Summer in Juneau: Tongass Storytelling Intern at The Nature Conservancy

Kelsey Breseman
4 min readSep 10, 2023

It’s June, my first day in seven years with an office to go to, and I’m on foot. I’ve tucked my skirt into my rain pants, zipped up the coat, feel the little droplets beading on my cheeks.

Over the bridge from Douglas, the air smells like salt sea and green things growing.

I've been accidentally technical since I picked my college back in 2009, and back then, I had no idea how much momentum can stick to a career. But I've been working hard on keeping identity separate from perception, and this summer foray is into the identity I've left underexplored in the professional space. I like the technical stuff, but I've always been a creative too.

"You're going to see me struggling with that tension," I warn my manager. She comes from a communications background. She knows firsthand the importance of the creative parts of the work. After all, technical work that nobody understands or hears about might as well not have happened. She's adamant that I will indeed do the storytelling I came here to do.

From where I lay on the soft moss, the leaves are a thousand lamps the color of joy. They and all the other green things scent the air. It's something more than oxygen, something of the day's warmth raising moisture from earth and moss and leaves: an earth-smell, calm like the taste of rain.

I have been sent into the woods. "Just write," she said.

It's land that takes itself back. The rain, the moss, the creatures, the snow: you'll stumble on an old rusted stove, by itself somewhere in the woods. Ask around, and you'll learn there was a cabin there not fifty years ago.

And me, too, I’m taking myself back, finding the parts of self that were here not fifty years ago.

I am studying the things I should always have known: the history of my people. The ways my worldview has been shaped that are not just personal but actually inherent to a culture. On a weekend, I go to pull orange hawkweed down the beach with the Sealaska Heritage Institute, and just saying aloud that I am looking for my clan is enough.

Culture bearers give me their phone numbers, hold my hand and tell me, "you are loved. You are accepted. Welcome home." They refer to my search for clan lineage and a Tlingit name as "doing the right thing." I feel gifted.

In Sitka, my uncle hands me an empty peanut butter jar tied with a long loop of string and shows me where he picks salmonberries. He hands me a blue cheese jar full of grizzly bear teeth, film canisters of gumboot shells and halibut ear bones. My great aunt urges me to unroll the soft mink lining of her raven's tail robe, shows me her big standing loom.

"Your art is important," my great aunt tells me. And it's just like that, everywhere else is impressed with money, honors, data, but my Tlingit family always holds still to look when we make something beautiful.

Back at the office, my manager has bought me watercolors. I'm making a marketing plan for a new carbon sequestration mapping tool, working on the annual report, going to meetings, but mostly I'm painting and drawing. I make a coloring book of Southeast plants, ink drawings they can hand out to kids when they have a booth somewhere. I draw sketches on slides they use for donor presentations, paint bears and fish and muskeg streams in a style I've never tried before.

This might be the first time I've ever worked and felt engaged but not stressed. My art is good enough. I deliver a press release, a client meeting, an analysis of the carbon tool's likely audiences in Alaska. I watch my coworkers come and go unworried about clock time, leaning against doorframes to speak to each other.

I realize that drawing is a job I am allowed do.

Here is the ocean, here are the mountains, and here is a pen in my hand. All I want is to live beautifully in today's specific sunlight, and still I forget how much poetry exists in the world. Each time I see a berry peeking out from behind a leaf, or a mountain shining out to the sky, my heart whispers from behind the hand I press there: this could be a home.

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Kelp forest, original watercolor

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