A thank you letter to NCC

Leigh Gustafson (Photo by Brendan Kelly Photography)

Leigh Gustafson (Photo by Brendan Kelly Photography)

July 16, 2019 | by Leigh Gustafson

For as long as I can remember, I have loved animals. I used to spend my spare time sprawled in the grass with a pencil in hand, drawing pictures of my favourite animals from my Dad’s Mammals of North America atlas. I incessantly dreamed of the day when I would finally get to meet the beautiful and wild souls that I had only seen in books.

When I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, I had come to know the resident loon family that lived on my cottage’s lake. Every night, we performed a ballet in the golden glow of sunset together. The loons would gracefully dip in and out of the water, and I would paddle my canoe in circles, awaiting my dance partners to resurface.

Common loon (Photo by Brendan Kelly Photography)

Common loon (Photo by Brendan Kelly Photography)

One crisp fall evening, I had just come in from an evening recital. I sat on the end of the dock to watch as the sun bowed below the horizon. Just as the skies lit aflame with a final burst of pinkish hues, the loon that had followed me back to shore plunged underwater. A sudden frenzy of fish swam between my feet dangling in the water, followed by the loon effortlessly gliding through the shallows behind them. I remember the moment as if it happened in slow motion. But more than anything, I remember the connection I felt with that loon. I knew that it recognized, trusted and knew me just as I had known it.

I decided to dedicate myself to helping animals by following a career path in veterinary medicine. I worked in animal hospitals, joined 4-H clubs and even found myself in South Africa working with big game. I was studying pre-vet in school and seemingly on the way to fulfilling my childhood dream, but something just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t everything I wanted it to be.

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Slowly but surely, I started gravitating toward the environmental field. It started with an ecology course, which led to an environmental studies course and then to a co-op position with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). My co-op bled into a conservation intern position with NCC on Prince Edward Island. All of a sudden, I felt the connection I dreamed about as a kid on a daily basis. Even on dreary days that were consumed by computer work in the office, I felt in tune with my surroundings, and I knew that the work I was doing was important. I was hooked.

The work that NCC does is nothing short of inspiring. Conserving land in its natural state helps more than just animals. It helps trees, soils, microbes and even us. Everything is linked together, and the amazing work that NCC does strengthens that sacred connection. Being affiliated with such a remarkable organization has shaped me in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined. It turned my world upside down and reignited an ambition that I didn’t even know had burned out.

Canoeing on my cottage's lake (Photo courtesy of Leigh Gustafson/NCC staff)

Canoeing on my cottage's lake (Photo courtesy of Leigh Gustafson/NCC staff)

NCC continues to teach me something new about myself every day. I recently completed another internship with NCC, but this time with the national conservation engagement team. I was helping develop the Visitor Management Framework, which helps guide staff when developing all of NCC’s Nature Destinations across Canada. It was my first time working on a policy document. I knew that I was intrigued by conservation policy before, but I never knew just how much I would absolutely adore it. In fact, working with NCC on that document made me love policy work so much that I will be pursuing a master’s degree in environmental sustainability at the University of Ottawa this fall. The program focuses on helping institutions develop green policies to make their establishments more environmentally friendly. I am excited to embark on this new adventure and create a legacy that protects our environment and keeps our connection with the natural world alive.

I guess this is all to say, thank you to NCC’s amazing staff, supporters and volunteers and to the outstanding mentors that have opened my eyes and heart to appreciate this beautiful world in a new way. You have helped lay the foundation that supports me as I continue on this wonderful journey. I look forward to the day when we can work together again.  

Leigh Gustafson (Photo by Sean Landsman)

About the Author

Leigh Gustafson joined the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in fall 2016 as a co-op student from the University of Prince Edward Island.

Read more about Leigh Gustafson.

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