UNEXPECTED TURN

How I became a ‘model’ environmentalist


Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 3:27 p.m.

In late May, a Men’s Journal magazine representative called and said my essay had won the Environmental Ambassador of the Year Award. The essay described my efforts restoring native wildlife habitat on my property in Citra and starting a new land conservation company. I had forgotten submitting the essay and at first, I thought Men’s Journal was calling to discuss a lapsed subscription, so the news was doubly welcome: I won, and my subscription was current.

The loot included a trip for two to New York City, a three-night stay at the swank Royalton Hotel in the theater district, a full Jhane Barnes wardrobe, a $5,000 donation in my name to the Nature Conservancy, and inclusion in a photo fashion spread for the September issue.

They asked if I was interested. “Yes,” I said, and then I made my first official request as Environmental Ambassador: “Can my wife come with me?”

Jennifer and I embraced this unexpected turn and we fled our jobs at Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (me) and the Florida Museum of Natural History (Jennifer) and were treated to a whirlwind tour of the NYC fashion and publishing industry. First came a photo shoot in Washington Square Park. It took an entourage of nine workers five hours to turn me into a male model. My modeling mentor told me to foster a look that was “determined yet not scary,” and “concerned yet not hippy.” Chin out, no smiles. Look through the camera. I was permitted to have my hands in my pockets, so long as wrinkles were not the result. While the front of my clothes were taut and tucked, my back was porcupined with clips and pins. The stylist powdered make-up against my bald-head glare and passers-by stalled their dog-walking long enough to determine that I was indeed nobody.

Modeling is mostly standing. During lulls in the shooting, the staff came over to ask me to identify different trees in the park or to let me know that they recycled. My antiglare helper told my wife that Victoria’s Secret models have cellulite and that the next day they would be shooting Madonna.

That night, we were invited to have dinner and drinks with designer Jhane Barnes, her staff, and Men’s Journal executives at Brasserie 8 1/2 in Rockefeller Center. Not having ever met a fashion designer or publishing swells in Gainesville or Citra, we did not know what to expect, but I assured Jennifer (and myself) that they would surely be more scared of us than we were of them. After all, in the photo I sent with the essay, I was holding a chainsaw, and Jennifer was clutching a machete, a Corona, and me.

Jhane and friends were warm, curious and gracious. They wanted to know how the shoot went. I told them it really was an effective ice-breaker—having her staff strip me down to my underwear and brown socks during the first five minutes of the work day. (The Environmental Ambassador has no clothes!) We laughed at the irony of my being a disrobed fashion representative.

Over drinks, they had 101 thoughtful questions about our land project, Florida, alligators and the South-wide slow battle between longleaf pine (yea!) and oak trees (boo!). Did Jennifer meet me when I lived in the tent, trailer or barn? What did our cattle do? Why do we burn our property on purpose? How big were the bears?

Upon the arrival of our second round of drinks, I shared the new signature modeling look that I had coined, Controlled Burn. However, my determined/concerned poise was soon upstaged by my wife’s declaration that after finishing the Disney marathon earlier in the year, she had lost eight toenails. Since I only lost two, they gravitated toward her, and before long, had talked her out of her shoes at the dinner table. New Yorkers, I decided, like their Floridians naked.

After dinner and good-byes, we walked up Fifth Avenue, past Denzel Washington, who looked refreshed from just having been murdered in his role as Julius Caesar off Broadway, and to our hotel, ending one of the most strangely wonderful days of our marriage.

The following day, Jhane invited us to her office for 10 a.m. yoga. We aren’t yoga people, but we were going with the flow, or chi. The yogi was late, so Jhane fitted me for a suit and a sports coat from her 2007 collection (being made in Italy), showed us the white tuxedo that rapper Fat Joe would wear to the VH1 awards in Miami, taught us why only a few family-run mills in China could handle her complex silk weaves, and showed us why she likes Turkish leather.

We cut the yoga short because we were all of sudden very late for our awards luncheon at Men’s Journal. I was given beautiful silk and leather clothes, and we rushed into the subway and then up into Rockefeller Center. Men’s Journal is owned by Wenner Media, the publisher of Rolling Stone, and we were whisked past a hallway with every Rolling Stone cover from John Lennon to Green Day and into a boardroom. I met the owner, the publisher, the editorin- chief, fashion editors, co-editors and gave them all thank-you mesh citrus bags full of orange jam, citrus soaps, honeycombs and alligator jerky from the Orange Shop in Citra.

The room was packed when Jhane spoke to the group about her charity of choice, environmental preservation, and stated that, while the majority of the fashion industry charities were diseasebased, she recognized that a healthy environment was the root for healthy people. She described our project before presenting me with an award that credited me and me alone with “Restoration of the Florida Everglades.” Recognizing the governmentinvoicing potential, I eagerly accepted, and gave my speech. It is excerpted below:

“We all know that wild places can be preserved, that is the easy part. You buy it, you fence it, you walk away.

Now, for the not-so-easy part — wild places can be created.

On our property, we have been creating environments to attract wildlife and to restore the land to its original appearance. Choosing an “original appearance” can be a daunting task since land conditions and vegetation in Florida have drastically changed over the last several thousand years.

