Plants that Heal.

I met Danna Olsen in April, while working on creating a garden out of vacant land in the Bayview Neighborhood.  She was one of three volunteers to show up at the event, and I hadn’t even invited her!  That’s the thing about Danna.  If you’re constructing a garden or green rooftop in the city of Madison, Danna will find out about it and more than likely, she’ll show up to lend a hand.

It was a long and winding road that brought Danna into this world of green spaces and sustainability, but it’s safe to say she has found her place in Madison.  After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in Biological Aspects of Conservation and Zoology as well as an Environmental Studies certificate, Danna had trouble finding employment.  Like many of my recently graduated friends, Danna’s classes had thoroughly expanded her mind on ecological issues, but weren’t quite enough to help her obtain the jobs she desired.  Danna found undergraduate degrees in science were rarely enough.  Employers wanted Masters or Doctorate degrees, but she wasn’t ready for these higher educations.

She held temporary positions at the UW Primate Center and Monsanto before finding employment as a chemist for PPD, a pharmaceutical company in Middleton.  Although she wasn’t especially interested in this type of science, it seemed like a step in the right direction.  For 7 years, Danna was (usually) stuck in a room filled with gray crates for 40 hours a week.  The dull, monotone, windowless room was depressing (especially when summer rolled around) and Danna reached a point where she was  always complaining about her job.  She was good at it, but knew it wasn’t making her happy.  Much of the misery had to do with the environment she was working within.  Finally, she realized she had to leave before moving on to the next step: management.  On a dare, she quit her job.

Danna began work at Barrique’s where she found she had time to learn and pursue her interests again.  Always intrigued by public health and the environmental effects of health, she decided to continue her education and become a Nurse’s Assistant.  During her first summer away from PPD, Danna took a “mental vacation” and spent the majority of her summer outdoors.  Although she was shifting her life’s direction and perhaps even taking a step backward (what should have been a stressful time), she somehow felt at ease.  She attributes much of her happiness during the transition period to her time spent outdoors.

Once back involved in campus life, Danna began attending Environmental Studies Club meetings, attending Professor DeWitt’s coffee hours and volunteering for Madison Environmental Group.  She was part of a big pesticide-free campaign on campus and began to notice that environmental and sustainable changes are a very gradual process.  Because there is so much bureaucracy and divergent interests involved, innovative changes need to be handled patiently and persistently.  To many, the appearance of Bascom Hill defines UW-Madison.  If the Grounds Department began to use pesticide-free lawn care, would this iconic hill still look good?  This was one of the many voices surrounding the lawn-care debate.  This struggle is still going on.

The following September, Majora Carter came to campus.  Danna became even more inspired.  Her interest in sustainability efforts within cities broadened and she began to wonder what Madison was doing in this realm.  It turned out they were not doing as much as she’d hoped.

Danna organized the Green Roof Initiative in order to advocate for green rooftops in Madison.  The group brought together roofing companies, landscaping students and native plant exports. Group members and Madison residents can now look to Greening Madison to become educated on green rooftops in the city as well as follow their progress.

Meanwhile, still working at the UW-hospital, Danna began to notice the dreary views outside of her patients windows.  It reminded her of those 7 years spent working  indoors for PPD: little more to look at then drab gray and concrete.  While working with surgical patients, Danna began snapping pictures of the views outside their windows.  The gray and gravel rooftops couldn’t have positive implications for recovery.  With the pictures she’d taken, Danna created a slide show that connected both her interests: Green Roofs and Patient Care.  The slide show discussed the economic and human benefits of green roofing on hospitals.  She explained how vacant space could be used as a place of healing.

She took her slideshow to Health & Healing meetings as well as Facility Planning meetings at the hospital and her superiors listened. The UW-Hospital staff agreed that green roofs would improve patient care.

While still nursing, Danna began to act as a facilitator for these green roof projects, networking, utilizing resources and bringing divergent groups together in conversation.  She brought in UW engineering students to help with planning the infrastructure for her healing gardens (green rooftops require a lot of infrastructure in order to support the weight of the soil, transitioning from a normal rooftop to a green rooftop is no small endeavor).  Landscape architecture students have been recruited more recently to help design the corridor space.  Currently there is one healing garden in place at the UW-Hospital, but two more are in the works including one atop an old helicopter pad.

Danna is the quintessential example of someone taking a normal job, and making it exceptional.  Working as a nurse, she did more than just the required patient care.  She observed the environment that her patients had to live in while recovering and found a way to improve it.  It is clear to me that Danna has never been one to settle in life.  Wherever she looks, she sees ways in which things can be improved and believes in making everything around her a little bit better.

Danna tells me that for a long time now, she has been on a quest to use her abilities and interests.  She hasn’t gotten to where she wants to be yet, but feels like she is certainly headed in the right direction now.

Danna still works as a Nurse’s Assistant at the UW hospital in the Neurology Department while simultaneously taking nursing classes and volunteering her time as a environmental sustainability and greenroof advocate.  Eventually she would love a job “that looks at the  environmental factors that shape health problems.”  Soon she will be beginning graduate studies at UW-Madison.

It is safe to say that plants can heal, and more than just recovering patients, it appears plants can reshape the direction of one’s life.