Last year the Hopewell Valley Regional School District had a teacher named “Mercer County Teacher of The Year” for the first time in at least a decade. That high school chemistry teacher was Nick Johnson, and I invited him to write a guest column for my regular From The Schools update.

Exactly one year later another HVRSD teacher has been named Mercer County Teacher of The Year. This time it is Hopewell STEM Facilitator Helen Corveleyn. While I have switched to writing “Nature in The Valley,” she is a quite fitting guest columnist. In March 2019, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space named Helen Corveleyn their “Force of Nature” claiming she was “the pied piper of scientific pursuits” by leading every child crossing her path to happily engage in her latest ecological project.

I asked her to write about her passion for nature, conservation or her ecological influence on her students. Here are her unedited words:

I’ve had a lifelong dream to study ecology in the tropical rainforest. Always an avid environmental activist, I looked at the world’s rainforests as the ultimate scientific research paradise. Land boasting the richest biodiversity on earth, flora and fauna so exotic that the scientific community has not even had a chance to scratch the surface of the volume of life that exists there. My college experience in environmental policy was rich and fulfilling but never brought me to my ultimate habitat experience as I double majored in education pledging to change young minds to conserve our earth as my life’s work.

Last month a lifetime dream was realized. My graduate work in conservation biology brought me to Malaysian Borneo to see some of the most magnificent forests I have ever experienced. Watching majestic flying squirrels glide from tree to tree in the canopy of the loud and vibrant forest, I gazed upon a purple sunset in complete awe of the beauty I was able to breathe in. At a remote field station on the Kinabatangan River, I was fortunate to be able to shadow incredible scientists conducting research on many endangered species: Monitor Lizards, Pythons, Pengolins, Proboscis Monkeys, Pygmy Elephants and finally the crown jewel of charismatic megafauna: the Orangutan.

Orangutan in Malaysian is translated as “person of the forest”. Observing these magnificent creatures is a practice that requires extreme patience, traversing treacherous vine-covered land, scaling knee deep banks of mud, fighting through swaths of mosquitoes in extreme heat and maximum humidity. A strenuous hike through the depths of uncharted forests and a neck craned so far back to support (heavy) high quality binoculars brought rich rewards. Beautiful glimpses of orange limbs as a mama and her baby make a new nest for themselves each night. A rare occasional glance at a curious leathery face is like a gift, even from 500 feet away the wild creatures know when they have visitors in their forest.

While I thought my dream was fulfilled with the treacherous hiking through the forest dressed in leech socks tucked into my heavy rain boots, I had yet to experience the true beauty of my expedition. I was lucky enough to stay in a small village in the home of a generous Malaysian family. It was in this village that my soul was changed: surrounded by a forest threatened by massive palm oil plantations an entire community of native Malaysians participate in community-based conservation. To save what remains of this bountiful forest and protect the deeply fragmented habitat of the Orangutan, teams of people are trained, educated and enabled to help protect the forest. Women grow and nurture tree seedlings bearing the favorite fruits of the Orangs, villagers act as wildlife wardens reporting threatening activity through a network of conservationists, teams are trained to track and record difficult to obtain Orangutan data, and my favorite: a team of women armed with machetes and weed wackers who clean and re-forest damaged parts of the rainforest to generate rebirth and plant hope.

It was the community conservation that I realized was my ultimate destiny. The forest is deeply troubled; a painful, turbulent beauty emerges as it battles against monoculture and the anthropocentric whims of our economic needs. But the community voice speaks loudly in my soul to provide inspirational fuel to help the forests of my dreams.

Many times in life we start down a specific path bound for whatever adventures lie ahead, certain that our ambitions are the way to a sustained fulfillment. What I found all those thousands of miles away from our tiny part of the world lead me back to community; back to nature; back to broader theories of true sustainability; back home.

To immediately help the Orangutans of Borneo and Indonesia, download the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo app on your smartphone for resources to help you purchase products that have the RSPO label attached. It is our duty as American consumers to support sustainable efforts on the global stage.