Birding and serving

29 Apr
Mom, right, and Charlotte make their Meals on Wheels run Easter morn.

Mom, right, and Charlotte make their Meals on Wheels run Easter morn.


NOTE: Serving the Story is currently on a cross-country road trip, looking at the role service plays in people’s lives and, when I’m lucky enough, getting to volunteer alongside some of those folks.

As almost anyone who knows me will tell you – probably with a roll of the eyes – a few years ago I became obsessed with birds.

Normally not the type for nomenclatures or collectibles, I was so filled with a desire to find out as much as possible about these feathered creatures, you’d think I’d never looked up into the sky before. Gradually, I learned how to learn, from the shapes and colors to beaks and movement – I even wondered if I might overcome my tone-deafness and learn some birdsongs. But in my zeal, I made the mistake of stopping by the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, where I wandered into a room filled with stuffed birds. Turned out that even though I was sure I knew what an eider it was, it turned out there were several kinds of eiders.

Back to square one.

The next morning, my last in town, I shared my discouragement with the most avid birdwatcher I knew on the Central California Coast. A Quaker who had been jailed for civil disobedience, Nancy is a painter with a wry sense of humor: A sign in her kitchen warns her many guests: “This is a Quaker household: In case of emergency, please be quiet.”

But when I shared my despair, she glowed in an almost beatific way.

“Yes,” she said, “but now that you’re into birds, doesn’t every place you go feel like the first time you’ve ever been there? And isn’t that wonderful?”

She was right, of course. Now, almost three years later, I’m noticing the same effect on this road trip.

Only, it’s not just birds now. It’s people. Particularly people who go out of their way for others, people involved in volunteer work or in service to others that’s so low-paying, it might as well be volunteer work. As was the case with birds, these acts of unselfishness have always been there – only now they’ve been brought from background to foreground.

And while I didn’t exactly feel like I was visiting my hometown of Tuscaloosa for the first time last week, I was more aware than ever of just how many acts of service were going on around me. This was hardly surprising given the nature of my service road trip – but I rolled into Tuscaloosa determined to put family time – as well as writing time – ahead of even more material.

But still, here was Mom doing her Friday morning gig as a greeter at Druid City Hospital. The only visitor who walked in the hospital door smiling that day was the Easter Bunny – and his smile seemed, well, forced. But the cheerful help of Mom and her fellow volunteers got smiles out of a few of them. Two days later, I tagged along as Mom and her friend Charlotte played Easter Bunny themselves, delivering Meals on Wheels on Easter morning, my mother again making conversation with those who seemed to desire that. Before the drive, I’d watched folks at Covenant Presbyterian prepare those meals – they arrived as early as 4:30, one person said, then rushed home to change into their Easter finery.

Even though a deluge would keep me from volunteering for Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa, when the rain cleared I at least found a couple of Habitat volunteers, staring at a ridge of sod perhaps three feet high, surrounded by that familiar Alabama red clay. One told me they were trying to hurry things up; the future home-owner was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and, understandably, “in a hurry to move in.” And of course my father and I talked informally about his wide range of volunteer work; the local Chamber of Commerce named its Member of the Year Award after my father.

When my last full day in Tuscaloosa rolled around, I had to decide between community service and family. Do I go to the Habitat site to work with one of our friends, Peter Salemme, or join my mother and sister on what was a once-in-our-adult lifetime foray to Mound State Park, a series of Native American mounds that, by extraordinary coincidence, are located in Moundville. (I guess the town’s folks were feeling rather literal when they voted on the name.)

Seven Habitat homes on Seventh, each with slightly different look.

Seven Habitat homes on Seventh, each with slightly different look.

Driving down, though, I realized the choice was a false distinction. Mom’s retiree group was led by volunteers, of course, and Mound State Park would have it’s share of volunteers. Sure enough, a volunteer docent gave a very detailed talk on a wide variety of tools used by Native Americans — while an AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteer was supervising volunteers in maintaining a medicinal garden, designed to be seen as an arrow from Google Earth – and featuring only, near as historians can guess, what pre-Columbian Native Americans would have planted. I caught up with Jordan Bannister as she came back from lunch and began clearing away tools for the day. She graciously gave me a task – grabbing all the clumps of plants that had been weeded into the garden and hauling them off. (Since the plants weren’t crops I was used to, I was grateful someone else had distinguished what had to go and what would live to see another day.)

Jordan, a 22-year-old Alabama graduate, had come across Mound State Park as a member of the university’s Anthropology Club. Like many students, that early group experience turned into an individual commitment – she volunteered for two years. Then, once finished with her journalism and anthropology double-major, she eagerly applied for AmeriCorps to keep working at the park. She directs the garden project, but soaks in knowledge from her volunteers, most of whom have gardened for far longer than herself.

She agreed that service deepened her learning. “Oh, I learn things every day. When you’re invested in a place like this, you invest your time and your own personal readings, someone will saym ‘Did you know this?’, and you’ll say, ‘No, that’s interesting.’ Then that becomes part of the information you share with still other people.”

Does this stepping into the ongoing chain of oral and written tradition make her feel like part of something larger?

“Absolutely! I’ll swear by volunteering for the rest of my life.”

Walking back to the car, I suddenly remembered that I’d seen an eagle an hour ago.

Somehow, I’d totally forgotten.

Bannister with her favorite plant, a young peach tree to whom she gives pep talks.

Bannister with her favorite plant, a young peach tree to whom she gives pep talks.


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