At first, I was tempted to restore the property to its prehistoric condition, but I was afraid of what kind of animals I might attract. Since I am not a paleontologist, I settled on a period of 100 years ago when the region was dominated by longleaf pine forests.

Longleaf pine live to be 300 years old and are host to a wide array of wildlife and plant species. To reestablish them, I chain-sawed wide areas of oaks, burned huge patches of woods, and then hand-planted thousands of pine seedlings. Chain-sawing, burning, and digging – land management is a violent and dirty business. Think of it as tough love. But it works, and now we have deer, quail, turkey, bobcat, and black bear in our backyard.

One seldom mentioned aspect of land conservation is that it is fun. You get to play cowboy, lumberjack, fireman, farmer and off-road speed racer. I haven’t been able to afford a tractor yet, so I do everything by hand. I am usually bleeding, sore and happy.

Now, we are hosting property tours for other land-owners to talk about our successes and our failures. We are trying to set an example of good forest stewardship. Next, we are forming a new company, Big, Green, and Brown, LLC, that will buy, restore, preserve and sell other wild places. This company is necessary, because 1,000 new residents move to Florida every day, and there is intense pressure to subdivide and develop forest land. We are hoping that conservation will be contagious...”.

There are two things that make this life worth living: Love and legacy...”.

Love drives us toward the goal of greatness, toward big ideas, toward improvement.

I acknowledge that love probably doesn’t have a lot to do with conserving wild places, but it sure motivates me, and I am able to pick wildflowers for Jennifer.

Legacy. What will we leave behind? The only legacy worth a lick is one that is based upon improvement. Are we improving the human condition?

In my case, I have chosen to improve and preserve wild places in Florida. This is the best work that I can do, and I very much appreciate this award, and the opportunity to serve as your Environmental Ambassador. Thank you.

Standing there in the center of New York City, Gainesville and Citra seemed a world away. We loved our glimpse of big city life, but the rockstar trip soon ended. We returned to Gainesville a little shell-shocked, a lot better dressed, and amazed that our decision to enhance and transform 140 wild acres had also so meaningfully enhanced and transformed our lives.

James Pochurek’s winning essay

My company conducts archaeological surveys to discover Native American and early- American sites on large tracts of land before they are destroyed. In doing this work for 12 years, I have developed both a love of wild Florida and a determination to own as large a piece of Florida as possible and ensure that it will never be subdivided, paved or polluted.

Land in Florida is expensive, and I am not rich. Nevertheless, in 1998 I bought 140 acres of land in Citra, Florida to restore the forest and waterways for future generations of wildlife and people. To afford it, I sold my house in the Duck Pond, my motorcycle, boat and stock account.

The first year, I lived in a tent and an RV, and I kept my tools under a blue tarp. When I had saved enough money, I succumbed to civilized desires and bought a 1973 single-wide trailer for $4,000. In 2002, I met my wife, and we moved into a small loft apartment I had built in our pole barn. I only mention these few personal sacrifices to illustrate that land ownership and preservation is within the reach of most Americans.

In order to restore the native species and create habitat for wildlife, I chain-sawed exotic species, hand-planted over 4,000 longleaf pine seedlings, maintained wildlife food plots and conducted prescribed burns. For expert advice and cost-share assistance, I enrolled in the government’s Forest Stewardship Program, Landowner Incentive Program, and Forest Land Enchantment Program, and I took forestry and wildlife classes at night.

After seven years of management, the property now has thriving oak hammocks, pine flatwoods, ponds, swamps, citrus groves and cattle pastures. Its proximity to state-owned conservation land and timber company property provides connectivity for wildlife; the property now is home to deer, bobcat, black bear, coyote, fox, fox squirrel, turkey, duck, quail, alligator, gopher tortoise, rock lizard, indigo snake and bats, among many others. I have discovered, recorded, and preserved four archaeological sites.

I am now actively educating others about my successes and failures. In February, I was selected to host a property tour for 60 landowners. The two-hour walking tour was digitally recorded and will be the first-ever virtual tour presented on the Florida Wildlife Commission’s Website (MyFWC.com). In April, I was the subject of a public television show, “New Florida,” about landowners working to restore and protect the “real Florida.”

Using my property as a model, I am founding a natural lands preservation company, Big, Green, and Brown, LLC, that will 1) purchase large tracts, 2) enroll the properties in government costshare programs, 3) write propertyspecific management plans, 4) restore native habitat, 5) establish conservation easements so the land will never be developed, and 6) sell the land to other preservation- minded people. Through these six steps, it is my goal to make preservation profitable so that private landowners will be better equipped to resist the financial temptations of development, and to promote a land stewardship ethic to preserve Florida’s diverse natural and cultural heritage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Pochurek, 37, the 2005 Jhane Barnes Men’s Journal Environmental Ambassador of the Year, graduated from the University of Florida in 1996 with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, with an additional focus on creative writing. He is vice president and partner of Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (SEARCH), a partner of Stoke & Pochurek, LLC and a founder of Big, Green and Brown, LLC. He is married to Jennifer Pochurek, membership and visitor services coordinator of the Florida Museum of Natural History. Owner of a 140-acre stewardship forest property in Citra, he is also a 2005 Disney marathon finisher and the Tarpon Springs Boys Club’s Boy of the Month, May 1979.

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