Forest Ecologist

Chris and Lisa Bright

At a Glance: Husband-and-wife founders of Earth Sangha, an organization that focuses on restoring damaged and disturbed forests and meadows by removing non-native invasive plants and replacing them with the native trees, wildflowers, and other plants that form the basis of healthy ecosystems.

Q. How did Earth Sangha get started?

A. Chris: I was working as an analyst at an organization that researches environmental issues. It was my job to learn about the issues, but I felt like I wasn’t really making any difference. At the same time, Lisa and I were looking for a way to express our Buddhist values in an environmentally active way. We decided to form a group that would take direct action—a kind of community of people interested in working to restore natural habitats. “Sangha” is a Buddhist word for “community,” so Earth Sangha became the name of the group.

Q. What’s involved in restoring habitats?

A. Lisa: Lots of physical work outside and lots of volunteers willing to do it. For example, depending on the situation, one day we may focus on pulling out invasive garlic mustard that’s taking over a forest floor, and another day we may remove English ivy that’s smothering trees. Eventually we plant native plants in areas where we’ve cleared out invasives. But before we even get to that point, we have to collect the seeds of native plants in the wild so we can propagate them in our wild plant nursery.

Chris: The nursery is really at the heart of the work we do. We grow more than 200 species of native plants there—trees, shrubs, grasses, vines, ferns, and lots more. All of those plants need care: watering, mulching, re-potting, etc. More volunteers! We also get help from interns. We have an internship program for young people who are interested in learning about native plants and how to propagate them.

Q. How did you learn so much about native plants?

A. Lisa: Mostly by getting outdoors and experiencing nature. We don’t have botany degrees or anything like that. We’ve learned on the job. And the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know!

Chris: Right. At first, you want to learn the names of things—what kind of tree is that; what’s that flower—and the more you learn which plant is which, the more you start to learn the relationships between them. Gradually you develop a deeper appreciation of how all the different plants, and all the animals that live around them, are knitted up together. There’s no end to the connections! And there’s so much about these relationships that humans don’t understand yet.

Q. Do you have any LOL moments that you care to share?

A. Lisa: It’s kind of embarrassing, but OK. Once I was out hiking by myself, checking out the plants in a forested area. I saw some wildflowers in the distance and decided to take a closer look. To get to them, I had to cross a muddy area. The mud looked dry enough, so I stepped on it. At first it held my weight. But suddenly one of my legs sank down, almost like something pulled it! I shifted my weight to the other foot—and down it went too. I was completely stuck up to my knees in mud. I didn’t have a cell phone, and there was no one around to help. After a struggle, I finally managed to pull myself out—but my shoes stayed behind in the mud. I had to walk back to my car over a rocky trail in bare feet, covered with mud!

Chris: I had a “police encounter” once. I was working out in a meadow. Somebody who was driving by apparently saw my car’s roof sticking up from behind some tall grasses, but they couldn’t see me. I guess they thought my car was abandoned, so they called the police. Two squad cars showed up and I rushed over to see what was going on. I was draped with mosquito netting and carrying a scythe – you know, that mowing implement that the grim reaper is always pictured with. Needless to say, I had some explaining to do.

Q. Restoring habitats isn’t the kind of work that shows instant results. It might take years for an area overrun with invasive plants to be returned to a healthier ecosystem. What keeps you keep going in the meantime?

A. Chris: Once in a while we’ll find a rare plant that’s known to be on the decline. It’s really exciting to be able to collect some seeds from it so we can grow it in our wild plant nursery. For example, we’ve discovered some patches of a couple of unusual milkweed species known to be in trouble, and we’ve been able to add them to the plants we propagate in the nursery. But it’s not just about finding and growing rare plants; it’s also about the animals that depend on them. In the case of the milkweeds, there’s a bunch of different insect pollinators that depend on them, including monarch butterflies. Helping the plants survive helps the insects. It helps people, too; our food supply would be in big trouble without pollinators.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

A. Chris: We think a lot about extinctions and what the future might be like. When it comes to plants, in particular, human understanding of them is so limited that we don’t even know what we’re losing. But that makes Lisa and me even more determined to try and preserve what we can, because what’s living and growing here now on this planet is so amazing!

Q. What gets you out of bed in the morning?

A. Chris: I love what I do! I enjoy figuring out how to solve lots of different problems, and I like collaborating with people. One of the projects that I’m particularly excited about is our partnership with smallholding farmers in the Dominican Republic. We’ve developed a program that helps them make a good living while protecting and restoring the tropical forests on their land. One aspect of the program is their coffee crop. The farmers grow coffee in the shade of the forest, rather than cutting the forest down.  We buy the coffee beans from them for a much better than average price. We sell the coffee here in the U.S., and all profits go back into efforts to help the farmers while preserving the forests on their land.

Lisa: One thing that excites me is seeing some of our young volunteers really get into the work. Some of them may not even like working outside at first. They get dirty and uncomfortable. But a lot of them actually start having fun, and they come back again and again to learn about native plants and help restore habitats. Some have gone on to study environmental sciences in college. I feel good knowing the future is in their hands!




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