Ashley Grenier (AG) was born and raised in Castro Valley, California, and now calls Livermore home where she spends time in local parks with her family. Her work as a naturalist has allowed her to explore many outdoor spaces around the East Bay and beyond. During this important week of Earth Day celebrations, I wanted to recognize Ashley’s everyday acts of local environmental action through her teaching and exploration with children including her own. Enjoy her interview and give a shout out to the person who made in difference in your life through nature.
Kathleen Murphy (KM): I want to understand what a naturalist is and does. How is different from other careers in the public and private sector as it relates to nature and the environment?
AG: As a Naturalist, my essential duty is interpretation, so my title should really be something like Interpretive Naturalist or Interpretive Ranger. Interpretation is a communication process that forges a connection between people, and cultural and natural resources. You can think of me like the Lorax. I speak for the trees, but I also help people understand what that tree means to them.
I also like to think of myself as facilitating memory making – trying to create transformative moments that shape the trajectory of someone’s life. That is truly what happened to me when I got to go to an environmental education outdoor school in the 6th grade – it changed my life.
KM: How did you find your career path?
AG: The outdoor school I went to in the 6th grade. I actually got to go back to as a senior in high school to be a cabin counselor. When I came home from a week in the woods, I couldn’t wait to do that again. I ultimately went to grad school and lived in a cabin in the woods again but this time as the Naturalist, as the instructor, changing other school children’s lives. I feel it’s important to recognize these schools in the woods because not every 6th grader is getting this experience due to lack of funding or support. We’re trying to evaluate the impact these programs have on people’s lives but we’ve only scratched the surface. Luckily California prioritizes environmental education and hopefully we can get to a point where every child is getting these experiences. I can definitely point to the moments in the outdoors that I spent with my family growing up that instilled a love of nature, but it really was that outdoor school experience that led me to the career I’m in.
KM: I agree. I think that I may have been completed rewired because I spent time in nature as a kid. On your Instagram feed, you talk about having a meaningful career. What makes it meaningful to you?
AG: My career is meaningful to me because of the moments I’m hoping to create during my programs. Whether it’s at a campfire, a school field trip, a bird watching walk, or a history hike, people who attend my programs are going to learn something new and feel connected to the environment and local history. Focusing on local phenomenon is pretty meaningful. Not many people realize what’s right here in their own backyards.
KM: As a mom, how has your professional life changed?
AG: Now that I’m a mom, I try to model to other parents how outdoor experiences can be positive and life changing. Not every parent is comfortable bringing their children outdoors, and I’m happy to be the person to facilitate these experiences with them to help them get to a place where they’re bringing their families out on their own. Since having kids I’ve also really changed the way I go about giving programs with children in that I’m not trying to sell them on this idea of conservation and saving the planet. Instead I want children to enjoy their time in nature, know that the adults can take care of it for now, and when they’re older they can find their own way to protect something they love. I never know what anyone is dealing with in their personal lives so who am I to add another burden? Nature is also about experiencing happiness and healing.
KM: What is vitally important for all of us to know about nature?
AG: It is vital for us to understand that what we do every day has an effect on the environment and we certainly should tread lightly, but it is also vital for us to enjoy nature, to appreciate it, and to understand that we are a part of it. We often hear that we need to “save the environment,” and I think people forget that we are the environment too. You can’t separate humans from the natural world and I often wish that more people realized that. Saving the environment is also saving ourselves…it sounds heavy but to me it’s inspiring to know that we are nature and nature is us.
KM: I follow you on Instagram and love your posts. You are often in Sunol and this is one of my favorite places in the entire Bay Area. Can you describe the place, its history, its uniqueness, its challenges.
AG: Sunol Regional Wilderness is such a treasure in the East Bay. It is steeped in history from the beginning of time as ancestral land to Ohlone people, to the rancho period, to the Geary family who built the green barn turned visitor center and cabin that is now park offices, to the legacy of stewardship, conservation, recreation, and education that occur today.
Sunol is a unique place because of its continuous open space that connects through other parklands and watershed land. It has amazing geologic features, one of the best displays of wildflowers in the Bay Area, and a healthy biodiversity of animals that call it home. Anyone who wants to learn about the natural and cultural world of the East Bay can learn a lot by walking the trails of Sunol.
Sunol’s current challenges are similar to many public lands in the country – people loving it to death. Due to social media people are seeing more and more places that they want to visit and that’s great! But these interpretive and recreational opportunities were set up during a time where social media didn’t exist, not to mention when we had a smaller population. And open spaces are what we really need in order to give ourselves and the natural world room to breathe away from the constant “noise” of social media and increasing population pressures.
AG: On a sunny, Spring weekend Sunol receives many hundreds of visitors and often can’t support the strain (i.e. developed areas such as parking lots reach capacity) causing the park to close until there is enough space. This can be frustrating for people who are just trying to have a great experience in nature with their loved ones. A quick solution is if you can come during the weekdays do that, if you can come on a cloudy day in the winter by all means go then too! Sunol is a place that is amazing no matter what day or time of year you go. We can also spread the love by going to many other open spaces that we luckily have here in the Bay Area. No matter where or when you go, be cognizant of your behavior and follow rules that have been put into place by people who truly love and care for these places.
KM: What is your perfect day and where?
AG: With two small kids it is hard to get out so we rely on places that are nearby. I try to avoid crowds but love Lake Del Valle – Del Valle is another highly visited park, on another level than Sunol, due to its wide variety of outdoor activity options especially in the Summer. My family and I like to drive there on a weekday or in the morning on a not-summer-weekend to just enjoy being near a largish body of water. The 5 mile long lake, surrounded by grey pine trees and oak trees, with an occasional bald eagle sighting, truly makes you feel like you’ve left the hustle and bustle of the East Bay. And yet, we’re still home in Livermore. The large grass areas give my daughters a space they can run around and play without having to worry about them coming across poison oak along the trails. As they get older I know we’ll venture out more, onto the trails, but for now we are content just going to “the lake.”
KM: I am learning more and more about sustainable tourism for longer trips? What about our day trips? What should we think about and do to preserve these beautiful places in our local community?
AG: I mentioned the idea of being cognizant of following rules and considering the day of the week and season when you’re visiting the parks. That will go a long way in helping preserve these spaces for future generations. On day trips visit spaces near home to cut down on mileage and to get to know your local heritage. If you’re packing your own snacks try to bring something with little packaging to reduce the trash that enters the park. Always practice leave no trace guidelines when you’re out – “leave only footprints, take only pictures.” If you don’t bring something from home then go support a local business.
Consider being present in the moment, disconnect from social media to reconnect to nature. Though I have a presence on Instagram I try to mainly post about the experiences and memories I’m facilitating with my groups, and my experience as a working mom with a meaningful job. When I’m out in the park with my family or on my own I try not to overshare. I want to keep those memories for me and with the land. This is something I’ve really thought about after seeing such a spike in visitation in the last few years. Maybe we can start thinking, as the old saying goes, “what happens in nature, stays in nature.”
KM: How can we support what you do in our community?
AG: Attend guided programs at your local parks! The people who share their knowledge and provide these experiences for the public are really amazing. Our professional passion is to connect people with cultural and natural history in our local communities. By supporting these programs you’re also telling the powers that be that this work is important to you. This work is important because it quite literally can change lives and really helps the future of our public open spaces.
KM: Thank you Ashley! You inspire us.