Archive | June, 2013

Service, Spontaneity and a Stroll Through the Woods

15 Jun
Fast-flowing water through fast-growing ferns.

Fast-flowing water through fast-growing ferns.

I frowned when I first saw the pickup truck, sitting smack dab in the middle of the path that runs alongside the Troiano Brook marsh in Broad Meadow Brook Audubon Sanctuary. After our week of torrential downpours, I was here on Friday afternoon to reconnect with nature, not navigate traffic.

But as I slipped past the blue intruder’s bed, I noticed neatly stacked boards, and as I glanced across the marsh, I could see a tall broad-shouldered man winding his way back toward the truck, perhaps to get more of them.

Out of habit, I kicked up my pace in the name of an elevated heart rate, got perhaps a dozen strides down the road – and then stopped.

What in the world was I doing?

Here I was, a regular user of the sanctuary, in the name of both nature and exercise – and yet I was so rigidly stuck to my routine, I was ignoring a chance to honor both by helping someone who, ultimately, was helping me. I felt the same discomforting irony I had experienced when I once ignored a stranded motorist because I was running late – for church.

Not this time. Reversing course, I arrived at the truck the same time as the man I’d glimpsed. He confirmed that, as I suspected, they were working on a new boardwalk across what has notoriously been the swampiest single stretch in the preserve. “Can I give you a hand?” I asked, and he arched a brow in mild surprise. “Sure.”

Trading my hiker’s pouch for six boards, I followed him back through mostly soaked terrain, my usual skipping from stone to stone complicated in a pleasing way by the lumber I was toting.

“Thanks for doing this,” I called out, “but you know I have always enjoyed jumping from rock to rock in this stretch.”

My companion laughed. “You know what I’m going to enjoy? Walking across this board walk when we’re done with it.”

We rounded a bend to the new boardwalk, shining in the newly emerged sunlight; beyond that lay some old lumber, arranged to further extend the bridge toward the tree line and the dry ground beyond.  A second man crouched over the screw he was drilling into the walk.

“Hey, we picked up a volunteer!” one called out.

“I’m Mike.”

“Joe,” the crouching man said.

“Mark,” the other said as he moved farther down the walk.

“Since I lack your carpentry aptitude, you want me to haul the rest while you work on this?” I was happy to hear them consent. If my resume featured a category for Construction Skills, there would only be skill listed: Carrying Stuff. (Preferably doughnuts.)

Foot log fern 6-14-13

Notch cut out of log to make Sprague Trail hike easier.

It only took five minutes for me to tote all they needed, and then, well, my work was done. This simple act of connecting had only taken 15 minutes, and, as far as I know, cost me nothing. Who knows? If I hadn’t been delayed, maybe I wouldn’t have seen that fair-to-middlin’ muskrat cruising through the murky high water, or the red-winged blackbirds squawking while perched in a particularly picturesque manner – or, rarest of all, a rose-breasted grosbeak, the first I’d seen in scores of hikes at Broad Meadow Brook.

Meanwhile, maybe the delay kept me from seeing something scarier. Amid all this, I also encountered a silver-haired hiker headed in the opposite direction; he slowed to ask, “Excuse me, but how good is your knowledge of native snakes?”

This was perhaps the best opening line of a conversation ever – at least by Broad Meadow Brook standards – and after I simply shrugged, I asked what he’d seen. “Two big brown snakes and one garter.”

The quiet joys of the hike continued, even in rain-soaked forests and fields. Nonetheless, I kept walking in the direction from which he came, found no snakes, but more birds, rabbits, and squirrels, as well as small streams overflowing their banks, the road of the water echoing through the lush trees and ferns. I hiked for more than an hour, taking in a screeching red-tailed hawk along with some less identifiable fowl, weaving back and forth on various trails – at one point passing the Barbara Walker Butterfly Meadow and bench, dedicated to the late Broad Meadow Brook volunteer and leader. At this spot, where I often sit on the bench built as a memorial by her family, she had studied butterflies, as noted in a previous blog.

