I spent most of Friday morning crashing through underbrush and pulling up dame’s rocket at an off-site conservancy owned by the UW Arboretum. I was part of a volunteer crew that, aside from me, consisted entirely of college-age kids, plus the young man who manages these invasive species eradication projects. We met up with some volunteers from the neighborhood that borders the conservancy. Being as how it was a weekday morning, they were all retirees, like me. I was glad I was part of the Arboretum team, sort of their unofficial mascot: a tired-looking, saggy-skinned allusion to, I don’t know, the venerability of the Arboretum, old oak savannahs, the endless cycle of seasons. Anyway, I was with the cool guys, not the white-haired ladies in faded plaid shirts and goofy-looking, if eminently sensible, hats made out of mosquito netting.

We were on a search-and-destroy mission aimed at bad actors in the plant world, primarily garlic mustard. Garlic mustard hangs out on woodland floors, and there were no convenient trails leading through the particular area we wanted to cover. Nor was this your idyllic, sun-dappled, fern-carpeted forest. It was an obstacle course of roots and thick, low-lying riparian trees whose branches all appeared to be reaching out to grab you or smack you when you weren’t looking. It was difficult to move forward in my assigned quadrant. I crawled under branches, disentangled myself from others; I began to feel something akin to claustrophobia, a vague sense of panic that I might end up hog-tied in this dark, damp thicket.

None of this was conducive to keeping an eye out for garlic mustard, but as it turned out even our manager spotted very few. Eventually we rendezvous’d with the neighbors on an actual path and switched our target to dame’s rocket, of which there was a lot. It’s tiring work, repeatedly bending, searching for the knot in the root that will allow you to pull out the entire plant, tugging at it, stuffing it into a garbage bag. One of the neighbors said that there were a lot of volunteers from among the cluster of houses bordering the conservancy but few able-bodied enough to actually help. One gentleman, for example, had fallen down in the woods and been unable to get up again.

My young crew-mates listened distractedly to this tale of cumulative frailty, while I congratulated myself on still belonging to the ranks of those who can do the limbo with tree branches.

But the retired neighbors were probably also old hands at volunteering, whereas this was only my third time out with the habitat restoration crew and my first-ever volunteer work as a retiree. When you retire, everyone assumes you will volunteer for one or another good cause or organization. They ask you what you’re going to do. I’ve been embarrassed
that I couldn’t provide a list. It seemed, and it may be, selfish to respond that I want time to read, or teach myself Spanish, or write this blog, or run, or cook, or pick up my neglected ukelele, not to mention getting together with friends and traveling, all of which (except maybe the ukelele part) any retired volunteer could also claim.

So I am volunteering to kill garlic mustard. I don’t know much so far about native Wisconsin habitats or all the reasons why it’s important to preserve them. As far as I know I’m not helping any person in need, and, indeed, habitat preservation in many ways looks beyond humans other than as instruments for good and ill. I’m just a weeder. It’s a start.

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