An Interview with 21st Century Pine Barrens Explorers Josh Loew and Roula Theodoropoulou

Disclaimer- Josh Loew and Roula Theodoropoulou contributed to this article in their own personal capacity. The views expressed are theirs and do not necessarily represent the views of author and Piney Tribe team administrator William Lewis.

“Frog things, turtle findings, nighttime bow fishing, native species, blueberry eats, saving the world one day at a time!”

Roula Theodoropoulou

“The future is written by the decisions of every person on this planet at every moment. Sometimes we believe we can take the wheel and direct it where we want. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we dream so much about the future that it seems to already exist. Sometimes that dream has to be erased. As we go through life, it is important to dream. It is important to hold on to the wheel, but when everything changes and the way we were heading becomes impossible or it is no longer what we want, we should learn to appreciate the beauty in the pure chaos, that is, the unwritten future.”

Josh Loew

Interview conducted on 10/07/2020

1) If you were forced to categorize your interests in the great outdoors what one would you say fits you best? Example botany, local history, geology, herping etc.

Josh- “A few months ago I would have been unsure.  I have interest in all of them. But I’ve narrowed it down today to native plants and fighting off invasive plants.”

Roula- “Narrowed it down to birds. I thought about this long and hard in the past. And my general interest from loving animals has narrowed down to just the flying ones.”

2) We never truly know the influence we have on others. Someone out there probably lots of someones look up to you in your endeavors in the Pines. Who do you list in your top 3 influencers of your own interest in adventuring?

Roula- “Steve Irwin 1st, he’s what I grew up with as a kid. A consistency I think I had in my childhood. I watched him as I grew up and I tried to be just like him. I didn’t take gender as a consideration. This is a man going out in the wild being all manly and crazy. But I didn’t take that into consideration. I wanted to be my own crazy wild nature adventure person in the future, and it stayed that way for many years.

2nd Dian Fossey, she wrote a book called Gorillas In the Mist where she talked about her adventures alone In Tanzania. She just went out there and studied silver back gorillas. I thought that was really cool. I think I was drawn into the bravery in these people and the independence and the curiosity that drove them into the wild. Just sitting with themselves their thoughts and their surroundings is what sparked my interest in both these individuals Steve Irwin and Dian Fossey.  And the fact that Dian Fossey was a woman, and she was brave enough to go out on her own and do those exhibitions. The book is what sparked my interest, but I have yet to see the movie.

3rd There’s a lot of famous people I can refer to. I think what also drove me to the direction of nature and loving it just the realization of the connectivity of everything.  I can sit down and read all these things about all these people and I can look at plants and birds all day long. The reality of it is I don’t find enjoyment in anything else other than the things going on outside. I feel that is the most important thing in life because without it we wouldn’t be here today. So, my third thing would be just the realization of the beauty of life itself if that makes sense. I gained that awareness in Yoga school and I think Yoga helped me get in touch with myself a lot more than college or high school ever had. With yoga I was able to get creative with my practices and having everyone else join me. And the most comforting space was just being outside and having everyone realize where they are when they’re doing it and how they’re doing it. And how everything works, and I think Yoga was the key to that.”  

Josh- “I’m going to have to go with Douglas Tallamy for my number one. He’s a writer. He’s been a big inspiration for me lately.  A new friend of mine Jane Galetto introduced me to Douglas Tallamy’s works. I read them as soon as I got my hands on the books and it took me one day to read through them. Bringing Nature Home and later I got Nature’s Best Hope. Reading those two books fueled my interest. Now I’m reading more books on the topic. Studying native plants and understanding the importance of native plants for wildlife. It helped me kind of take my interest in all things and narrow it down to plants specifically native plants. It encompasses everything else. Without those native plants everything else would cease to exist.  

