This piece is part of our Q+A series. Know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.
Profile: Originally from Staunton, Brian Bell has lived in Richmond for a decade now. A few years back, he founded Keep Virginia Cozy — a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving Virginia’s natural landscape through outreach, restoration, and research.
We asked Brian 12 questions about the organization and his love for the outdoors — in Richmond and beyond. Read on to find out what local eats he would bring to a deserted island, his favorite nature spots in the city + the future of Keep Virginia Cozy.
The Keep Virginia Cozy ethos seems to be: Be kind. Smile at strangers. Pick up litter. Keep Virginia Cozy. Can you talk about why these are the values of the group?
The reason that I chose those as the values of the group is ... we’ve all been outside before and seen different groups at different times doing service projects and things, and usually when you walk past them, it’s kind of like oh sorry, I’ll get out of your way, whatever — and then just go on about it. And sometimes people in those workgroups are just there to do their volunteering and then kind of go on about it.
But they’re the ones making the outdoors better for everybody else, regardless of if it’s an invasive plant removal, or trail work to prevent things like erosion, or just as easy as litter cleanup.There’s always a ton and ton and ton of litter, as the numbers that we’ve been keeping track of have shown in a very small amount of time.
Adding just being kind to that is super easy. It makes what we’re doing outside more open to everyone coming by — rather than seeing somebody picking up trash and stepping around them, being like, Hey, how’s it going, or hey what’s up. More often than not that will spark a conversation about, Oh, not much I’m just out here on the Buttermilk Trail, are you part of a group doing something? That’s been how we’ve gotten most of our volunteers, by word of mouth.
So the first two lines — being kind and smiling at strangers — do a lot to open the door for conversation. You’re out there in a shared space, that’s for all of us. If you come across somebody who’s willing to talk to you about what it is that they’re doing, it’s a nice way to bond with like-minded people.
How did you get involved in environmental cleanups and activities? And what sparked your love of the environment in general?
I grew up in scouting, so I had the love of the outdoors instilled at a very young age. I had the benefit of being in a very fortunate place where part of scouting is going out camping at least once a month, sometimes multiple times. I’m sure there were windows in there where I took it for granted — where I was like, again? We just did this last month! Now as an adult, when you have to actively carve out time and plan well in advance and line things up and do all of this stuff just to get to those places, it makes me appreciate it a lot more.
I was working for an environmental engineering consulting firm when I first moved to Richmond — which is the job that I had for several years — and I loved it. The company is still great, but they just have kind of shifted their scope as to what they’re doing. I used to do earth science lab kind of work but got paid for it, which was kind of the best of both worlds because I love earth science — I still write emails and letters back and forth with my ninth grade science teacher, who did a lot to add to my love of the environment.
When I started having to do more VDOT work, I had to roll out for my own mental health reasons and get back outside. I’m much more poor but I’m much more happy. Bringing people together to do outdoor stuff is where the spin off for Keep Virginia Cozy started because I’m out in these places anyway. Just this morning, I was out trail running. So I’m always out there and when I see trash I do the best I can to pack it up.
It’s a pretty well known thing that a lot of hands make light work. It’s a lot easier to carry heavy stuff with two people. So I started opening it up as volunteer cleanups on weekends, and people really enjoyed it. We would do a cleanup on Southside, and people who are in Church Hill might have never been there. And so it shows them a new part of their community and they get to come out and experience it and clean it up for other people. When you do something to give back to an area, it automatically increases your connection to that same spot. It’s no longer I’m walking through it, it’s I helped make it what it is. It’s been a lot of fun bringing people together just like that.
How has Keep Virginia Cozy evolved since its inception?
The past year — the past 2 years — has been bananas for everybody. When we started I honestly didn’t think that it was going to be more than kind of like a weekend warrior group — we get together when we have free time. I didn’t realize that it was going to be as popular of a fun thing to do in peoples’ free time as people have made it become.
When I realized there was room for that, I wanted to invest more. I started offering more things that go along with it. Litter is always going to be there — that’s the sad fact. We can clean it up in a fun way, and we can get people together to experience new places, but I started learning too that we have people who have never been outside past, you know, walking around or playing in their own backyard. Folks that now live in Richmond, which has an amazing park system and is two hours from Shenandoah National Park, might have moved here from some larger city and they have never been to an area where actual nature can exist.
I started wanting to incorporate these introductory classes for responsible recreation, because pairing knowledge of outdoor spaces with knowledge of how to protect them is the only way for sustainable growth in that realm.
