Right Work

This week’s essay was written for the Columbia Land Trust, a conservation group that serves the entire Columbia River region. The topic was suggested by a conversation I had with the Trust’s Volunteer Coordinator last weekend, while we were surveying for non-native grass incursions. You can read the original post on the Trust’s blog here.

***

It was cold, that first morning. My face was streaked with dirt; mud crusted my nails. My fingers ached from scrabbling in the soil. I’d signed up less than a week before, with an organization I’d only read about, to plant trees in a place I’d never been, with people I’d never met. At the boundary of rural and wild, I found myself plunging my borrowed shovel through the rocks and dirt on a Friday morning, untangling root balls, kneeling to place stick after fragile budding stick into a hoped-for home.

I’m no fan of yard work, and, until that morning, I’d never planted a tree in my life. The other volunteers seemed to know what to do; I had to hang back and ask for help. Digging a hole – one that won’t strangle your sapling or murder your back – is less straightforward than it sounds. There was a learning curve.

I was due at my day-job that afternoon. After I rinsed off the mud and before I opened my laptop, I scrawled this in my journal: “I know what I need to do.”

***

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My whole life, I have connected with landscapes. More than anything else, they inform – even direct – my thinking, and my writing. The way I engage with them is personal, and more than a little centered on my own self in them. They outline my history; sometimes they seem nearly people in themselves. The Yorkshire Dales are a mysterious acquaintance, friendly but aloof, intimidatingly profound. The Santa Monica Mountains are the old friend I understand better with some distance between us. The redwood forests of northern California are the soulmate I will always love, my heart’s oldest anchor.

Perhaps this is the consequence of a nomadic childhood: constant longing for one true forever home, and the concurrent certainty that I’ll never find it. I’ve lived near Portland, Oregon since 2004 – by far my longest sojourn to date. Until this year, I did not love this land.

It’s lovely here; I’ve always thought so. I like the cool damp mornings, the dim forests and the shimmery lines of riverside cottonwoods. I enjoy the blessed certainty of rain. Love, though. How could I love a place for which I felt frequent gratitude, but zero passion? The landscapes of the greater Columbia River Region have been pleasant companions. I enjoyed them; I did not need them.

I think my heart changed when I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essays about gratitude. It’s all very well to appreciate the land, she says, but what are we humans doing to give the land a reason to appreciate us? I had no answer. It bothered me. What could I do that would make the the land around me desire my presence, rather than despair of it? Rather than wait patiently for humanity to leave it alone?

Gradually, something else fell into place. This land – this diversity of ecosystems connected by the drainage of the mighty Columbia River –  had gotten under my skin. I had become a moving part of it. I – present tense – belong here.

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***

Belonging carries responsibility. A network of any kind requires caretaking, and it is every member’s job. Hyper-successful as a species and painfully self-aware as individuals, humans must rely on more complicated methods than instinct to find our right work in the world. How will we know what to do? The desire to be of service is not the same as actually helping. With families and friends, communication and sustained effort can save us. But we cannot actually ask our landscapes what they need. What we can do is pool what we, humans, know.

I got my first real clue from reading Kimmerer, who is Native American, and who introduced me to a concept that I, a white American who grew up seeing “nature” as other, had never encountered. She says: seek to create reciprocity with the land. This is right, I knew. How?

I grew up in a Protestant Christian family. We tossed around archaic words a lot. My favorite is fellowship. Nobody says that anymore, unless they’re in academia or discussing popular fantasy fiction. But it just means spending quality time with others who share your interests.

The other one I love is stewardship. The western religious version of this idea is that people have been given all that we physically and materially have by a greater power. The world is imperfect, however, and thoughtful management of our resources for the greatest good is the duty asked of us in return for their possession. If I am wealthy, I should use my money to improve another’s life. If I have a gift for teaching, I should foster knowledge. If I have two strong hands, I should offer their service to someone who needs my work.

Seeking action to create a reciprocal relationship with the land that is my home, I began with these concepts. I have two strong hands, and I knew I wanted to work. But it’s important to me that my work is right. What is right work? It’s careful, it values doing no harm as much as it values doing good. It’s planned to be of use in the long term. It’s rooted in meaningful units of place. It is undertaken with joy.

Looking for all of that in one place led me to the Columbia Land Trust. They said I could volunteer. I’m an introvert, I tend to be solitary, and I’ve never had much use for organized groups. It was a calculated leap of faith. I could always take it back, right? Thank goodness, no. The choice to volunteer with the Trust is one of the best things that’s happened to me, because I found not just the purpose, but the practical guidance I sought.

That first morning, when I knelt in the mud planting salmonberries and alders near the Clackamas River, sweating in the chill and spilling over with questions about the philosophy and the logistics of land management, I felt fellowship. The Trust staff and volunteers I met that day certainly have personal reasons I don’t know, but every one of them displayed an earnest passion for the careful stewardship of our watershed. They spoke the language I needed to hear: you can make a difference. Come and learn, by doing.

***

I was hiking above The Dalles recently, on a midday mission to map and to experiment with weeding invasive grasses at a Land Trust property called Four Sisters. The dewy beauty of spring has faded in that inland-influenced climate, leaving balsamroot flowers crisp and brown on their stems. There’s little cover on the property, and 90-degree sunshine is never my first choice for working weather. The land slopes steeply; there are no trails. Walking here is a much more deliberate business than I’m used to.

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Maybe you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like fun. And…it’s not? It’s something more. Fun implies pleasure, and certainly I felt that. A cool breeze pushed away the heat from our skins; the mountain rose like a white star above the ridges. Pools of violet-colored wild vetch lapped at the shade of a single, sweeping oak. The hum of a hundred honeybees rose up around us, sealing the gaps in our conversation.

Fun also implies amusement, entertainment, lightness of purpose. And that part is wrong, at least for me. The right word is joy. You can ‘jump for joy,’ but I usually feel it as a quiet swell of the soul. It comes from taking pleasure in not just anything, but in something that is good and right.

Donating my sweat and my strength and my ability to read a map in the service of strategic and holistic conservation fills that requirement. It’s uncomfortable, sure – jammed toes on steep slopes, heat rash on the backs of my hands. And I can’t imagine not wanting to spend my time doing it. Connecting with landscape – my landscape – isn’t about ‘getting out in nature,’ it isn’t about experiencing wilderness, and it isn’t about beauty. All of those things may come as a bonus. But connection grows out of a relationship, and relationships require work.

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This one demands physical work: weeding, planting, building. It values mental work: learning flora and fauna, tracing human and geologic history, understanding human use and impact. I separated those automatically, but in fact they are as indissoluble as humanity and nature. This is the first thing I learned.

And this is the next: The more I work, the more I want to work. Reciprocity means mutual benefit, and there it is: I was grateful already for this place I am lucky to live, but directly contributing to its care increases my joy a hundredfold. Can right work make you happy? I say yes.

I cultivate a personal life philosophy, because I’ve come to believe that a human without one wanders lost. This is my most recent tenet: I belong to the land, and my work upon it matters.

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