical scientific knowledge of the nature.

I was glad to see that the group carries a strong critical thinking spirit, as we always question why we are doing the tasks we are asked to do. The reason that we are cleaning up the sites is that they can be used more effectively as a resting area. It is important to know that while creating a camping site seems counterintuitive in that it implicitly invites more people presence in the natural preserve while might be ensued by improper dispose of trash. However, Josh explained that instead of a full camp site, the formerly burned site has a working chimney left and that could be effectively used as a cooking site by campers. On the one hand, this is a good service to provide for campers, on the other hand, in order to maintain safety, the park would like to devise a mechanism that guarantees safe use of the stove to prevent incendiary fires.

When we are completely deprived of signals on cell phones starting from the first day, this trip became a rare escape from social media. In the beginning this was a little uncomfortable but as soon as the first dinner, we experienced real, quality human communication. Personally, I prefer not to be addicted to virtual interaction on cell phones, and this trip largely helped me to completely overcome dependence on social medias. In this way, I see this branch out trip as a successful one because there was a high level of respect and genuine interest among the team members, and it enhanced communication and understanding in this small society of ours. Those seven days, the talking over meal preparation and over self made simple meals are some good times that I cherish.

Since this is the first trip that Branch out conduct at this site, it is understandable that there are things to be improved, most importantly, mission and vision that is preferably more clear. But we all have faith in the program that this should be an easy problem to fix. Another problem that I see is within the community partner. There is a lack of organization and man power, which in turn results in low efficiency. When I picked the scraps of glass and rust out from the moist earth that is almost indistinguishable, I questioned, where does the trash go after being picked out? When will it be? And with how much care and man power? The group felt a little discouraged when we were told that those will go to landfill than recycling programs because of the amount of care we took in cleaning up the sites. What also bothered me is that whether those trash that we pile at the entrance of the site will be picked up by the maintenance person soon enough so they do not decompose into the earth and water once more. Also, I doubted if the small scraps we picked out will be collected by the limited power of one or two employees. However, what we came to believe from this trip is that, a little good that we tried to create is valuable and better than no good at all. It is not perfection that we aim at, but rather pushing ourselves to our best capacity to do good. This principle can be extended to other aspects of life, and it is the most important lesson that I have learned from this trip.