I’ve always been interested in the world around me; I’m naturally curious (likely to a fault). I’ve also always had a desire to contribute. This urge to contribute fuels my writing and is the reason I ski patrol in winter: to help others press “pause” on the harm they’ve already done. And this past weekend’s activity, a volunteer tree-planting trip with Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA for short), offered a chance to put this credo into action.
In a remote, picturesque gorge-like dell two hours east of Bend, myself, my friend Molly, our smart and thoughtful ONDA leader, Jefferson, and 10 other or so ONDA volunteers spent two days digging holes and planting sticks of cottonwood, willow and red-bark dogwood along a one mile stretch of the south fork of the Crooked River.
While our goal was to get through the buckets and bundles of sticks Jefferson had stashed along the shoulder of the slow-moving river, the real hope was that our planting efforts would result in a small number of sticks flourishing into foliage tall enough and wide enough to someday shield the river from the angry heat of the summer sun.
It’s weird at first to sweat alongside strangers and fill those initial hours with “get-to-know-you-better” chatter. But before long–by noon actually–you’re a well-oiled platoon of chatty tree planters happy to connect and laugh and smile and share snacks and rest together under the shade of a Juniper tree. You’re also content to move along in one conga-like line, tracing the river’s flow and the 208 augured holes that need filling (dirt, water, sticks, repeat) at a pace that is neither fast nor slow. Or erect a protective barrier around a lanky but leggy willow that was planted by someone else some other time. Or free 90 willows from their black plastic pots in order to dot a scraggy landscape close enough to the river to wet their feet.
Up early and out of camp by 8:00 a.m., I quickly relaxed into the tedious focus of my chosen tool, a hand auger, with the attention of a car detailer looking for the smallest of smudges and, like my day job, my efforts were pithy but somehow poetic. Only an occasional conference with my new colleagues, Alex from Portland and Bill from Bend, on the viability of a hole I had just refined punctuated my duty to breach the sludge three feet deep.
No longer strangers, we finished day one with a collective pat on our backs, staged our tools for day two and followed our line of established sticks back to camp for well-deserved home brews. Dinner came early and sleep did, too.
This wasn’t my first volunteer trip or experience giving back. For years, I’ve helped maintain and build trails, most recently with my former employer KEEN footwear, where I was encouraged to use the 40 hours of service leave allotted every employee each year. I’ve brushed parts of the Pacific Crest Trail in California and Oregon; I’ve helped restore the riparian zone of a seasonal stream in the Malheur National Forest (another ONDA trip); I’ve sorted carrots, apples and potatoes into grocery bags at the Oregon Food Bank; and I’ve picked up trash and other items left behind along the banks of Columbia River.
Day two followed the familiar pattern of day one and ended in exhaustion that felt just as restorative as the work we had done. While it’s this diverse, natural world that makes living possible and is, alone, reason enough to act, it is also this connection and community of people–a tribe of volunteers–that inspires me to suit up and get my hands dirty again and again.
To learn more about ONDA volunteer opportunities, go here.