Forestry was in my blood after all
It took me a bit of time to find my love for trees, which is surprising given that both my father and grandfather were foresters. My maternal grandfather was a forester working in the Black Forest region of Germany and was seconded to teach in southern Chile, where he me met my father, one of his students. After my father made a good impression by helping with some translation work (his father was a German immigrant that landed in Chile in 1908), my grandfather introduced him to my mum, and the stars aligned. Shortly thereafter, my parents moved to Germany together where my dad completed his PhD in forestry and then moved to Canada in 1968 when he was offered a job with the National Forestry Institute (later became the Petawawa National Forestry Institute).
After graduating from high school in Ottawa, I had itchy feet and, eager for adventure, hopped on the first train out west to a summer job in Sunshine Village in Banff. I was fascinated by the beauty of the mountains, and tried to get outside to explore whenever I could. When summer was over, I tried my first year at UBC in sciences which didn’t go so well. After a couple of years of soul searching, I began to realize that people out west were really into trees. This was during the Clayoquot sound protests of the early 90’s, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about forestry and logging. This passion for the forests inspired me, so I applied for UBC’s Bachelor of Forestry (Management), was accepted, and never looked back. I guess it was in my blood after all.
I spent a lot of time in my 20’s travelling and, after graduating, did some forest engineering work in the mountains of BC. Spending time in fly camps in pristine wilderness is an experience I will always cherish and be thankful that I had. We worked long days hiking through devil’s club (plant covered with sharp spines), crossing downed logs to get across glacier fed streams, climbing steep slopes with dense debris, and I loved every minute of it. I burned so much energy, I sometimes packed three sandwiches for lunch!
After almost ten years out west, I decided it was time to go home, and start working with the family business, owned then by my father. It was called Dendron Resource Surveys Ltd and focused on forest inventory and geomatics. Trying to fit into the Ontario scene, I joined the OPFA and attended my first conference around 2000. I didn’t know many people at all, and one of the first people to introduce themselves to me was then President, Riet Verhaggen. It always left an impression on me in that she took the time to talk to me and listen to my story. I was even more impressed when I found out later that she was the first female President of the OPFA (I eventually followed in her footsteps and became President in 2015). At this first conference, I made contacts who asked me to join the Registration Committee, which I sat on for several years, and then later, on Council. Other women that I met and who continued to inspire me throughout my career were Faye Johnson, Mona Wiltshire, Susan Jarvis, and Sarah Bros. They took me under their wings and showed me that you can both be a successful career woman and have a family. I really needed this at the time as I had recently married and started a young family of my own and was having a hard time navigating between work, family, and “fun” life. I’ve always considered myself a hard worker but have also always cherished down time either by myself, or with friends, and have tried to incorporate this into the delicate balancing act of life.
In 2009, a one-year mat leave contract position came up to fill in for Martha Copestake, the lone planning forester at Ottawa’s City Hall at that time. It was a challenging year with a steep learning curve, but also the year that I found my love for urban forestry. Since I like people almost as much as trees and forests, I found that I was well-suited to this new career shift. Once Martha returned, I managed to secure another forester position in public works and stuck around for another six years at the city in various roles learning many different aspects of urban forestry and municipal politics.
Missing the private sector, I left the city in 2016 for a part-time job as General Manager of the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, an organization near and dear to my heart. At the same time, I began my own consulting company called Dendron Forestry Services (recognize the name?). I wasn’t sure what to expect in the consulting world and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a demand for my services, mostly in the urban forestry sector in Ottawa and eastern Ontario.
One year after being self-employed, Anne Koven (Adjunct Professor at U of T), sent me the posting for Urban Forestry Field Course Sessional Lecturer as part of the Master in Forest Conservation program, the same degree program that I graduated from in 2003. I forwarded it to my husband saying that I was very touched that she thought of me, but I dismissed it right away as I never thought I would have a shot at it. He wrote back asking me “why not?”. So, I applied, and won the competition, and absolutely loved it. This spring, I will be teaching my eighth season of the course, and I always look forward to spending two weeks with students who inspire me and keep me young. This experience taught me to believe in myself and to listen to someone when they believe in you. I am grateful to have people in my life that believed in me more than I did.
Fast forward 7 years, and I now consulting full time, and even have an employee (one of my earlier students from the MFC program), a bookkeeper, and plans for future growth. Having an employee on board is not only fun but has also provided us with the capacity to expand services to the peri-urban and rural sectors. Through this experience, I have surprised myself again as I never realized how much I would enjoy running my own business; it is certainly not easy, but the challenges can be rewarding. The best part for me is being able to make my own choices about what to pursue. Being self-employed is not for everyone, but I do hope to see more women in wood become business owners in the future. A strong support network is the key to success, and this is why WIW is so special. If you want to make a bold career move, you know there are women behind you supporting you every step of the way.
Astrid Nielsen is a registered professional forester licensed in Ontario with over 25 years of experience working in traditional and urban forestry. Although an Ottawa native, she began her career in British Columbia and has been back home since 1998. She has an in-depth knowledge of tree by-laws and planning policies around tree protection and has consulted on many projects in this area and across Ontario.