We all saw in COVID, all of a sudden places that saw around 100,000 visitors a year or whatever, started seeing 2 million, because we were all told to go outside — and that’s great. The outside is a wonderful place, I love it with my whole heart. But we need to pair that with how to take care of it — and trying to do that in a fun way, rather than sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher to people. No one hears that stuff, because that’s not fun. So we’re trying to make it as fun as we can for folks to go outside.
You can come to us and learn how to use a map and a compass, and then go outside and practice it, or come to us to learn some Leave No Trace basics, and then go outside and practice them. Then what you’ve done is increased your knowledge base, made somewhere that you visited better for everyone else who’s coming after you, and maybe in the process, someone saw you doing it, so you started a spark with them to be like oh you know, I did step over two bottles back there that I could have just as easily picked up, and I’ll do that from now on. We don’t need one person doing it great; we just need a bunch of people doing the best they can. If we can get that going, that would be phenomenal. We’re trying to make outdoor recreation and responsible recreation as fun as we can so people can enjoy it all across the board.
What does your ideal Saturday in Richmond look like?
I live in Southside, over in Forest Hill, and we used to have access to a fantastic Saturday farmers market. My ideal Saturday used to be waking up, walking from my house with my dogs to the farmers market, buying some soap from the Wandering Cow farms, getting some coffee and some vegetables, and then having a breakfast sandwich from the sandwich food truck. Then I’d be back home by noon to sit in my front yard and read a book and play with the dogs.
Now my Saturday — if I’m in town — is to get up and go do the loop of the Buttermilk Northbank Trail. I try to do that as early as I can, because it does get pretty crowded with mountain bikers and weekend hikers. So I’ll do that, and then the rest is pretty much the same. I’ll come home and do some laundry, then maybe go over to Scott’s Addition with some friends and sit on a patio, try to do all the open air things that we can. Now that the weather is amazing and its fall, sitting on a patio is more enjoyable than baking in the sun. So it’s kind of fun.
I run hot, so I don’t really do well in the summer — I do the best I can. I’d say between probably the end of April, and maybe like last week, my Saturdays in Richmond are usually in the mountains. So my Saturdays are just not here, they’re somewhere else where it’s at least 10 degrees cooler, hopefully. But now it’s nice — I was out this morning and it was 46 degrees when I was trail running this morning. It was amazing.
That’s awesome — plus, the South of the James Farmers Market is opening back up on Sundays in November.
That’s fun! To answer your previous question, one of the ways we’ve morphed since we started was we used to offer weekday afternoon cleanups called Trashy Tuesdays, which is what most people have heard of when they first learn about us. That was all predicated on catching poeple on their way home from work, and we’d pick up trash and then go have a beer or food somewhere.
When COVID happened, no one was going to work. We switched over to Sunday cleanups and they became wildly more popular because people didn’t have to rush there after work. They could still come out Sunday for an hour, feel good about what they’ve done in their community, and then have the rest of Sunday to do their own thing. So that’s exciting because we can share that with the farmers market.
You can bring 1 Richmond restaurant’s menu to a deserted island — or on a camping trip. What do you choose?
When I heard this question my brain shifted in two ways. If I were on a desert island and I knew I was going to be eating food in the same place all the time, like a “Cast Away” situation, it would probably be the menu from Kuba Kuba. Huevos rancheros all day.
But if I were on the move, and I just had to have food at the ready all the time, it would have to be Proper Pie. Any of their savory pies — it’s functional, I can put that whole thing in my pocket, I can eat it with one hand. Any excuse to eat pie is fantastic. So Proper Pie or Kuba Kuba.
What’s your favorite way to appreciate nature in the city?
Trail running, for me anyway. I love to bike — I’m not a super in-depth cyclist, I don’t have the tight uniforms and all that stuff, but I bought a gravel bike during COVID from Outpost, which is pretty close to me. I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ll put on podcasts and I’ll go ride my bike around town — not the intense mountain bike trails that we have, because we’ve got some pretty amazing stuff, but like the gravel road down Reedy Creek and to the backside of Belle Isle. But trail running is quickly becoming my favorite because you can find these pockets where nobody else is, even while you’re still in the city. You can see the skyline or you’re super close to City Hall, but you can still feel like you’re in a wild place which is really fun.
Where’s a place in Virginia that every Richmonder should make a trip to visit?
We only have one national park — Shenandoah. That’s a great spot to go visit, and for a number of reasons. They have trails you can go disappear on and enjoy a weekend backpacking trip. If you go in at the Swift Run entrance on 33, the Visitor Center, they have an interpretation spot that talks about the area. They do a really good job of contextualizing where it is.
