When you find yourself working long hours and buried with critical tasks, perhaps even behind schedule, it might just be the perfect time to spend a day volunteering. We did so this weekend and wanted to share while still fresh.
My wife Betsy is participating in an employer-sponsored health management program. Although not new for us it does require some discipline and rearranging of priorities that easily slip when responsibilities from business, work and life pile up.
Much more the volunteer than I, Betsy chose to spend the volunteer portion of the program with our local community outside of Santa Fe, NM, which recruits volunteers periodically to maintain the large private wilderness preserve the community owns and maintains. So she asked me to go with, and at the last minute I agreed.
Within a few minutes of our arrival at the community center we had a large circle of people standing out in the cool morning breeze introducing ourselves to each other, most having never met despite living in the same community for years. The project supervisor then walked us through the logistics for the day and briefed us on the master plan.
Part of something much bigger
A severe thunderstorm in the mountains last summer had damaged the wetlands area on the eastern edge of the preserve, which includes a large arroyo that also serves as a wildlife corridor between the Sangre de Cristo and Sandia mountains. The area where we live is in the southern-most foothills of the Rocky Mountains and part of the Galisteo Watershed, which drains into the Rio Grande. Our project to repair flood damage was a pleasant surprise for me as I’ve long appreciated the need for wildlife corridors for survival of species, healthy aquifers, ecosystems, and frankly quality of life for wildlife lovers.
A few of our wildlife photos in NM (click any for slideshow)
After driving our cars for a few minutes out to the project site, which is about a mile southwest of where I-25 crosses over the Galisteo Creek, we split into small groups to work on priority damage areas. Betsy cut and hauled Saltcedar (Tamarix), which is an invasive species that absorbs large amounts of water and deposits salt–quite a toxic problem in the western U.S. I worked with a couple of other guys and a tractor to haul rock from damaged sills to a small crew a half-mile downstream working to repair the most severely damaged area. And of course we all picked up garbage that had washed down with the flood.
Similar to many other wild areas, we could feel a sense of the variety of wildlife that graze on the native grasses, drink from pools, and use the arroyos as an interstate similar to I-25 that passes over their corridor just a couple miles upstream. One volunteer had scouted the work area during the previous week following fresh adult bear tracks. While we haven’t encountered a bear locally, we do regularly see coyote, bobcat, pronghorn, cottontails, and jackrabbits, as well as a variety of lizards, snakes, and an amazing variety of birds. We keep a birdbath outside our passive solar living room window, which attracts dozens daily ranging from small hummers to hawks.
Apart from getting out on a nice spring Saturday, which we often do on foot, bikes, and skis, these are a few of the reminders I took away from our volunteer experience yesterday:
- Unplugging: Simply getting away from electronic devices for extended periods helps, particularly for me during exercise in nature. Shock; I left my phone in the car and survived!
- Sweat equity in life: While hard physical work is no stranger to us, I don’t engage as often as earlier in life. Unlike any other form of getting ahead I’ve observed; hard constructive work towards sustainability makes us feel like we’ve earned our keep for legitimate reasons—we are making things better—small contributions are required in many tasks.
- Hands-on sustainability: Reminiscent of work on our property in Arizona during the 1990s, repairing flood damage and performing erosion control in arid or desert climates is a great learning tool, creating awareness of the importance of micro and macro sustainability, aquifers, and benefit of other species. It helps us think differently, which in turn influences behavior, design, and adoption towards more rational and less self-destructive lifestyles.
- Real teamwork: Nothing like facing infinite boulders and toxic invasive plants for a reminder of the benefit of teamwork and need for efficient tools for the task at hand, as well as good communications.
- Diversity: The workgroup was more reflective of society than most; we had a mix of males and females ranging from 8th grade to 80. I suspect that it was more interesting and fun than would have otherwise been the case—perhaps more efficient and safer.
- Appreciation for history: Many volunteer opportunities around the world have historical context with deeper meaning, which helps to appreciate the need for wise and prudent stewardship. Our project happens to be in a particularly interesting area: The Santa Fe Trail and Battle of Glorieta Pass are in very close proximity, and Ancestral Puebloans have lived in the area since at least the 12th century BCE (Pecos Classification). The Pueblo Galisteo, which was still occupied in 1540 when visited by Coronado, and the Pecos National Historic Park, are within a few miles.
- Initiative–experience counts: The mission called for several yards of rock in a few hours, but the tiny tractor could only carry a dozen small boulders and took over an hour to make the mile+ round-trip. Fortunately, the driver was the community maintenance supervisor and thinking with initiative, aware of the truck and trailer back at the shop. After a bit of discussion we retrieved the equipment, cleared a path, and in one half-hour trip carried more than the tractor could have carried in a weekend, and did so with much less environmental damage. A good reminder that board members need trusted professionals with relevant experience, knowledge, and awareness who can think on their feet, adapt to reality, and get the job done.
The old saying of no pain/no gain contains wisdom that is apparently not obvious to those who have felt little pain to get ahead. Laborious work helps us to appreciate the hard work of others, which is easy to take for granted otherwise, and can lead to inaccurate perspectives, poor judgment, and bad decisions.
There is much to be gained by immersion and first-hand experiential awareness that has no viable alternative. Hands-on experience may even be more relevant in volunteer work than in business. So regardless of interest, skills, location, or type, give both money and of oneself to a worthwhile effort. We’ll all be better for it.