This time, I kept walking, but I thought about this volunteer I never knew – and about the extractable lessons of my latest foray.

Extractable Lesson 1: Service doesn’t have to happen by appointment. There are quiet opportunities to help here or there every day – and with them comes the opportunity to shake ourselves out of our usual routines and traps, to engage some person we’d never have met otherwise, and enjoy the encounter.

Extractable Lesson 2: While not as compelling as helping the homeless or curing a disease, the benefits of connecting children and adults to the natural world – away from the immediate gratification and sensory bombardment of our artificial entertainments and soul-numbing work places – offer restorative powers that then empower us to go back into the fray more calm, more centered – even, on the best of days, more enlightened.

Perhaps because of the peepers and bullfrogs sounding in the overflowing marshes and vernal pools, my mind drifted to George Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Ordinary Toad,” which moves from a hilarious description of frogs mating in post-World War II London to an exploration of why, amid tragedies such as world wars and atomic bombs, it’s still vital to take joy in nature. He argued that if we put more time and energy into appreciating our small place in this natural world, we might be less inclined toward will-to-power and other human sins.

Or, as Orwell put it, “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

And, thanks to volunteers at Broad Meadow Brook, people can more easily access that wisdom-inducing, spiritually soothing splendor. I descended Cardinal Trail, first through a field and then through a line of trees, and found myself face to face with the new boardwalk.

As I expected, my new friends, having used up their lumber, were gone. But their handiwork remained, and as I took the 15 long, easy strides over wood instead of mud and water, I decided Mark was right – in this particular spot, I didn’t miss the skipping from rock to rock one bit.

Board walk 1 6-14-13

Completed board walk waiting near end of the hike. 

Those wishing to volunteer at Broad Meadow Brook have opportunities every Wednesday (10 a.m. to noon) and the first Saturday of each month (9 a.m. to noon).

For more information or to sign up in advance, contact Deb Cary, Sanctuary Director, at (508) 753-6087.

To read more about Broad Meadow Brook opportunities, try this link.

A Visit Home

6 Jun
Salemme bungalow 1 6-6-13

Habitat for Humanity supervisor Peter Salemme amid bungalow renovation.

            Forearms coated with sweat and sawdust, Peter Salemme walked me through the renovation in progress – a bungalow tucked at the bottom of a hill in Tuscaloosa’s Alberta City neighborhood.

            Above him, through the rafters of the roof to come, young men from a variety of northern Mennonite churches clambered and hammered.

“You know how every group of people has a joke about how many of them it takes to screw in a light bulb?” Peter asks. I nod.

“Well, the Mennonite version of that joke is, ‘How many Mennonites does it take to … oh, wait, it’s done already.’ “

He gestured to the half of the roof already installed.

“They put all that up yesterday.”

Mennonite at work on bungalow roof.

Mennonite at work on bungalow roof.

They’ll need to keep up that pace, since they hope to have the renovation complete by June 20th, the birthday of homeowner Willie Bishop.

Willie, a Korean War veteran, not only has lived in the bungalow – he in fact built it, some 65 years ago, when he was a young man of 20. Then, over the years, as Peter put it, “Mother Nature started to take over.”

While the renovation is not related to the April 27, 2011 tornado that killed 54 people in my hometown, it’s at the edge of the path of destruction – and not far from where, back in January, Assumption College students helped build a row of homes with Peter and others from Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa. (The school will return for a third year come January.)

The day before calling on Salemme and company, I had in error sought him at the old locale – only to find the row of homes complete, the only humans in evidence two kids sitting on their front porch steps – the youngest of which told me of hiding in the closet during the twister.  The homes felt new, yet the yards already green,  with saplings planted in several yards. Looking back the other way, across the oddly open, empty land stretching from their yards to University Boulevard, it was easier to imagine a day when that view would be blocked by rows of such homes, occupied by people who need them most

But for now, there’s a birthday party to get ready for.

Habitat row 1 6-5-13

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