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‘Being sick was a wake-up call. I thought, if I was to die, what is the one thing I wish I had done?’

What I Do: Aleksandra Konieczka is an ecologist and founder of Understory

I was born in Poland. There was a forest and a stream beside my house. I used to spend so much time at an off-grid house too. That was a profound experience for me.

I came to Ireland when I was 10. It was a big shift moving straight into Stoneybatter in inner city Dublin. I didn’t have any English, so I had to learn everything from scratch.

At the time, I didn’t realise how much I missed nature, but looking back I definitely did. I had mixed feelings, having left friends and where I grew up. There were quite a few battles going on, and nature was definitely one of them.

For me, there is a power in having a connection with nature. It is such an immense feeling to be at one with nature and to feel completely safe and not worried. I am comfortable and not overthinking – I think that is what nature provides to us all.


I decided to do a degree in environmental science at Trinity – I just thought: stick to what your heart is telling you.

When I finished studying, I fell quite ill with septic shock. It was a bit of a freak accident. Your body prioritises just surviving and abandons other functions like digestion. Normal everyday processes shut down. It wasn’t pretty. I definitely learned a lot from it.

Because my condition was pretty bad, I just wanted to get back to normal. I was desperate to come back from it and find a job. I really wanted to work in ecology, but there were already a lot of overqualified people looking for entry jobs in that area. The corporate world was the only one with its arms open. The job wasn’t in sustainability, but soon I started giving workshops for free at lunchtime and created a little bit of a sustainability movement there.

Three years ago I founded my own company, Understory. It’s about providing environmental education through experiences.

Living sustainably isn’t easy, when it’s expensive just to pay rent and bills

It was scary, of course. I didn’t really know anyone who had set up a business, but being sick was a bit of a wake-up call. I thought, if I was to die tomorrow, what is the one thing I wish I had done? For me, it was to go out on my own, to give myself to the world.

With Understory, I do workshops using experiential learning. There is a hands-on element like making birdseed balls, hedgehog houses, bird houses or bug hotels.

I only use waste or sustainable materials to make things that educate, directly enhance biodiversity or lend a hand to wildlife, so there is very little impact in that way.

I love bats. I think they are fascinating creatures. I started a project, Joy of Bats, partnering with Delgany and Greystones Tidy Towns. We got funding from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and I led a community-based project where I taught people about bats. We used bat detectors to hear their calls.

There were about 40 people, young people, older people, a really wonderful group from all walks of life. It was amazing. It is always my favourite part, to give people that experience of connection while being educational at the same time.

It is very easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless about the environment. I experienced that myself when I was at college and was faced with so many facts that seemed really bleak.

A lot of the time, people feel really guilty – living has an impact and we can’t live without any impact whatsoever. It’s definitely about making people feel like they are not alone and they have the agency within them to do something.

What I did was I took action, I took it into my own hands. In a selfish way, it gives me great satisfaction to see improvements in local biodiversity through something I’ve done or the effect I have had on other people.

Everyone can do something, they just need to uncover it and be brave and confident. That can be hard. The workshops I give are not about the scientific facts, but about connecting people and giving them the understanding that they are not alone.

People can have eco-anxiety – the only way to deal with anxiety is to do something, to take action in your own life. You will feel the benefit straight away.

People can struggle with so many mental health issues. It can come from feeling that you are not doing what you should be doing. When I was ill I thought, well what do I want to do, how can I use my life in the best way – and it is to be connected with other people, to form communities based on kindness and to be the person I want to be.

I feel that Understory allows me to do that, I feel like it is my purpose. I hope that others will feel that they can follow their values, look at their life objectively and ask: is this exactly what I wanted for myself and if not, how can I change it?

Living sustainably isn’t always easy, especially at a time when it’s quite expensive just to pay rent and bills. I keep my impact to as little as I can. It’s definitely a struggle, but I see surveys now that young people are choosing employers based on how sustainable they are. I personally would sacrifice how much I make knowing that I am not impacting the planet in a negative way.

In conversation with Joanne Hunt

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