I would have loved to take my grandson on a similar adventure, but I haven’t worked outside the home for two years now. Driving to Vermont to work with the Sierra Club cost less than a quarter of what it would have cost for us to help Habitat build a home in another country (yet still ate up a third of all the savings I had left, a worry for another column). Besides, I love being in nature, and I thought the act of giving our time and muscle to help make forestry improvements would feel rewarding in its own way. Most of all, I was excited to spend a week camping with my grandson, whom I hadn’t seen in a year and a half.
As with all three of my grandchildren, I’ve known this boy since the moment he was born, as I stood by Amy’s and Brian's sides in the delivery room. I’ve watched as he was doted on by my tween children as a toddler, especially during our family trip to Disney World when he was three. I saw him gain courage as he moved from scared kindergartner to “talented and gifted” student. I worried when he struggled to make friends when he first moved to South Carolina, then was reassured to see him with a good friend group in junior high. At 13, he read poetry at my wedding -- and then three weeks later read another poem at my son's funeral; he was a quiet comfort to me during the worst of my mourning.
girlfriend are with one another; he was looking forward to going to church with her and her family the morning after he flew home. I basically couldn’t be prouder of him and am so grateful to him and his parents that I had this week to get to know his new, more adult self better.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, the work we were asked to do—removing plastic tubing from a mountain side, pulling photo-toxic weeds from a forest entrance, stripping paint from picnic tables that needed repainting, hanging camping site numbers on posts—felt like busy work rather than an invaluable contribution. The weeds we pulled were ubiquitous on every road side, so our pulling them for eight hours felt like it couldn’t possibly matter (though I understand we were helping to keep them from spreading past that one entrance deeper into the forest). I couldn’t shake the suspicion that if we weren’t doing the work, someone else would do it – or it would go undone, which didn’t feel like it would much matter. Also, our fellow volunteers were all over 60 (the cook was nearly 80!) and needed early bedtimes, so we enjoyed only brief nighttime activities (and were chided the night we stayed up a little later to make our own campfire). We also had to volunteer for two shifts of helping the cook, an unexpected task that cut into our already limited down time.
“If only we could be greeted by some cheering Dominican kids,” Julian deadpanned after hearing about my previous volunteer trip, “maybe we would feel this work was meaningful, too.”
No one wants to be the complainer on a volunteer trip, so I tried to follow Julian’s no-negativity example and enjoy our new friendships with the other volunteers. Among them was a Vietnam vet with MS who told me vets suffer from that disease and ALS at much higher rates than the civilian population (who knew?); a retired nurse who is working to save chimney swifts as their habitat is destroyed in her local community; a couple, a retired teacher and still-practicing professional pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall, who have no cell phones but have camped all over the country and were doing their eighth service trip; our 78-year-old cook, who flew in from Chicago to make the trip possible after the previous cook had to drop out; and the only other woman who wore a screen around her head most of the time--yet was on her 24th Sierra Club service trip. (!) They were all people with rich lives who were using their vacation time and dollars to save the environment and improve life for campers and forest creatures, and Julian and I felt inspired just being in their company. Which, now that the trip is over and I am not struggling against bug bites, rain and hunger, means maybe we deserve to feel a little good about what we accomplished there, as well.
As with most endeavors to make change, our little efforts seem like a plink in the bucket, but knowing we contributed to the 27,000 hours of volunteer service provided by the Sierra Club around the world each year feels pretty good. (Click here for more information about Sierra Club volunteer vacations or here for an overview of our trip specifically. )
Possibly promising "outdoor ecstasy" in the event name may have been overselling the experience just a bit, but the long-term benefits are still hitting me. Last night when I took the dog out to pee in my quiet backyard, I heard all kinds of hooting sounds and peepers chorusing and stood listening for several minutes, amazed I'd never noticed all the animals teeming and calling in the grass and trees right near my home. Being in the woods for a week with people who cared about those animals, who could identify which kinds of birds and frogs and chipmunks were singing and calling, people who paid attention to what kind of trees and plants were growing around us, heightened my own perception of the natural world. I feel opened up to nature in a subtle but deeper way for having spent a week with true nature lovers -- even if there was no dancing.
Julian, I’m not sure you had quite the college-essay-level experience we fantasized before we went, but you gave me a great week of fun and restored my faith in myself as a grandma at a time when I really needed it. Even though you are in the bloom of first love and your summer vacation had just begun, you didn't hesitate to say yes to my offer to drop everything and come on this trip, and that was remarkable in itself. I was grateful to feel the love I've poured into you all your life flowing right back at me, something I found extra special coming from a 16-year-old boy. Thank you for being such a sweet, unspoiled kid – and for all the ways you inspire me. I look forward to seeing you again later this summer when I go have my experience (whatever we decide it will be) with your brother, Logan. Your parents should be very proud of both of you.
* anopheliphobia is a fear of itch-inducing insect bites.