It shows you like what it used to look like back in the day. We came here and took those lands Native Americans, and it talks about their tribes. They’re bringing that information back. It gives you a full context of the area, and then you get to see the changes. It’s an interesting spot, especially since they’re including the stuff that should have been there to begin with, history-wise. That’d be a good spot to start.
Now if you were taking someone on a tour of Richmond, where are 3 places you’re going?
Probably Kuba Kuba first, to get some breakfast. Then definitely somewhere in the James River Park system, because we have so many places to choose from. If its a summertime trip and the water levels are good, you can go down to Pony Pasture and walk out on the rocks or over to Williams Island. There’s a place you can rent on Airbnb that my friend Andy owns called Sharp’s Island. You can go out there and camp on your own private island.
Then in the afternoon, it would be really cool to get some food to go and go up to Libby Hill, and watch the sunset. So try to hit it all, you know — good food to start the day, a little adventure, and a nice place to sit and relax and have a drink and watch the sun go down and do it all over again the next day.
Fill in the blank: The coolest person I’ve met in Richmond is ______.
The coolest person I’ve met in Richmond, because they are one of my favorite actors, was back in 2012 when they were filming the Lincoln movie here — Daniel Day Lewis. That was pretty cool, when he was in his Lincoln phase in Church Hill. That was really fun because to me he’s always just going to be Bill the Butcher from “Gangs of New York.”
What’s a Virginia conservation fact which would surprise people?
I’m sure maybe some people out there will contest this until they Google it, and then they’ll realize that it is in fact true.
There was a senator back in the 60s, his name was Gaylord Nelson. Virginia has a tree called the Earth Day tree. It was planted back in 1993, because he was bouncing the idea in the 60s to get Earth Day started. I think the first Earth Day was like 1970 or something. Nelson was the one who was pushing the narrative to get a national Earth Day started. It actually started in California I think, but northern Virginia is home to the Earth Day tree in honor of Senator Nelson’s goal to start Earth Day. So we started it here.
Keep Virginia Cozy has several partnerships with local businesses. What’s something you’ve noticed in working with these organizations in the community?
It’s been such a fun thing. Because we are a registered 501c3, we can offer charitable donations and stuff like that. The whole thing started with an idea that I was trying to have to engage more people in the community outside of weekly events. I started thinking, maybe we can just kind of write up like a little model for businesses — it doesn’t cost them much, and it’s really easy to facilitate, but it gives back to the community and they get to be involved. Or if they don’t want to be involved, they don’t have to be, it’s just a donation that they made and we’ll run the program anyway.
Offering the corporate Trashy Tuesday’s has been so much fun. At this point we’ve done over 20 of them, with over 20 different businesses, which has been fantastic. They make a $250 donation, and that covers things. We’re zero waste now, which is awesome — that’s a huge victory because since we started, it was wonderful to see people show up but it was really hard to watch us add latex gloves and plastic bags. Now have reusable bags and gloves, and part of the business’s donation goes to replacing things like that if we need to.
It gives local companies a way to give back to the community. ... I’ve really enjoyed seeing how many businesses in the community want to give back. Being in the area that we all live, work, and play in, it’s awesome to people working to keep our spaces clean for all of us to enjoy.
What do you see as the future for Keep Virginia Cozy?
A lot of this is just building the plane as I fly it, so I get really excited to think about where it could be in 5 years versus where we’ve come in just 4 years.
I would really like for Keep Virginia Cozy to become the place people go before they go outside to learn a plethora of things. If the way you want to get outside one weekend is, hey, I want to go see what volunteer opportunities are going on and how I can give back, then you would come to our website and there would be a community outreach board where anyone can post, and you can pick and choose where you want to go. Or if you want to go backpacking, you can look at our resources page and find out when we’re going next, and you can come join us.
Depending on which part of the state you’re going to be in, we have different areas popping up with different chapters. Our friends in Floyd, VA are starting down there, so if you’re going to be down in southwest Virginia and hiking the Cascades waterfall, you may also discover there’s a cleanup or a community engagement event going on. Hopefully in a few years, we’ll get to the point where you can just log on, see what’s happening, and come and join us for whatever you want to join us for. And we’ll still be plugging along doing what we’ve always done, which is just picking up trash and talking to people outside and hopefully leaving it better than we found it.
We’re a small nonprofit. On the backside of the Instagram and the website and stuff, it is just me, but that’s not at all where it stops. We wouldn’t exist without our enormous base of amazing volunteers, and this wildly receptive community that we’re part of, and the board of directors that we have. We have 10 incredible individuals that cover a wide spectrum of what Keep Virginia Cozy is and what we’re striving to become. … We are a community organization, so our entire base is the community. It’s been wonderful to be a part of such a great one.