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Reflections on a sense of place

Nelson alumna Nadine Lymn reflects on life in suburban D.C.

June 27, 2012

When asked where I grew up, I often say, "nowhere."

As a former Army brat, I was frequently uprooted as a child. But I've now lived 13 years in Reston, Virginia, one of the nation's few planned communities -- an on going social-economic-environmental experiment.

Nelson alumna Nadine Lymn and daughter
Lymn and her daughter at their
Reston, Virginia home.

Robert E. Simon, the founder of Reston, deliberately retained broad swaths of green space, designed community areas that encourage walking over driving, and mixed public housing with single family homes, townhouses, apartments and condominiums. Reston even employs natural resource experts and offers informal environmental education at its Nature House, nestled in 72 acres of hardwood forest.

Reston's traits coaxed me to settle there in spite of the 20-mile commute to my job in downtown Washington, D.C., where I work for the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

Fortunately, I do not have to plunge into the area's notorious rushhour traffic to get there. An excellent bus service, combined with the metro train, enable me to commute while dozing, reading, working or chatting with fellow commuters. I've developed a degree of camaraderie with them, particularly the bus riders, with whom I feel a contented familiarity. Simple human interactions of wishing each other a good evening or commiserating over some recent political shenanigan are regular and satisfying aspects of my days.

I get the best of both worlds: I work in the nation's capital, with its bustle, sirens and the commotion associated with frequent presidential motorcades roaring by my office, its vast array of eateries and its marble-floored congressional halls. But on evenings and weekends I retreat to my sanctuary in Reston, where I live with my family in a townhouse community, am frequently awoken by the calls of a barred owl outside my bedroom window and enjoy miles of paths through fern-carpeted forests.

As ESA's director of public affairs, I'm responsible for the organization's public policy and media initiatives. Much of this work requires sitting at my desk tracking environmental and science policy developments, writing and editing, suiting up and skipping off to Capitol Hill for a meeting or briefing, schmoozing at receptions, and in general, doing a lot of things, that, while they ostensibly help further the goals of this ecological community, are far removed from what drew me to environmental studies in the Nelson Institute in the first place.

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So, I've brought a little bit of my work home to Reston by replacing the anemic hybrid azaleas and lackluster lawn in front of my townhouse with a pollinator garden. In the spring and summer months, false indigo, gayfeather, wild geranium, Joe-Pye weed, cone flowers, milkweed, butterfly weed and Virginia sweetspire beckon a steady entourage of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

A small children's bench serves as the landing place for the two-legged creatures in the neighborhood. It makes me happy to see my eight-year old daughter flanked by her friends, their heads bowed while they lean in to look at a butterfly or perch in the dogwood to swap secrets or sample the nectar from the native honeysuckle that embraces our street light.

Recently, I brought my work home in a different way. In March, ESA co-sponsored an event in Reston in which I hosted my former graduate advisor Stan Temple (UW-Madison professor emeritus of conservation, forest and wildlife ecology and environmental studies and an ESA member) to show the new Aldo Leopold film Green Fire.

Thanks to the efforts of the wonderful staff at Reston's Nature House, a full complement of Virginia residents turned out, many of whom had never heard of Leopold or the role he played in shaping how we manage our natural resources. The post-film discussion was lively, with Stan telling memorable anecdotes about Leopold and his continuing influence on today's conservation efforts and urban community gardens.

As a bonus, Stan spent a night at our house, where he riveted my daughter with tales of the animals he found and brought home as a young boy -- snakes and turtles, a starling, and of course, his beloved red-tailed hawks.

Maybe it's growing up with her own little pollinator garden and watching Planet Earth with her grandfather. Or maybe it was Stan's visit that recently prompted my daughter to announce: "I want to be an ecologist when I grow up and try and save endangered animals. But I might also be a dancer."

Nadine Lymn is director of public affairs for the Ecological Society of America in Washington, D.C.