Recent NVCT intern from William & Mary, Nicholas Elsberg, shares his journey to loving nearby nature and how his experience has inspired him to make a difference.
I’ve lived in Northern Virginia my entire life, so it’s a bit ironic that some of my first and favorite memories are from a different state altogether. When I was growing up, my grandparents owned a house and some land in the Maryland countryside, which my family would visit occasionally. Being a little kid who spent all his time in the Arlington suburbs, these trips gave me access to an untamed wilderness that was awe-inspiring to my elementary-school-aged self. The drive itself felt like an adventure; going over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as we passed through Maryland was something I always looked forward to and an experience that was simultaneously terrifying and incredible. I remember spending hours traipsing through forests of towering trees, running around open fields with my grandparents’ dogs to the point of exhaustion, and sneaking out at night to watch fireflies glow like a universe of floating stars. Unfortunately, that property was eventually sold, and lost with it was a piece of my childhood. The experience profoundly changed the way I viewed nature. No longer was it something to be taken for granted, a place that would always be waiting for me to visit, but something that could be lost forever.
As I got older, I became more involved with scouting, which gave me another outlet to get outside through camping trips, hiking, and volunteer events. In many ways, my scouting troop was like a second family to me, offering a place to explore Virginia’s many natural areas with people who shared the same values and respect for the outdoors that I did. Unfortunately, growing up, I remained acutely aware that these areas were slowly vanishing, a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that never seemed to disappear.
I remember talking to my dad, who spent much of his late childhood in Northern Virginia, about his experiences and how he remembered the region. He would often express a mixture of surprise and dismay at how rapidly the area had developed and urbanized to the point of being nearly unrecognizable.
Even in my neighborhood, green spaces were becoming more of a rarity, as they were bulldozed to make space for bigger and bigger houses. On a personal level, this environmental loss became impossible to ignore in 2018 when my troop’s trip to Philmont, a ranch in New Mexico and arguably the most popular backpacking destination for scouts around the country, was canceled after wildfires ravaged the property.
Coming into college, I knew I wanted to do something to help address the crisis I could see unfolding all around me, but I had no idea how that translated into a practical application. It felt like a million possibilities were all pulling in different directions, leaving me indecisively trapped in the center of it all. Ultimately, given my interests in conservation, ecology, and micro and cellular biology, I decided to double major in Environmental Science and Biology, which seemed to be a good middle ground. Part of the reason I chose William and Mary was the close community on campus, which was evident from my first visit. Because of this, I believed (perhaps naively) that everyone would share the same respect for the outdoors and conservation that I did. While I did find many like-minded people, I was also astonished at the equally large number of people who had given up. I remember my roommate would refuse to do things like turn the lights off or not leave the sink running.
When I talked to him about it, he said: “why bother? None of this makes a difference”. The more I became informed about environmental issues, the more I noticed perspectives like his and a cynical, jaded outlook on life that seemed to plague my generation. And it made sense; I’d found myself thinking this way in the past, losing hope as the news filled with stories of corporate greed, shootings, climate change, and other tragedies which seemed too large to fight. That being said, others made it their personal battle to try and fix the world, and I respected them greatly for it. They held rallies on campus, handed out flyers, and hosted other events meant to inform people, which I tried to attend whenever possible. Still, all of it felt so isolated from the rest of the world and, because of that, somewhat futile.
I wanted to find a way to make real change, to have something tangible that I could work with. I just wasn’t sure where to find it.
I first heard the words “GIS” in my Intro to Environmental Science class, where my professor declared how invaluable it was as a science tool with an excited, almost zealous look in his eye. I should have listened to him then, but being the naïve freshman I was, I wrote him off as being out of touch. After all, why would I want to be slouched over a computer when I could be off having adventures in the field? It was for more practical reasons (it was required for my major), and with a little nudging from friends, that I finally decided to register for an intro GIS class, not expecting it to be of much interest. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve never been good with technology, but even I got the hang of the software relatively quickly, and its value was immediately apparent when I did.
I could generate meaningful statistical data about an area rapidly and with little effort, which could then be used for all sorts of different conservation-related purposes.
For one of my class projects, I was tasked with calculating “favorability percentages” for hypothetical research stations in Washington state based on factors like topography and proximity to roads, among other things. While the project itself was somewhat unrealistic (these hypothetical stations were for cryptid research!), it struck me how useful this information could be in a real-world conservation context and how much I could find without even needing to leave my home.
From my perspective, conservation and climate change had always presented somewhat of an abstract problem; a coming storm that seemed to inhabit a surreal, emotional part of reality. It was impossibly large and insurmountable and because of that, was sometimes easy to ignore. However, learning GIS sparked a sort of paradigm shift in the way I thought.
Finding ways to preserve the environment was just as much a hard science as Biology or Math. And as I knew from all my classes in these subjects, science is simply a matter of collecting data, and data leads to solutions. The task of protecting nature suddenly seemed much less intimidating and as a result, more approachable.
I still have no clue where my life will take me after graduation, whether I become involved with research, conservation work, or something else entirely. Unfortunately, with climate change and other environmental problems just around the corner, my generation cannot be afforded the luxury of waiting on a solution. The time to act is now, and regardless of what I do, I’ll always keep that in mind. That’s why I love the interdisciplinary nature of GIS so much; it can be applied to a mind-boggling number of different fields, all of which offer unique perspectives and solutions. To me, GIS provides a sense of hope and focus. I know so many people who are passionate about the problems that plague our world and want change, but passion without any way to channel it can only do so much. Obviously, GIS isn’t the solution to everything, and I’m by no means an expert with the software, but for me, it served and continues to serve as that “channeler” I was looking for.
I encourage other young people to do the same with the things they care about; take the time to dig deep into all the resources and tools available to you, and chances are some will stand out. If we do this, I’m confident that this next generation of scientists, advocates, and so much more can change things for the better in ways our ancestors could only dream.