The past few years have been incredibly life-changing for communities around the world, and Conway’s is no exception. As opportunities to convene and get to know each other organically have been scaled back into near-nonexistence, we’ve had to reach out for other ways to connect. In that spirit, we’re embarking on a new series called Conway Convos, where we feature a member of our community – including staff, students, alums and others – in order to share the enormous depth of experience, talent, skill, and beauty that dwell within our Conway community.
We’re kicking off the Conway Convo Series with a student from this year’s class. Haly Rylko hails from the Pacific Northwest and has a deep connection to the landscape there, including a love of the rainy climate. Roxy and Haly talked back in October about landscape inspirations, her path to Conway, favorite tools, and her student experience so far.
Roxy: What was your first landscape love? What was the first landscape that you fell in love with in your life?
Haly: I have two that come to mind initially. The first is my first soccer practice field. I started playing soccer when I was four. My dad was one of the coaches, and instead of having us practice on a proper soccer field, for some reason he had our team of six four-year-olds practice in a meadow at a nearby park. I remember the grass and queen-annes-lace sometimes being taller than my shin guards which made it hard to kick the ball around. But the meadow had the best golden light in the evening and I remember it being a lot of fun to be there with my friends.
The second is my family’s vineyard in Oregon. My aunt and uncle have a vineyard and winery in the Willamette Valley. It’s a 200 acre vineyard, and when I was little, the rows of grapes felt enormous. My sisters and I used to go to the top of the vineyard and each pick a row of grapes to run down. Because it was steep, our legs would get ahead of us and it quickly felt like you weren’t in control of how fast you were going which led to a lot of screaming and laughing. Being guided downhill by the grapes at uncontrollable speeds brought me a lot of joy. I think it was also an early lesson in reading topography to find the fastest row.
Roxy: Wow. That makes me wonder, has that been impacted by the wildfire situation?
Haly: Yes, grapes can absorb the smoke through their skin which can create smokey aromatics and flavor. The impact depends on the severity of the smoke and the stage of growth the grapes are in. But if they absorb too much they can become unusable. So yeah, I think a lot of vineyards on the west coast have been impacted by the fires and the grapes absorbing the smoke. So there might be some smokey wines coming out from over there. But a lot of good wines too!
Roxy: Where and when did your relationship with the Conway school begin?
Haly: It began on a bus! I was chatting with my friend and mentor who had just written [another student’s] recommendation letter for the school. I was describing what I wanted to do next in my career when he told me about Conway. I looked into the school and just got stoked. I liked that there was applied learning, and every example project I read on the website felt like a topic I would want to deep dive into learning about. I am very happy that I found it.
Roxy: What was your background related to landscape design before you arrived here?
Haly: My dad is an ecologist, so my lens growing up was shaped by a lot of ecological observation. He would always ask me questions, like “Why is this doing this? Or why do you think this is happening?” So I was influenced by that and always had a lot of questions about natural processes. After graduating from college, I traveled around for a few months and in that time really missed the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In being away, it also settled in how unique and important salmon are culturally and ecologically in the Northwest and I knew I wanted to work to improve salmon habitat. So when I got back I found a job doing salmon habitat restoration through the Washington Conservation Corps.That’s when I started to think about landscapes very differently, [I] was interacting with the land every day and on such different scales. We would do some projects that were acres and just involved putting in thousands of willow stakes. And then we’d do small little backyard projects, both working towards the same goal. So that’s when I really started thinking about landscape at different scales and in different contexts.
Roxy: What is a favorite experience that you’ve had so far at Conway?
Haly: Oh my gosh. There’s so many. One of my favorite experiences was the Tom Wessels field trip. To be introduced to someone who has so much insight to the landscape was incredible. It really opened my eyes to how much value there is in slowing down and paying so much attention, and how much a landscape can tell you. [It] really changed my lens on looking outdoors anywhere. The fact that he could point at a burned stub of wood in the ground and extract so much information from it…I was just in awe. I became really excited about how much there is to learn.
Roxy: It’s like suddenly getting x-ray vision, right? Yeah. You’re like, wow, there’s all this stuff that was out here in plain sight, and I just didn’t know how to look at it or how to interpret it. And suddenly – whoa – it sort of pops things into 3D for you.
What is a skill that you have acquired here that you’re really proud of?
Haly: Hm. I think drawing and sketching is something I didn’t come to school with too much of a background in. In my first couple weeks at Conway I was really hard on myself about how my sketches were turning out. I would have a real tight grip on the pencil, trying to make them look realistic. I think a skill I’m proud of is not necessarily the finished product of my drawings right now, but the skill of not being too critical of myself as I sketch. I’ve eased up on my own self-criticism and that has felt really good. The practice of just doing what I can in the moment, capturing something as I experience it, and giving myself permission for it to be imperfect, I think is important and it’s one of the things I’ve been working on.
Roxy: Yes, and so essential to the learning process.
What is your favorite tool?
Haly: My favorite tool is just a classic, well taken care of shovel. You can do so much with it. Plant, turn compost, bushwhack, lean against it. If you have a nice shovel you’re in good shape for a lot of projects.
Roxy: What is your spirit plant? Is there a plant that you resonate with, or that is dear to your heart?
Haly: I have so many! I don’t know the plants out here too much.
Roxy: No, it can be one from home.
Haly: Yeah ok, great. I think huckleberries resonate with me. Those are near and dear. We used to plant them a lot for restoration, but also when you go up in the mountains and it’s a good huckleberry time, it’s such a treat. Having a belly full of huckleberries in the mountains or having pie when you get back down, that’s just a perfect summer day. I also really like moss and lichen. They’re both so other worldly and it’s nice to be surrounded by them.
Roxy: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your Conway experience, or anything else that you’d want the Conway community to know?
Haly: I’m just really happy to be learning here. I appreciate that folks in the greater Conway community seem to apply what they learned here in such different, interesting and creative ways and I’m stoked to be able to learn from everyone.