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Living the Dream: Vail Ryan – "Dreaming as Hard as I Can"

“Do you only take the stories of folks who have succeeded? Or also those of us who are still struggling to achieve the dream?” That’s how our conversation began with 48-year-old Vail Ryan, who left his job at a “cube farm” in Pennsylvania to study environmental science and teach children about the importance of respecting our planet.

Although Vail finds his new career path gratifying and spiritually rewarding, he admits that the transition hasn’t been easy, and he longs for an affordable home and a regular paycheck. Committed to pursuing his goals and to never again working a meaningless job, he aims to continue “dreaming as hard as he can.”

What does “the good life” mean to you? And how did you come to this vision?

The good life to me would be one in which I could meet my financial obligations and also have some basics, including owning a little place to live. All I’d require is a couple of rooms. I’d love to live in the woods by a stream—but realistically, I’d at least like a quiet place.

The good life would include my friends and family, but my work would also be a major component. I don’t strive for any rise in social status or the accoutrements that go with it. I don’t have a smart phone; I still use a vacuum tube television; I don’t have cable. I don’t think of it as having low expectations—I just have never desired all that stuff!

What’s the one thing you enjoy most about your lifestyle?

Right now my work is my primary fulfillment in life. I look forward to it, and I come home feeling wonderful most days—it keeps me going. At 48, I am now in school for environmental science. I also teach children at several area nature centers about the wonders of the natural world and how we depend on them. It gives me hope to see kids’ faces when they discover a butterfly chrysalis or the vast community of organisms under a log. If we don’t teach children a love and respect for nature, how will they know to take care of it as adults?  

My current lifestyle is day-to-day existence. But when I am teaching kids or helping to create a citizen’s water monitoring group, or when someone says “thank you,” I get the intrinsic reward of a lifetime! It is sating and leaves me happy the rest of the day. I love what I do and I will continue to do it because I must, if life is to be worthwhile. 

Is there anything about your life these days that you really wish you could change or improve?

I would like to not worry about paying the rent. I would like to have health care and the basic sense of security we all should have. I would like to get my car repaired. I would like to not have school debt. These kinds of worries are a real mental/emotional drain. I would also like to able to afford the cost of attending the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators convention!

Tell us a little more about the work that you do.

I once worked in the pharmaceutical industry. I was laid off for the last time in 2009. I hated life in the corporate “cube farm”—the work I did seemed meaningless, and I was too aware of the ways the industry works, which troubled my conscience. Laying me off was a kind of unwitting mercy on their part!

While on unemployment, I volunteered at the John James Audubon Center in Audubon, Pennsylvania. Teaching young summer campers and introducing them to the outdoors was so fulfilling that I decided to make a career of it. I’ve since worked at several area nature centers and created a citizen’s water monitoring group at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. I was hired to create a similar group at Tyler Arboretum and have also taught PA Master Naturalist candidates about water monitoring.

I would like to bring environmental education into the lives of poor and underprivileged children and adults, as a means of empowering them to improve their lives and to stand up to local governments that allow polluting industries in their neighborhoods or that provide shoddy and unhealthful living conditions. Through engagement with and care for nature in their own neighborhoods, people can realize their personal and group power to change things in their own lives and in the larger world.

Describe some ways that you are involved in your community.

Unfortunately, one of the things that my current income prevents is time for me to volunteer. With multiple jobs and limited earnings, free time doesn’t really exist for me. Still, I feel guilty about my lack of volunteer work. I would be thrilled if I could just go wherever I was needed without anyone being burdened with paying me.

For many, your lifestyle is considered “outside the mainstream.” Does this present any challenges, and, if so, how do you deal with them?

Since my understanding of “mainstream” involves conspicuous mindless consumption and the accumulation of status symbols, I am proud (maybe even a little smug) to be outside of it. The reality that we all must face is this: endless economic growth and consumption is not sustainable.

Relative simplicity has been the norm in my life, and it has its share of complications. I would like to eat nothing but organic local foods. I’d like to buy only fair-trade clothing and other products. I’d like to have a house off the grid generating solar power. I’d like to drive less or not at all. But in this world, living those principles takes a certain minimum of financial resources.

I sometimes daydream about all the good I could do in the world if I won the lottery. And I’m sure I would do these good things just as well as I’m sure I won’t win the lottery!

Please describe any new skills or hobbies that you’re really excited about or that you would love to learn if you had the time and resources.

I love to kayak or do anything near or in the water. I have learned to identify myriad plants and animals and what they contribute to the world. I have become a pretty good photographer. I’ve even become a public speaker, which I would never have imagined!

As a naturalist, there is far more information than I can possibly assimilate in my lifetime. Rather than being daunted, I find this wonderful, and it really facilitates human relationships. Almost everyone I meet has some knowledge that I don’t, and we are all in the habit of sharing what we know with each other.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

When I was a kid, I was told life was hard and you did what you had to do to get through it. A job wasn’t supposed to be fun or fulfilling or rewarding. Working was an obligation; it kept a roof over your head and food in your belly. Fulfillment and happiness weren’t part of the equation.

I haven’t really had any personal mentors or heroes, so, the best advice I’ve gotten yet I had to give myself: life is short, so make the most of it. I don’t want to die regretting what I did not do. I won’t be satisfied until I feel I am doing something meaningful beyond myself and my time. Even if I don’t succeed, I will have tried, and I have seen too many people who never tried. I don’t want to be one of them.

Read more interviews in our Living the Dream Series

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