by Jonathan Hiller, Mar 6, 2008
The alarm went off as programmed. Going downstairs for coffee, I peeked out the back door—the deck was dry. The possibility of heavy rain was forecast, which threatened to cancel our planned fieldwork at Muir Woods. With some apprehension, I drove to San Rafael.
Our team of volunteers converged in the Dominican University parking lot and quietly gathered in a circle. Just having made it this far felt good—actually following through on a commitment to work at Muir Woods, rain or no rain.
We would be helping with an environmental project and naturally we were carpooling. I figured Walter and I would end up riding together. We’d attended a previous class together and were borderline friends. Even so, there was tension. Walter was training to become a history teacher and was prone to going into long-winded discourses on almost any subject under discussion. At our last class, two nights before, he’d constantly interrupted the young professor to showcase his vast knowledge. I’d given him a wide berth as we were leaving, but now here we were.
Walter did not want to drive his truck, so we went in my car. On the way, I had to stop for gas. He made no offer to contribute and I noticed my irritation increasing. Pulling back on the road, I told him a little about my situation; that I was transitioning into a new career and looking for work. Walter responded by telling me a story he had heard about a former executive who found a new career as a forest ranger. As the man trained for his new career, he worked evenings as a security guard to pay the bills. Not long after he was hired, he was assigned to a place that had a familiar ring to it. He’d been sent back to his former employer, only now as a security guard! So he had really paid for his new life, Walter mused. I liked the strange story and noticed my attitude had softened. Looking up, I noticed the clouds were thickening overhead.
By the time we arrived at Muir Woods a light rain had begun to fall. Perhaps 80 people were there. A few of us had rejoined in a circle with our professor while visitors came and went on the wet deck outside the lodge. A park ranger I couldn’t see began to recite a poem by John Muir. It was hard to hear her through the crowd, and I was still taking in something our professor had just said: "the future results of our efforts here can not be known. What matters is that this work can bring a certain connection and joy.” As I looked at her face it seemed to express the same thing. Amidst it all, bits of the John Muir poem were coming in, “the river does not rush by us, but through us.” Then the ranger asked us all for silence–to listen to the rain and take in the trees. How wonderfully strange! I thought—the Federal Government starting the day this way.
Our class had been assigned to work on habitat restoration. But it turned out there were too many of us to work in a single group, so a few of us joined a smaller team. Walter and I stuck together. One of the leaders of the new group was a woman named Suki. She was from Green Gulch Farm, run by the San Francisco Zen Center. Suki had a light dignity and grace about her. I introduced myself and mentioned that I knew a little of Green Gulch.
Down by the creek, we were shown examples of invasive plants. Apparently, well-meaning botanists from over a hundred years ago introduced forget-me-nots and African grasses to the United States and now they were seriously upsetting the balance of the local ecology. I thought about the African grass I had planted in my backyard last year.
The rain was really coming down now, but the feeling of the group seemed positive and resilient. The shoreline was covered with these foreigners. According to our group leader, the local insects had not evolved with these plants and therefore did not recognize them as edible. We worked one area at a time and moved on to the next. It was hard to tell if our efforts removing these plants would make a difference, but as I worked, an unexpected joy arose inside and a quality of peace. The ground seemed delicate and alive.
I asked Suki if she thought pulling these plants would really make a difference. She paused a moment and responded that she was not sure. Perhaps what was important was that we were experiencing the earth in a new way. Maybe that experience would make a difference.
After a couple of hours of everyone working hard, one of our group leaders had to break up a small cluster of philosophers. “Easier to talk than pull weeds,” I said quietly to her. She laughed and told me this happened at least once every time.
Finally, it was time to stop. Without asking we gathered the bags filled with many pounds of wet invasive plants and headed back to the lodge. Walter, Suki and I ate our hot dogs, pickles and chips under a sliver of a roof on a small dry bench. “Look up,” Suki said. It was shock to see the magnificent trees. Another unexpected gift.