2nd Family in general. All of them I feel had some role in shaping my interest in nature. While they are much attached to nature and very much interested in nature it is in a very different way. They are outdoorsmen they hunt and fish. To spend time looking at different plants and identifying them or identifying insects or birds to them that’s just abnormal. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve spent time explaining to them why I’m pursuing biology. Many of the men in my family have traditionally been tradesman mainly welders. I know they wanted me to be a welder. I started to pursue that field. I always held on to the adventures in nature I had as a child going hunting and fishing. While they’re out catching fish, I’d be on the banks scooping up little fish trying to figure out what I was catching. I was always a little different that way. But they’re the ones that introduced me to nature and sparked all those interests. I gotta give them credit for that.

3rd past work experiences; I worked for 7 years every summer and on weekends Beaver Dam boat rentals. The business was focused mainly crabbing where the customers went out to catch crabs. There was always beautiful with bald eagles flying and everything. But the beauty of nature didn’t catch up to me until a few years working there when I was promoted to be a tow boat operator. I was driving customers out and bringing them to their spots. I found the job more enjoyable by being able to explain to the customers more about the wildlife. So, I took it upon myself to learn more about the local wildlife that way I could tell them about it. I just made me feel that I was better at my job being able to say, “Today you might not catch that many crabs as the conditions aren’t right but you came a long way and your still going to enjoy your day. Because if you look over this way there is nesting bald eagles.  If you look along the marsh, you might be lucky enough to see baby rail birds.” I learned about the different species of birds and different fish and felt so much better about everything. Being able to make customers enjoy what they were seeing rather than focuses on the crabbing portion. I did another job for last few summers at the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge. Two summers as an intern and one summer under a fellowship program at the refuge some of it in the Pine Barrens doing invasive plant management. I would work side by side with a US Fish & Wildlife biologist inspired me a lot for Wildlife biology. That’s the direction I want to head for my future career as a wildlife biologist for the Fish & Wildlife. Definitely a big influence on me just hearing how passionate the Wildlife biologist was and how much knowledge she had. That was my first introduction to an ornithologist. We were on the beach one day and she says, “Stop I hear a piping plover.” And I’m like what are you talking about? It had to be a mile down the beach, but she heard it and knew exactly what species it was and that was impressive.”   

3) Do you prefer solo or group outdoor adventures?

Josh- “I’m pretty solo. I like doing educational things though. If I take friends who don’t appreciate nature like I do, it won’t be that kind of journey. If I take my nephews out, I can teach them things.”

Roula- “It depends. Some days I like to go by myself. I’ve done plenty of camping and hiking alone where I found satisfaction. Then there are days I kinda want to bring another person with me to experience this with.”

4) What’s your typical mode of operation (MO) when it comes to how you interact with your interest. Is it pure hobby, part nostalgia, or academic in purpose? What’s your goal from doing it?

Josh- “I’ve done it for each of those reasons. I’ve done it for academic reasons for herpetology to find a certain number of species. I’ve gone just to enjoy nature. Sometimes just to learn some more. I do sometimes feel guilty spending too much time in the woods by myself. I feel like there should be other things I should be doing instead. I’m always trying to find a good explanation for it like taking my nephews on a field trip to just get myself to feel ok with what I’m doing. Which is kinda funny its almost like I feel guilty about doing something I enjoy?”  

Roula- “I think its comfort reasons. I find comfort in nature. I don’t do shopping therapy I find that extremely stressful. I seek the answers that I don’t even realize I’m looking for in nature. This is nourishment. Every time I go out you here different birds, you hear the wind blowing the leaves rushing; everything. You hear that you smell that its just pure nourishment. Does that make sense?”

5) Is there a way to encourage people to follow your passion or should we not encourage others that may or may not be respectful in the same manner to the environment?

Roula- “There are so many different aspects of nature that people can relate to that no matter what we do we can at least attract one person. Or even if a person can act that they hate everything about nature I believe there is at least one thing that they can relate to with nature. Instead of trying to convince these people otherwise I think the best thing to do is to continue live your life the way you do. Show the different things you do everyday in nature. All these adventures and see what ways you can inspire people with those different adventurers. Its never the same. I don’t think you can force someone to love something but I think you can change perspectives to a more peaceful and understanding empathetic perspective when it comes to nature. No matter what way you do it.”

