The morning is frigid. You knew it would be. You roll out of bed and look at your clock- 8:00 a.m., on the dot. You roll to one side, and the sun is streaming through the window. You’d never know it was 20 degrees out there. You curse yourself silently for volunteering to do outdoor work in Churchill Woods on a frigid March morning. Your word is good though, and so you can’t back out now, especially since there’s a text from Andrew Van Gorp, the head of Sustain DuPage, a person who you respect deeply, blinking on your phone.
So you’re awake. You guzzle coffee, grasping it firmly between your cupped hand as you sip in the morning. You pull on the five layers of clothing you’ve laid out for this morning. The last thing to come on is the hiking boots, the steel-toed wonders you bought last year. You love wearing them, because it makes you feel strong. Like you can change the world. Today, that’s what you’re planning to do. Even if it’s in a small way.
You pile into the car and enter the address that was on the meetup group into your GPS. 22 minutes. Why is it so darn far? You hope you’re going to the right place. You drive, and drive, and drive…why do these streets not look right? You pull into the parking lot, and there’s no one there. Great. Just your luck! Of course you’re in the wrong parking lot. Oh well. You pull out and type in the name of the preserve. “Churchill Woods.” Only four minutes away….that’s not bad.
As you pull in, you can see a line of people behind a car, signing waivers. Wow, there’s actually quite a few people here. That’s great news, because it means you’ll get a lot of work done, but you don’t know ANY of them, because you’re new. It’s also not the greatest thing for you personally, because you’re a bit of an introvert. Oh well, the social atmosphere is really only a plus. You’re here to make a difference.
You fill out a waiver and follow the group, grabbing a pair of loppers. Andrew is explaining to the group how to identify buckthorn, an awful invasive species that grows like a weed, which crowds out light from the roots of the native oak trees. It’s also pointy on the ends, meaning it stabs your clothes. You’re not really dressed properly either, and it’s way colder than you thought it would be. You’ll be cutting away buckthorn and hauling it into piles so that the native oaks and other native species can thrive.
It’s quiet here. It’s quiet, and sunny, and peaceful, despite the group of 20-40 people hacking away at buckthorn. A few conversations pop up, but most people are minding themselves or their nearest neighbor, hard at work in comfortable silence.
The sun streams through the trees, and the peaceful pace of the work is meditative. You would never know that just over the ridge is a busy street. You’re immersed in the peace of the forest preserve. You’re home.
This is Churchill Woods, and you’re here with Sustain DuPage, a local nonprofit that is dedicated to creating a greener, healthier, and more sustainable DuPage County. Churchill Woods Protectors is one of their five mission projects. These five mission projects are designed to touch upon the three pillars of sustainability- people, the environment, and the economy. How does Churchill Woods do this? From a societal perspective, you are empowered with new knowledge about how to care for the environment. You are also surrounded by a community of like-minded individuals and you build a common bond through your hard work. From an environmental perspective, you begin to heal some of the man-made destruction that has been brought onto the natural woodlands here. According to Sustain DuPage’s website, these disturbances include, but aren’t limited to habitat fragmentation, fire suppression, salt pollution, soil erosion, flooding, petroleum pollution…and the list goes on. You may not have contributed directly to these damages, but it feels good to be helping restore the natural habitat by giving native species a chance. Finally, forest preserves actually help boost our economy. The more natural areas we have near our homes and in our communities, the higher our property values.
Churchill Woods is a popular fishing, picnicking, and hiking spot. It is beautiful. As you hack away at buckthorn, your fingers begin to numb, but you don’t really care. Your phone alarm goes off, and unfortunately, you have to go. You scan the woods for your fearless leader, Andrew, who seems to be oblivious to anything except the buckthorn he’s herbiciding so that pesky stuff doesn’t come back. You wave at him and he waves back with a jaunty, perky smile, with a signature bit of sass. You walk with him to the parking lot and talk about how Churchill Woods needs more accessibility for pedestrians and individuals with physical disabilities. A project for a later date.
He gives you a hug as you tell him you have to go. You feel a bond with the people that you work towards a common cause with. Your fingers are numb, but your heart is warm. For one day, you’ve made a bit of a difference among the sunny oaks of Churchill Woods. The work is far from done, but seeing the glade of buckthorn you’ve cleared is immensely gratifying- at least until next time.
Later that day, you get a text from Andrew- “Did you enjoy your time in the woods?!”
Yes, yes, I did. The woods are their own beautiful reward.