From Walking to Hiking to a Career Change
Our Land Stewardship Director Linda Rohleder in the field, hunting for invasive plants.
I moved to New Jersey in 1990 to start work as a computer programmer at AT&T. I’d never been particularly interested in the outdoors other than being a Girl Scout and making half-hearted attempts to have a flower garden as a kid. I was not really into being out in nature. But here I am anyway after a long journey. It all started when I joined a walking club.
On weekends we drove to various places in the region and did 6-mile walks. Sometimes we would do two in one weekend or even three. The national convention involved a week of two walks each day, and by the end of the week, I was in the best shape of my life. I was ready for more of a physical challenge – I was ready to move on to hiking. Remembering that the Appalachian Trail was supposed to pass through New Jersey, I did some research and headed out on a day hike from the Delaware Water Gap to Sunfish Pond. The experience was addictive, and I was soon planning additional day hikes along other parts of the AT in New Jersey. On my hikes, I noted birds I had never seen before and plants that I didn’t know the names of. I wanted to know what these birds and plants were. I also found that at the end of the day I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to stay out there. I needed to learn how to camp.
I chose a Sierra Club service trip to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. We would be camping at a KOA campground with our cars right there, so if I found I had forgotten something crucial, I could drive to a nearby store. I learned that my borrowed tent leaked and that otherwise I was well prepared for camping.
The most important revelation came as a result of our volunteer work. The volunteer coordinator there, Sue Wolf, had us pulling invasive plants. After our group had worked on an area all day, we realized that once the invasive plants were gone, there was very little left. The devastation caused by these plants made a big impact on me. I wanted to learn more.
Sue gave me a book to read called Noah’s Garden by Sarah Stein. It told about Mrs. Stein’s experiences as she and her husband developed their Pound Ridge, NY, property. At first she noticed all the wildlife disappearing as they cleared the native vegetation and put in lawn. Then she set about learning about how to bring that wildlife back. In the process she discovered the complicated interrelationships between native plants, animals, and insects. In short, the ecological connections of the habitat needed to be put back in place to make it functional again. That’s when I had my “ah-ha” moment. I realized that that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Over the next several years, I learned about native plants. I bought field guides, went to seminars, and joined native plant societies. I bought a house and started planting native plants in my yard and trying to attract wildlife. At one seminar on restoration ecology, I was asking the speaker questions after the talk. He asked me why I didn’t consider going back to school and getting a degree in ecology. So I did.
I applied to Rutgers and started taking one class each semester as I could fit it in around my full-time work schedule. Occasionally I’d used my vacation days one day a week to attend a day class during the semester. I never felt like I was wasting my vacation time– I loved my classes. I figured in 10 years of proceeding this way I’d have most of the credits I needed to get a bachelor degree in Natural Resource Management by the time I was ready to retire. By that time my house would also be paid off. Then my advisor retired.
I went in to meet the new advisor and after looking at my records and asking a few questions, he said “Why aren’t you in graduate school?” I already had a degree in computer science, but originally had none of the prerequisite courses for a degree in ecology. Now that I’d taken all the prerequisites, I qualified to be in graduate school. Suddenly, instead of being 8 years from getting a bachelor’s degree, I was only a couple of years away from having a master’s. Meanwhile, AT&T had been having multiple waves of layoffs, and I found myself serendipitously on the list. It was the right time to change my career.
Now I’ve reached the end of that 8 year period. I have a Ph.D. in Ecology and am heading up a wonderful force of volunteers at the Trail Conference, out making a difference removing invasive plants along our trails, preserving habitats, and taking the first steps toward restoring our natural lands.
In 2013, Linda added the title Coordinator, Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM), a program of New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation that is administered by the Trail Conference.