“All of life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

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I woke up and mumbled some unsavory phrases as I looked at the weather app on my phone Monday morning. It was the MLK Day of Service for Missouri State University. About 30 college students were supposed to show up and work all day on the trails at the Watershed Center. At 6:00am it was 4°F and I was doubtful at best. But, I rousted myself from the cozy covers, pushed my very warm and sleepy dog off the bed, and got dressed with a firmly fixed frown on my face, fully expecting to go in and make coffee for myself and then come back home after being stood up for an hour. I opened the door for my sidekick, Bois D’Arc, to join me and he went from curled up in a fox ball to bright-eyed and bushy tailed in a flash as he happily jumped into the car. I brought him on the off chance that anyone showed up because Bo loves college students cooing over him and running around with us on work days. And, if no one came, at least I would have someone to talk to. The percolator optimistically started brewing 40 cups of coffee as I rolled my eyes at myself. I crossed my arms and waited, unexpectantly. To be fair, I thought there was a good chance that my friend Jay and our dedicated intern Darrin would show up like they said they would, and I thought the 8 or so students that were going to get out of a term paper by doing this service day would also come. I was right. They all showed up around 8:30 and seemed about as excited as I was. We quietly slurped coffee and stared at our feet, waiting for no one else to show up so we could get started. However, miracle of miracles, about 25 college students in jeans and sweatpants and hoodies climbed out of their cars and walked cheerfully, albeit sleepily, into the building. The room livened up, I got excited and started cracking corny jokes about signing waivers in the event of hypothermia, frostbite, bear attacks, or abandonment (I had just watched the Revenant the night before). Bo was wild and everyone seemed ready to work.

20160111_132557It crept up into the double digits as we began to gather our tools. It felt very cold. It was very cold. The sun, however, was shining brightly and seemed to warm us in mind and spirit, so we did not mind our cold bodies. One big crew of students set up a system of shoveling gravel into buckets and wheel barrows, lay out a plastic grid matrix over the muddy spots on the trail, and deposit the gravel onto this structure until it was covered. As we continue to improve our trails, we are trying new techniques and we have a lot of expert advice to help us. In this case, we targeted muddy spots that have swallowed up years’ worth of gravel and still remain muddy. Perhaps this time, with the help of a little engineered substructure, we can keep our trails dry and rocky. Time will tell.20160111_132553

The other, smaller, special-ops squadron was working with the sole intent of destroying the ever-invasive bush honeysuckle that shades out and crowds the beautiful glades and forests at the Watershed Center. Darrin was point man for this task, leading the charge with a sawblade-equipped weed eater while the students followed behind him stacking brush.

20160118_123554We took a warm-up break mid-morning, basking in the warm sunlight that comes into our building, guzzling coffee, and talking and laughing. We worked for another hour or so before the students came back inside for lunch. I had snuck back early to start the hamburgers and hotdogs on the grill, surely torturing the cold volunteers with wafting scents of savory warmth floating through the trees. Everyone came inside, sat at a giant family-style table, and ate a surprising amount of burgers and dogs.

The Special Ops team and their brush pile

The Special Ops team and their brush pile

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While they ate, I asked them to humor me as I read “January” from Aldo Leopold’s The Sand County Almanac out loud to the whole group. “…January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”

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Rob Hunt reads to college students

The students were quiet as the words and ideas lay heavily on the room like fresh snow. I continued as I read the introduction to “The Good Oak” and spoke of spiritual dangers of disconnect with our natural world. As I finished, the room sat silent for a few moments before people began conversation again, slowly at first, then rising in vigor as we prepared to go back out into the cold. One of the student leaders approached me and asked if the group could keep working into the afternoon. We had talked about wrapping up after lunch, but he said he didn’t think anyone was ready to go yet. So, with energy renewed, we set after one more chunk of trail, then one more, then one more.

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The very serious rake people, rakers of gravel.

 

At the end of the day, we all sat around the table one more time as the students reflected on the experience. One young lady over heard a hiker complimenting the group on their hard work and thanking them for keeping up the trail that she walks daily. Another said that she was able to tie the mission of clean water, the trail work, the Leopold readings, and the green building together by the end of the day, seeing how it is all connected. Many of the students found a new sense of community working with a group of people they did not know coming into the event. In fact, out of the 30 students, less than half of them had signed ups as groups; most of the students came on their own to experience the satisfaction of a service project and to meet new people.

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We have tried very hard to make the service experience less about the volunteer changing the Watershed Center and more about the Watershed Center changing the volunteer. I hope you get a chance to come out soon and enjoy the newly surfaced trail and look for tracks in the snow. Read “January” in the Sand County Almanac before you do. It will enrich your experience undoubtedly.

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