Josh- “There are a lot of people that don’t understand nature well enough and when they do go into nature, they can cause damage. There are the people that ride four wheelers and dirt bikes through places where they aren’t supposed to. There are people who blindly stomp on plants. It could be a rare orchid in the forest, and they don’t see it. There definitely a unique challenge to communicate with the public about their interactions with nature. Of course, we want to encourage it because that interaction is what fuels the interest which is going to fuel the desire to gain knowledge about it. And then that person will become that person that does respect nature. But then there are also people that never will be comfortable going into nature. Craziest as that is to me it’s the truth. I’ve found that a lot of times people just don’t understand a lot of things about nature. I do my best to try to educate as much as possible. In the FFA it encouraged us to be proactive and not reactive.  Someone says something negative about nature or something and you start arguing with them. Its better to promote that positive thing that you think. So, they see that before they something negative. For example, about saying something negative about deer hunting. Instead I post about myself deer hunting in the most educational way possible. I understand the biology of it the conservation of it. So I give that perspective rather than arguing with people who don’t understand it. I try to educate them before we get into that sort of situation. I just recently did this. I harvested a white tail doe. I posted photograph on my social media. I’ve accumulated a bit of a following (on social media) and I know a lot of these people aren’t nature-oriented people like myself. I posted a black screen with a warning that said, “Warning deer hunting photo coming next.” Caption this is why people deer hunt, and this is what it does. And the next picture was me with the deer. Posted it and I felt good about it. Probably ten people messaged me and thanked me. And not thanking me for saving them from seeing it but thanking me for sharing the information that they didn’t know before. I really felt good about that. A lot of people can enjoy nature by just seeing it on the screen. Seeing their friends interact with nature that seems to satisfy a lot of people. Just my experiences posting about nature people love it and appreciate but I don’t see them going and doing the same thing. Ways we can educate people more, but my main message is to be proactive and send out the right information.”   

6) How many people do you know that have told you that what you do in the wild is crazy or kinda weird?

Roula- “Like everybody. A bunch of people that I went to school with like in high school and college.”   

Josh- “My little sister comes over with her young adult friends they think it’s hilarious when I start talking about native plants. “Oh my gosh you and your plants!” I’ll be planting trees. I’m big on this idea of ecological landscaping. My dad is always saying since high school he’s encouraged me to be a welder. He really things its foolish to pursue a wildlife position. People also look at me like I’m Crocodile Dundee. What I do is normal to me. But the way I dress people compare me to Crocodile Dundee.”

7) What’s the best resource you can share with someone looking to pursue your specific hobby?

Josh- “Douglas Tallamy’s two books; Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope. If you read any of those two books your view of nature should change. My entire prospective of everything has changed since reading those two books. The simplest but greatest plan for conservation this country has ever seen. Rachel Carson has a great argument but totally different areas. Douglas Tallamy has the best action for ordinary people. The Pine Barrens should have very specific vegetation and Tallamy talks about the importance of keeping the right plants where they belong.”

Roula- “Douglas Tallamy books too. What this man has to offer is absolutely brilliant. It’ll change all sorts of perspectives. It shifted mine for sure as a bird lover and conservation. Every time I think about doing something productive my mind always goes to, “What can I do that can help benefit biodiversity today?” That’s how he shifted my perspective. Me being selfless connected with nature and how I can benefit it.”

8) What’s one thing you’d like to change about our current New Jersey environment?

Josh- “Native plants; this is a country wide thing. Super important for New Jersey where there is a lot of suburban areas and rural areas too.  The whole state could benefit from changing the traditional mindset on landscaping. Everyone wants to have this pure luscious green lawn. This strange status symbol that we’ve created in this country. That no one benefits from it. Humans don’t eat grass. Must insects and animals don’t eat grass. Basically, useless land. People could use their land much better if they were growing vegetables for food. Best option is to plant the plants that belong there. Native vegetation is what provides the insects and food sources for our native wildlife. We are holding on to some weird cultural practice that makes absolutely no sense.”

