Stuck in COVID Doldrums? Grab Some Loppers.

Restoration work at Zoo Woods

Yesterday, I spent the morning volunteering with a spunky group of mostly elders in Zoo Woods, one of the Cook County Forest Preserves in the western suburbs. Our task for the morning was to cut down an area of buckthorn that had been choking out all of the native ephemerals and grasses that typically adorn the woods in springtime.

Maybe because it was my first experience doing the satisfying work of lopping down invasive species, maybe because it was wonderful to be with three-dimensional people after months of Zooming, maybe because it was the perfect spring day, but if I had to describe the morning in one word? Healing. I’ve thought a bit about why this rather ordinary volunteer gig felt so special, and a few reasons came to mind.

All are welcome. As a newbie, I wondered if there would be a “members only” vibe to this group of dedicated volunteers, some of whom have been working to restore the Preserves for over 25 years. That feeling was dispelled the moment I arrived. John, the enthusiastic volunteer coordinator, introduced me to everyone. Jeanne and Ann pointed out ephemerals like Starry Solomon’s Seal and showed me how to correctly identify buckthorn by scraping the bark to reveal an orange color beneath. Another volunteer helped me understand the tricks of cutting through thicker trunks. Questions were welcomed, mistakes quickly forgiven.

Buckthorn makes an excellent punching bag. Taking out 14 months of frustration, disappointment, anxiety, and loss on a shrub that’s choking out the diversity of our native species is utterly satisfying. And after you cut it down, you get to burn it up in a giant fire. Enough said.

No technology required. In three hours, I saw not a single cell phone removed from a pocket (except mine, to snap the picture above.) During water breaks, there was real conversation—about former careers, unexpected job loss, building a new home, aging in place, and more. I was so grateful for the honest conversation and a reprieve from screens.

I’ve been struggling to move beyond that feeling of languishing that has taken hold of many of us during late-stage pandemic times. Yesterday morning was a helpful reminder to prioritize community and connection with others. Might I suggest signing up for a shift?

—The Christopher Family Foundation staff spend time volunteering throughout the year. This story was contributed by Molly Truglia, Program Associate.