Andrea Nieves is the NYSDEC Environmental Education Assistant in the Urban Forestry program, covering the needs of the Trees for Tribs program as well.
I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina during the hottest summer on record at the time. When I was four, my parents and I moved to Hyde Park, New York—and I’ve been cold ever since. Nevertheless, despite having to always wear layers (even in summer), I’m glad to have grown up in the beautiful Hudson Valley, and not far from the Catskill Mountains.
There was a field near my house growing up that the neighborhood kids had cleverly named “The Field.” It is a very special place with several landmarks, namely “The Tree” and “The Woods.” I tried to spend as much time as possible there, where my friends and I would make up dance routines, catch pretend Pokémon, swing on a makeshift rope swing, and explore.
In my junior year in high school, the year when you’re somehow expected to know what you want to do with the rest of your life (as least so far as to choose a college major), I remembered exploring The Woods, climbing on logs, and exploring the tiny streams. I remembered the confident feeling that I got from knowing where I was, becoming familiar with the forest and recognizing certain features as landmarks: a bent tree, a mossy rock. I decided to major in Biology, and I focused on environmental research.
I chose to pursue my undergraduate degree at Hartwick College, in Oneonta, New York. Hartwick is a tiny liberal arts school, with 1,500 students. It has small class sizes, professors who love to teach and work with students, and lots and lots of stairs—it’s literally on the side of a steep hill. The views are lovely, but walking to the gym at the top of the hill is a workout before your workout.
Hartwick also has one other feature, which was the main reason I chose it: Pine Lake Environmental Campus. A short 15-minute drive away from Hartwick’s main campus lies a little pond called Pine Lake, around which sits several acres of woods, fields, creeks, an environmental field station, a high-ropes challenge course, a sauna, and ten cabins.
Students have the opportunity to live at Pine Lake, and I chose to do so all four years of my undergrad. Three of those years I lived in an 800-square foot natural building made of a material called cob (mostly mud and straw). It had two “nooks” instead of bedrooms, which were like carved enclaves in the walls that fit a twin-sized mattress and were tall enough to stand up in. It also had a full kitchen and bathroom and was heated by pellet stove. My favorite features were the dining room table made of a repurposed chalkboard that my roommate and I would leave notes to each other on, the repurposed lab sink which I unfortunately broke a few dishes in, and the large, custom windows which faced out onto the lake.
The best thing about Pine Lake was the community. We had potlucks, contra dances, sauna nights, polar bear plunges, and campfire nights. We made our own maple syrup, shared food and cooking supplies, and of course had some pretty fun parties. I lived at Pine Lake over the summers too, working as an environmental field research assistant. I performed a forest inventory, counting and measuring over 3,000 trees. I performed water quality studies, experimented with crayfish territorial behavior, learned to fish (for science), studied aquatic invasive species density, and created a data capture and reporting protocol that I hope is still in use.
Like most millennials, I struggled to find a job in my field after graduation. I wanted to improve my public speaking, so I got my first job in Cooperstown, New York at The Farmer’s Museum as a museum interpreter. I dressed up in 19th-century period clothing and performed the tasks of a post-Civil War farm wife, all while teaching and interacting with the public. I churned butter, cooked over an open hearth, learned to quilt and sew, made herbal medicine, and made friends with cows.
After The Farmer’s Museum, I made a big change and moved to Brooklyn to work at the Prospect Park Zoo as an educator. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to work with any animals, but I did work with a lot of wild little children, teaching them about plastics pollution, strawberry DNA, bat conservation, turtle anatomy, and dirt being OK.
After my seasonal position at the zoo was finished, I moved to Connecticut to work as an outdoor educator, leading trips for middle schoolers. After that seasonal position was finished, I landed a job at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum in Cornwall, NY, where I finally did get to work with animals. At the museum I interpreted with frogs, turtles, snakes, a white dove, screech owls, an opossum named Blossom, and hissing cockroaches. I also led educational classroom-style classes and outdoor activities. I worked at the museum for the better part of a year until my family and I moved to Albany.
Currently, I work for the NYSDEC in the Urban Forestry program. My title is Environmental Education Assistant, and I take care of anything that the Urban Forestry program and Trees for Tribs program need. I facilitate a U.S Forest Service grant called, “Using Trees to Improve Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” which involves working with five communities throughout the State to plant riparian and street trees in order to prevent surface runoff from entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
For the Urban Forestry program, I take care of registrations for all the NY ReLeaf workshops, create brochures and other outreach materials, assist in grant review, act as the state coordinator for the Tree City USA program, and administer all of the program’s numerous mailings and e-mailings. For the Trees for Tribs program, I facilitate the Buffer in a Bag program, which is an initiative that provides free tree and shrub seedlings to New York landowners with wetland or waterfront property who want to create a plant buffer that minimizes erosion and protects water quality.
In my free time, I play violin, go to contra and swing dances, love to read (especially fantasy), hike and rock climb, go to yoga weekly, and I’m an avid napper. I’m also a Zen student. It’s hard to describe what that means, but basically, I meditate a lot, hang out at a beautiful monastery in the Catskills, and sometimes I dress up in a grey robe on Sundays and do a lot of chanting and even more meditating. I also really try to be a good person.