You would think that living in the Pacific Northwest would immune one to the sound of rain glancing off the window panes or streaming down the gutters. Yet, in the wee hours of the morning I lay awake listening to the rain pelt the bedroom window and tried to convince myself that would mean that by late morning it would take a rest and make way for the rest of the day. I had signed up to participate in “Green Seattle Day” where like-minded volunteers would attempt to plant 1500 native species to reforest and restore the Woodland Park greenways. I also invited my teenage daughter to join me with the dual goal to spend time with her and get a head start on her community service requirement for high school. I tried to think of something positive: all that wet soil would be easier to shovel and the extra moisture would be good for the plants. I closed my eyes and pulled the covers up over my ears trying to drown out the continuous pitter-patter and tried to remember all the redeeming aspects of volunteering. Be a good role model. Put your community first. Learn from nature.
I finally emerged from the covers and made my way to the living room where ceiling-to-thigh plate glass windows look over to the North Cascades. It was still dark even at 8:00 am due to the thick rain clouds. I made coffee and watched the light slowly emerge to uncover that I was looking at low cloud cover (misty fog), but there was a strange silence that meant the rain had subsided. I pulled on my thermal base layer, layered with fleece, rain gear and topped off with my hand knit wool socks and sturdy hiking shoes. The hardest part still faced me, rousing a sleeping teenager with the opportunity to spend four hours in the rain and/or mud. I’ve learned that the trick with teenagers is to use as little vocabulary as possible, agree with every grunt and complaint, and make departure as easy as possible (that means I had the car packed, gardening gloves located, rain boots waiting at the door, water bottles filled).
We arrived at Woodland Park just in time to hear the mayor thank the volunteers, get our free t-shirts, and our site assignment. Over 300 volunteers were joined by organizational partners that included Earth Corps, Conservation Student Association, Cascade Land Conservancy, Seattle City Parks, and Rotary. Still, not a rain drop dared to fall. We dodged mountain bikers, cross-country runners and met our team leader, Anja. She had us each share our name and some sort of physical stretch. We learned how and how not to use a shovel (I swear some had never seen a shovel before) and how to plant a tree, shrub, or fern like a professional.
We made our way with shovels in hand to a steep slope that had been compacted and eroded due to mountain bikers taking a shortcut through the forest. We transported hundreds of plants down the steep slope and I was right in remembering that rain and dirt make mud. We spaced our trees 10 feet apart center-to-center and then filled in with shrubs and native plants. As my daughter and I worked as a team, my mind was swarming with all those silly sayings:
“Dig yourself into a hole.”
“Hit pay dirt.”
“Older than dirt.”
“Put to bed with a shovel.”
“Your name is mud.”
“Ugly as a mud fence.”
I was interrupted by my daughter saying, “Uh, Mom. You’re digging the hole way too big.” It was true. It took at least three tries for me to get the hole to plant ratio right. We were rewarded for our effort with Top Pot donuts and coffee. In my enthusiasm for such an extravagance, I was chastised for leaving my shovel lying on the ground in such a position that a woman told me it was an accident ready to happen. She then proceeded to tell me in extreme detail how she broke her nose by stepping on a similar shovel left unattended. The proper procedure was to stand my shovel next to the fence. I complied and made sure my daughter didn’t see me roll my eyes. She proved she was my kin when she handed me my donut and whispered, “Who would be dumb enough to step on shovel and break their nose?” Oh, I knew this was going to be a good day. No rain, plus proof that wit is alive and well in our bloodline.
We hauled our empty pots and our nose-breaking shovels up the muddy slope and took a lunch break. Too bad we forgot to pack a lunch. We let the sugar from our donuts pulse through our bloodstream and decided that the leftover Halloween candy was better left uneaten. Water would have to do. Part two of Green Seattle Day was ready to begin, we lost about a third of our team, but we were the hardy ones. We proceeded to create an immense mulching brigade. Volunteers shoveled warm, steamy mulch into five gallon paint buckets and we swung each bucket arm to arm until it met its destination. Hundreds of buckets of mulch made their way down our winding snake-like line, which would change direction as we moved along the forested corridor. We split into two lines and it felt a bit like square dancing as we maneuvered for the last of the work. Some friends carried on intense conversations, others sang camp songs, and all yelled out the signal for the no-handled buckets to reduce the risk of a bucket “down on the line.” What was a six-foot high pile of mulch soon disappeared. It’s amazing what a group of volunteers can accomplish and even better to see how happy people are when the weather cooperates and the work is meaningful.
Anja gathered us together once more and made our team do a mingle/question/answer exercise. We were asked to share with complete strangers what you liked best about the day, what you learned, and what would have made the day better. So here goes: The best part of the day was spending it with my daughter who delighted me with her witty sense of humor and her wicked smile when a two-year old did a face plant in a mud puddle. I learned how to make a mud dam. (You’ll have to volunteer next year to appreciate its virtues.) And what could have made the day better? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Well, maybe except for packing a lunch.