Considering all the things that high schoolers could be doing on a sweltering Monday morning during the summertime, chopping and lopping at invasive trees is probably not the first thing that you would think of.
However, that is just what our group of volunteers was doing this Monday in Johnsonburg. We met up at an elementary school near the Johnsonburg Preserve, and caravanned over to the spot where we’d be working for the morning. Scott, our instructor and host from The Nature Conservancy, was kind enough to tell us about the history of the property we were getting ready to work on, while outfitting us with gloves and loppers. Then, it was off to the enclosures to do some work.
An astute volunteer correctly assessed the situation right off the bat as we were walking to the fenced area where native tress had been planted to protect them from overbrowsing at the hands (or rather, the mouths) of the abundant deer population: “I saw a lot of ailanthus on the way over,” he said, to which Scott replied, “Bingo!” After a quick tutorial for those of us who were less capable of spotting the plant, or totally unaware of its presence, we learned an ailanthus “fun fact:” “Tear a leaf if you’re not sure,” said Scott after giving us the visual clues for us to check against to ensure we weren’t cutting the native trees. “The ailanthus leaves smell like rancid peanut butter.” (They really did!) And with that, we were off and lopping.
After two hours, we had cleaned up most of the enclosure, and Scott was finishing up the dirty work with the spot-treatment herbicide to ensure our efforts against the “Tree of Hell” were lasting ones. As the temperature kept rising and the sun stayed out, we opted to take a quick hike in the shade of the woods to learn some more about the property and other plants and animals that call the preserve home before we called it a day. As we took off from our post-lopping water break, we saw something I have been hoping to see since I began hiking in the Highlands of New Jersey – a bobcat. (Seriously.) Scott was leading the group when it caught the corner of his eye, and he turned and pointed, identifying it out loud like he couldn’t believe it, either. Although the sighting lasted about ten seconds, I’m sure the memory will stay with me forever…As it trotted away from us, it turned its beautiful head to assess the group, looking directly at us for a good five seconds before disappearing into the distant undergrowth. Talk about exhilarating! What better way to cultivate appreciation for preservation of public land in a volunteer than to guide them to an experience like that (especially after the sweaty, dirty work that the first half of they day entailed)?
While I can’t promise that any of these things will be repeated during next week’s Nature Conservancy project, nor can I substantiate any of my claims with any photos (as I ill-advisedly left my cameraphone in the car)…I can promise that you will experience a keen sense of satisfaction, work up a tan and a sweat, and learn something along the way.
And hey, who knows. Maybe you’ll even get to see a bobcat (or equally cool characteristic megafauna)!
Till next week…
–Maren Morsch, AmeriCorps Program Associate