Roula- “I’m going to have to agree with Josh on planting native plants. I think that is extremely important and crucial for native biodiversity. One thing that I’ve recently been complaining about is noise. I would like a reduction in noise pollution. And a lot of people find it absurd, “Like what’s the big deal?” How do you think I was able to memorize 250 bird vocals? By peace and quiet. Being able to sit down in the dark or wherever I am in the woods and just listen. Just listen and get in tune with yourself. Understand yourself you understand everything else around you.”

9) I may have asked this and or you answered it in another question but now that you had more time to think on it, “What drives you to your specific sport?” Is it exercise, mental renewal, religious experience etc.?

Roula- “What drives me to birds? I think communication drives me to that. I feel like birds have a lot to say. Birds are talking about all sorts of things. And I think to understand them better and understand their situation in nature you gotta understand their calls. I think its so complex. I think communication is really important. Josh says, “Roula has a gift. She can just hear birds and know what they are. She hears them and has a picture of them in her mind. Somehow her brain processes sound in an incredibly unique way that is really impressive to me”

Josh- “I had a High school running coach. He told me, “The secret to life is one thing.” It comes from an old movie. He was trying to convince me that I should focus on running. I was involved in too many things but that is how I wanted to be. I didn’t want to focus on one thing. I kinda held onto that quote and find it interesting to look back on. But I started thinking about it more when I got interested in biology. What is my one thing? This person is interested in birds that person is interested in sharks. Everybody seemed to have their thing. And I could never figure mine out. It seemed like whatever class I went into that suddenly was my thing. I was super interested in whatever I was learning about. I was in herpetology and this is it. I’m all about herpetology. Then I get into ornithology I’m like this is it I’m all about birds. Finally, I got to go to Costa Rica on a trip for tropical ecology in school. I thought this was my chance. Whatever I like most on this trip that was my thing. We were supposed to bring one field guide on the thing we were most interested in. I brought every field guide; plants, birds, and herps. I went there I was mostly interested in birds and herps but mainly herps. I thought that was it, but I went home and there wasn’t as many herps and as interesting to me as it was before. Then I got introduced to Douglas Tallamy. Then everything suddenly became connected. I’m interested in everything and everything depends upon the native plants. Ever since I read those books nothing has been able to change my deepest interest my deepest passion as botany. Studying the impact of invasive plants and the necessity of native plants.  It’s the connection to all things that you find in plants.”

10) Do you consider yourself a Piney?

Josh- “Yes definitely I live on the edge of the Pines. But there is something about it. Immerse myself in the pines is a special feeling. I think that’s why that was our first date. Roula came down to hang out with me and I was loading up the kayaks in the truck and I said get in we’re going on a trip. We paddled out amongst the sand and the pine trees and set up our hammocks in a Pinus rigida. We had our hammocks set up on those giant pine trees and it was the perfect night for a first date. I don’t think we’ll every forget that. There was a reason I took her there as our first date. I think that says a lot. The first place you wanna bring someone that first place you want to show someone. Paddling in we were listening to whip-poor-wills her first time hearing them. We just kept talking about how beautiful the landscape was. I Never want to leave South Jersey. I always want to be able to visit the pines.”  

Roula- “My story growing up was very nomadic. I was all over the place. Because I grew up going back and forth from the United States and my home country Greece. As a child my parents did a lot of moving back and forth. So, when I started growing up as a teenager and early adult years I just continued with that pattern. I kept moving. I’d go up mountains. I’d go down south, constantly moving. I’d always stay here in the northeast area though. I just kept going. A lot of people say that humans naturally go back to what we are comfortable with. Which is why a lot of us stay in what we know and what we are comfortable with? But I’m so used to adaptation that I came up with this quote, “Find home in every place you meet.” I relate to that a lot because of the amount of moving I had to do throughout my entire life. That is also a big part of my connection with nature. Getting to know Josh and hanging out with him it makes me feel like I’ve found my place or my home. Wherever we end up if we are together, and we do the things that we love I think that will be my place that I find home. I can definitely say I love the Pine Barrens.”

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