A couple of weeks ago, my biology teacher announced that there was another opportunity for "service learning," at an Earth Day celebration at Caldwell Woods, a forest preserve on the northwest edge of Chicago. I decided I was going to try to go.
I talked to one of the guys at my lab table, Brian, and we decided that if the weather was decent, we were going to ride our bikes there (it's about an eight mile ride), and if the weather was bad, I'd drive. As the day approached, we checked www.weather.com and it said that there were supposed to be thunderstorms that day. It didn't bode well.
Saturday morning, it looked like it was going to be bad. I called and said I'd run by and pick him up. Okay, celebrating Earth Day by driving on an expressway in a Chevy Blazer is not exactly ideal, but it's what happened.
We got there at 9 am and found our classmates. One of the things I've really enjoyed about going back to school is what a wonderful, diverse, motivated and interesting group of people I get to go to school with. I had a lot of anxiety about going back to school-- particularly being a middle-aged guy going back to school and working as a waiter full-time in to do so. But every day I realize more and more that I made the right decision.
We gathered under that forest preserve shelter and got instructions and equipment. Like the service learning a few weeks ago, we were going after invasive species. We were cutting down buckthorn trees, and also cutting out Japanese honeysuckles, both of which were plentiful.
Buckthorns, as we found them, were from an inch thick to over four inches thick. We cut them with saw, pruners or a combination of them. The honeysuckles were more like bushes, and in some ways more work.
We cut the trees and bushes down and schlepped them up by the bike path that runs through Caldwell Woods, where crews were later going to go through with a shredder. As with the last clear-out, there would later be controlled burns that would keep the forest in a more natural state.
We had a great break-- lots of fresh fruit and, happily, coffee and water. We had a great time chatting, and then it was back to work.
It occurred to me that most of us, including myself, were not the back-packing types, but that we understood the importance we were doing and were having a great time.
We'd been warned that there might be people out there protesting-- they apparently weren't able to make the connection between us cutting out invasive species and the fact that some of Illinois' native Oak forests would thrive as a result. There was even a cop there just in case people came out to harass us, but nobody bothered us.
As with our last foray into the forests, the difference we made was amazing.
The day was a lot of hard work. I must have hardened up some muscles in the last service learning project though, because I wasn't as sore afterward this time. And it wasn't without it's rewards; I got extra credit points for class and we got a bag full o' schwag, including a couple of energy-efficient light bulbs.
Since the day turned out to be marvelous, Brian and I regretted not biking up there. He'd mentioned a vegan Korean restaurant up that way (he's a committed vegan), so we decided to stop up there and have lunch. The food was marvelous.
One of the things I realized was that he and I are now officially friends. I thought a lot about how one of the things that happens in college, something I've talked to my kids about, is that you make lifetime friendships. I'm closing in on the second anniversary of the death of one of my lifelong friends from my first stint with college, and that day I realized how wonderful and healing it has been to have one more round of college and making friends I'll have for a lifetime. The work I did this Saturday was physically arduous, but the payoff to the environment-- and to my psyche and soul-- was immense.