Nature Inspires – and So Do Conservation Volunteers


Originally featured on American Eagle Outfitters’ blog Made to Last. This guest blog post was written by Claire W., Associate Design Director at American Eagle Outfitters. Claire participated in SCA’s Alternative Spring Break this March with college students from across the country. AE has been the presenting sponsor of SCA’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program for five years in a row.

As I navigated the winding dirt roads of the Mojave in my totally impractical rented white sports car, my stomach was in knots. The directions read “pass a cluster of rocks and turn right at the first unmarked gate.” I’m used to Hopstop telling me which subway exit to take – how on earth would I find my fellow conservation volunteers in the middle of a desert?

Some quick background: I’m a CAD designer by trade, based in New York City. I work for American Eagle Outfitters, which annually sponsors the Student Conservation Association’s Alternative Spring Break. I am also an avid volunteer, and my company decided to recognize my community service by sending me to Joshua Tree National Park where I joined a group of college students who chose to restore a fire-damaged section of Joshua Tree National Park rather than burn themselves in the Mexican sun.

Just after dawn and a few tours of the wrong unmarked roads, I finally stumbled across base camp and quickly joined a huddle of young women and men planning the day’s activities. Next thing I knew, we were doing yoga poses to limber up for our work day. Doing a sun salutation was an entirely different experience at Joshua Tree. Standing below stunning rock formations, my face was warmed by the actual sun, and although it wasn’t easy twisting into a human pretzel in long johns and jeans, it was refreshing not to be crammed into a sweaty studio with high-strung New Yorkers adjusting their yoga mats to accommodate inconsiderate latecomers.

I’d prepped for weeks with my personal trainer—flipping tractor tires, swinging sledgehammers, running with a sandbag on my shoulders – but nothing could have prepared me for carrying pick axes and a backpack loaded with water up a steep hill in eighty degree heat. Hiking for me means ascending the subway escalators in heels, and I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really know what to do. So I swiftly donned my fresh-out-of-the-box boots (green suede, sweater-lined, very chic) and followed my crew mates up the trail.

Conquering my fear of heights and deadly weapons, I grabbed a pick and set about digging holes – not as easy as one might imagine on a steep slope where the arid soil is more like solid rock. We’d plant baby Joshua Trees between two plastic tubes that houses gelatinous, sticky “dry water” that would feed the seedlings for up to two years. We then encircled each plant in a chicken wire cage, or “manicure killers” as I like to call them, and numbered them for the Park Service to track in future years.

Thirty of us planted 200 trees in just two days. We were covered in dirt and dust, and while the sun was relentless, so were our spirits. We had been part of something really worthwhile, as in 20 years’ time the scorched terrain will look just as verdant as the surrounding hills. I ate lunch on a huge rock instead of in front of my PC, and for the first time in my life I nibbled on trail mix in an appropriate surrounding.

In subsequent days, we removed invasive weeds from a basin (I can now pick the evil Sahara mustard plant from a police line-up) and wandered the landscape in search of desert tortoises as part of a wildlife survey. I also pulled a cactus spike from a student’s leg, watch giant-eared rabbits race every which way, and successfully avoided the wrong end of numerous scorpions. Never again will I complain about the lack of bathrooms in New York when, for a week, it was just me and some bushes…and the occasional rattlesnake.

As my only prior knowledge of this region came from Road Runner cartoons and Saturday afternoon westerns, I was amazed by the desert’s diversity. I had no idea so many plants could flourish in this unique ecosystem. I was also surprised by the variety of backgrounds among the student volunteers; I expected to be the only textile designer, but sort of thought everyone else would be a geology major or environmental scientist. In fact, most weren’t there to pursue their studies. The majority of my new-found friends just wanted to give back. It was inspiring to be surrounded by a group of people who, despite looming finals, had chosen a different path. We are known as a generation of materialistic consumers, and purveyors of instant gratification, but my team’s selfless and painstaking efforts on behalf of this all-but-alien place left a deep and lasting impression.

Gazing up each night at constellations undimmed by city lights and waking up each morning with only the sunrise as my alarm clock was truly magical. No Facebook updates boasting of my travels, no gift shops in which to consume – just sheer, hard work in the pursuit of positive change.

I am extremely grateful to my employers for allowing me the freedom and opportunity to walk the walk. It would have been much easier for them to donate a few tee shirts or make an additional contribution. However, I would never have been exposed to the fantastic work that the National Park Service and SCA undertake every day. I came away with a renewed commitment to get back to nature, and even though I’m back to wearing dresses and heels to work, my hiking boots are waiting by the front door, facing a special place that’s 3,000 miles away yet never far from my heart.

Thanks to American Eagle for helping SCA give hundreds of college students the opportunity to give back to the planet during Alternative Spring Break. And, thanks to Claire for this blog post!