In the northern region of the Sierra Nevada, out of reach of cell reception and accessible by just one road, sits the 4,500-acre Blodgett Forest Research Station. Despite its remote location, Blodgett exists as a hub for research in silviculture, forestry and fire ecology. UC Berkeley graduate Annapurna Holtzapple spent most of last year here, working as a crew lead for the field technician team. Though we were all living within certain degrees of solitude during the COVID-19 pandemic, Holtzapple — hidden among the trees and isolated with just a few other crewmates — was more secluded than most.
This was quite the change of pace compared to her time at UC Berkeley, where she was deeply involved in the eco-community. At various points during her undergraduate career, Holtzapple served as a project manager for Herbicide-Free Cal; board member and president of Epsilon Eta, UC Berkeley’s environmental fraternity; and director of the ASUC Office of Sustainable Land Use Policy. She researched groundwater management within the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and completed an urban agriculture internship with the Berkeley Food Institute, during which she worked on composting projects at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. Her work as an undergraduate culminated with the society and environment major citation and the environmental science, policy and management departmental citation, both of which reward her exceptional performance within the Rausser College of Natural Resources.
“It was really special to feel recognized given that there wasn’t a graduation ceremony,” Holtzapple said.
While life moved slower for her at Blodgett, it has retained its meaning. Work at the station begins at 7 a.m. Holtzapple and her crew divided their time between land management tasks and data collection in the field for research.
“It ranges from data collection to using a chainsaw,” Holtzapple said.
Located in a high-fire-risk region, electricity is often turned off as a caution. Despite early mornings and the unique challenges of working at a forestry research center, Holtzapple and her team cultivated an atmosphere of community and friendship. They held “family dinners” every Thursday night — even if the dinner was cooked on a camp stove and enjoyed by candlelight. This ritual became especially important for Holtzapple, as staying in touch with friends and family back home was her biggest challenge while living at Blodgett.
“It’s been something I’ve had to be a lot more intentional about, staying in touch and regularly talking to my school friends and family,” Holtzapple said.
Focusing on the importance of the work has helped to distract her from potential loneliness. One of Blodgett’s missions is to improve land management practices through education and outreach to private landowners in the Sierra Nevada. By borrowing Indigenous land management techniques, landowners can increase resiliency and lower the risk of uncontrollable wildfires. Ecologists at Blodgett provide the tools and training necessary for responsible land management.
“We know and have known for decades that fire needs to be in this landscape. Now, we are in the logistical acrobatics of getting people to start burning,” Holtzapple said. “It’s so important to emphasize that fire exclusion and fire suppression have happened because of white supremacy and land dispossession of Native peoples. Returning land and stewardship to these tribes is a huge, critical part of addressing the issue.”
Despite the challenges, Holtzapple — quite literally — goes out of her way to make change. For example, in the weeks leading up to the November 2020 elections, Holtzapple would regularly drive 20 minutes into town, park in front of the public library and phone bank for progressive causes. While it’s easy to slip into despair as an environmental activist, Holtzapple copes by focusing on small, tangible “action items” such as phone-banking.
“(Phone-banking) alone isn’t enough, but it helps. It’s a coping mechanism,” she said. “These are problems that you cannot solve all by yourself, but at the same time, there are things we can do to engage and to organize.”
Holtzapple’s story can offer some direction for undergraduates and activists who may currently feel a bit lost. Holtzapple has not lost her sense of purpose, even during a time when it is easy to feel directionless. She uses action items as a tool to ground herself amid the chaos.
“Just keep following what feels good,” Holtzapple said, addressing undergraduate students who may have lost their way. “Keep joining clubs and applying for different organizations and finding other people who inspire and support you. The friends I created at Berkeley are as precious as the academics.”
In May, Holtzapple will head to Oahu, Hawaii, to conduct forestry and ecology research for the Hawaii VINE Project. After that, she plans to continue to work within the fields of sustainability, food security or forestry.
By grounding herself through meaningful daily actions, it has become harder for her to get lost in the darkness — even when the power goes out.