Rock Creek Community Spotlight: Melanie Choukas-Bradley
An Interview by Kate Arion
Sunday was Earth Day, but at Rock Creek Conservancy we celebrate all month long!
For April’s Community Spotlight, I connected with local naturalist and author, Conservancy volunteer, and personal friend Melanie Choukas-Bradley. I had attended her outdoor walks in the past, and I knew she had written several books about the nature here in the backyard of our nation’s capital. But I wanted to find out more about Melanie’s love of nature, where it comes from, and how she shares her passion with others in the DC area.
Who are you in a snapshot?
“I’m a writer and naturalist who loves nothing more than sharing my love and appreciation for nature. I’m lucky to have a husband and two adult children who share my love of nature and spending time in the woods walking, hiking and just quietly enjoying our surroundings! I’m also blessed with many nature-loving friends and extended family. I have written several books about nature — with another one forthcoming — and I lead many nature trips for local non-profits, including Rock Creek Conservancy.”
What inspired you to become a naturalist? Where did your love of nature first start?
“I grew up in Vermont wandering through the woods and fields as a young child. In the spring my sister, brother and I explored the woods as the snow was melting, searching for hepaticas, spring beauties, trout-lilies, Dutchman’s breeches, trilliums and Jack-in-the-pulpits. We stole icy maple sap from the buckets lining our dirt road. Our dad, a lifelong birder, taught us how to recognize the songs of the towhee, ovenbird, and white-throated sparrow, and our mom shared her love of the beauty of Vermont whenever we were walking or driving through the countryside together. When I moved to Washington, DC with my husband 40 years ago, I fell in love with the city’s trees and felt inspired to write a book about them. Mainly I just wanted to know what all these new trees were, and at the time there were no books that could help me sort them out! Writing City of Trees when I was in my twenties set me on a path to write about nature and become a naturalist.”
How did you get involved with Rock Creek Conservancy?
“I began supporting the work of Rock Creek Conservancy even before the organization was known by that name. I live in the Rock Creek watershed and I learned about the work of the Conservancy when it was known as FORCE (Friends of Rock Creek’s Environment). My friend Steve Dryden introduced me to the early work of the organization, and he and I actually canoed under the Beltway together in 2007 to see what it was like. I had been assigned an article for Bethesda Magazine that asked me to explore the 22 miles of the creek’s main stem from its source in Laytonsville to the District line. (Bethesda Magazine — September/October 2008 — “A Creek Runs Through It.”) It was a real adventure! When I interviewed a group of historians while conducting research for the article, they told me that Native American tribes didn’t even consider the creek navigable as far north as today’s Beltway. I have enjoyed leading walks and giving talks for Rock Creek Conservancy for many years. I am in awe of the work the Conservancy does, and I silently thank its staff and volunteers every time I visit the creek and marvel over the lack of trash. I’m especially grateful for all the work and progress tackling the problems of invasive plants and stormwater runoff and engaging young people in the work to protect and enhance the health of the watershed. I think the thing I’m most grateful for is the way Rock Creek Conservancy expresses its deep love for this amazing treasure in our midst — the Rock Creek stream valley!”
You have written several books about the plants and nature in the DC region. One of them is called, A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, DC. What made you want to write this book, and what was it like writing about this year-long exploration?
“Rock Creek Park is my refuge. I am a country person by nature and background, and I couldn’t happily live in such a densely populated area if it weren’t for Rock Creek Park. Spending time in Rock Creek Park keeps me happy and sane. In 2007 I had a sudden desire to share my love of the park and all the moments that bring me joy when I’m walking along the creek and in the upland woods. I was also inspired by my concerns about climate change, the spread of invasive plants, and the problems associated with stormwater runoff — all things threatening Rock Creek. Once I started writing the book, the words just flowed. As soon as I got home from the park I couldn’t wait to record my experiences. The book is much more personal than my three previous books, and this was both rewarding and a little scary for me. The book was published in 2014 in both a paperback and hard-backed, slip-cased limited edition with gorgeous photographs by Susan Austin Roth.”
You’re a pretty well-known naturalist here in the DC area. Your nature walks are practically famous! But you’ve recently started doing this thing called “forest bathing.” What’s that?
“Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, started in Japan in the 1980s, and it’s rooted in the ancient Japanese reverence for nature. Forest bathing is simply slowing down, breathing deeply, and fully immersing yourself in the beauty and wonder of nature. It has become very popular around the world, thanks in part to the number of health studies that have shown the physical, mental, and emotional health benefits of time spent in nature. In 2016 I became a nature and forest therapy guide (trained and certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs based in Santa Rosa, CA). Last fall I visited Japan and traveled throughout the country with a small group of North American guides, participating in walks led by Japanese Shinrin-yoku guides. It has been my great joy to lead forest bathing walks for Rock Creek Conservancy, with the next one scheduled for Wednesday, May 16th (location and registration details forthcoming). In September, my new book, The Joy of Forest Bathing, will be published by the Rock Point imprint of Quarto; it is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com and from booksellers around the world.”
What are your hopes and dreams for Rock Creek and its parklands?
I am happy to say that my hopes for Rock Creek Park are already coming true today. I hope for a wild place that people cherish and protect because they love it deeply. That is here today!
As for my dreams, I dream we will continue to have better water quality, which will involve the hard work and dedication of all of us. A swimmable Rock Creek? A drinkable creek? When I was on Yakushima Island in Japan, we knelt down and drank directly from the streams. Could we ever drink from Rock Creek?
As John Lennon sang in Imagine: ‘You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.’
We all dream of a pristine, clean Rock Creek. And every day, Rock Creek Conservancy and our force of thousands of volunteers work toward reaching that goal. If you would like to volunteer with the Conservancy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our website to learn more about available volunteer opportunities.