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From Laissez Faire to Leslie Knope: County Forester Brittany VanderWall on Showing Up

I've been getting into TED Talks a lot lately, because my first job is as a stay-at-home-mom, and living in Belknap through the winter means a lot of hanging out and watching YouTube, right? So, by falling down the "suggested video" rabbit hole, I became obsessed with some of the more inspirational Ted Talks. I really like the talks on happiness, because there's just something wholesome about listening to people explain how they found the path to living their best life.

Brittany VanderWall, our fearless county forester and local community theater star, could give a killer TED Talk on happiness.

If you've had the pleasure of interacting with Brittany, whether it be through forestry business, the theater, or simply around Rogers City, you probably know what I'm talking about. There's an energy she exudes, and an openness that is completely infectious. I left our interview last week feeling refreshed, and lucky for having gotten the opportunity to get to know such an inspiring force in our community.

Originally from Muskegon, Brittany moved to Rogers City shortly after graduating from Michigan Tech. Although she's not a female entrepreneur, which is usually the focus of these blog spotlights, she was recommended to me as a person of interest by Valerie Meharg, a local doula from last month's spotlight. Valerie said that Brittany is "killing it in a typically male-dominated field," and suggested I might find it interesting talking to her. I thought it could be beneficial to have a slightly different perspective featured, and I am SO glad Valerie gave me this lead. Brittany is a great reminder that the path to career satisfaction, happiness, or personal fulfillment isn't necessarily about pursuing a goal singlemindedly, or pushing yourself every day to get where you want to be. Beautiful and meaningful things can arise from appreciating and enjoying the adventure that life is.

Why did you choose Rogers City?

I feel such a deep connection here that I never imagined I would feel to a town, because I never felt that growing up. Maybe kids just don't have that context? Love my family, miss my family, Muskegon's getting cooler...but overall, I very much like Rogers City. I'd rather breathe in the Straits air and just enjoy the forest than go out bar hopping.

What made you go into forestry?

There was no logic. Seriously. I love telling this story. When I was in high school, I did robotics. When I was captain, I would always talk to the judges, and I remember the 'people' part of it most. Not so much the analytical, "build the robot" part. I mean, that part was cool, but when you go to the shows and you meet with the judges and you're telling your story, that was the part that stuck. So, I wanted to go to Tech because it looked cool. And it was free to apply, there was no application fee. There we go, accepted, boom. I wanted to go there for engineering. Then I got there and was like, "actually, I'm kinda dumb at math."

So I literally was like, "what can I do here?" I want to go to Tech, what can I do that's meaningful. So, looking through the catalog, and...forestry. I Googled "forestry" and thought, "okay, let's try it." I showed up on my first day...and I swear that everyone else in my class at least had some idea. I didn't know anything. Blank slate. My first day in Field Techniques, he was like, "here's a compass, here's a map, there's a point in the woods, go find it." And I found it and thought, "whoa, this is really cool." And just...the rest is history! There was not a grand plan. I kinda love that, though. I like that because it's relatable to a lot of people. You don't want people to believe that forestry is only something that's available to people who grew up in it. You can come from literally a blank slate, and make it work, and enjoy it.

Have you always been a natural leader?

Yeah, when I was in high school, I was captain of our robotics team. So that was where I kinda got my start, as captain. And then I was on the leadership team for marching band. I've had lots of experience, and I'm not afraid to talk to people.

(As a side note, Brittany also recently won the 2019 National Leadership Award from the American Forest Foundation. So, it's safe to say she's a hell of a leader.)

I saw on the Presque Isle Conservation website you play jazz trombone. How does one even get into that?

Fifth grade was when I started playing. That was when we got first exposed to playing an instrument. Really, there was very little thought in fifth grade as to what instrument I was going to play. I think it was ninth grade I joined the jazz band, and I sucked. By tenth grade, I was first chair. But really, it started as a child making a scattershot decision.

And you do community theater, and play ukelele?</