Friday, April 13, 2012

My MOVE Trip: Big Thicket, Texas 2012

We have an awesome volunteer program here at Saint Mike's called MOVE (Mobilization of Volunteer Efforts).  We do a ton of local projects, and there are all kinds of programs you can sign up for each week to help out the community in some way, whether it's cooking for the hungry, playing with shelter animals, or hanging out with some local kids or elderly people. There are a lot of outdoor volunteer opportunities too, like working in the organic garden or cleaning up public outdoor areas.

Some of the coolest opportunities MOVE offers are the extended service trips. There are domestic and international trips that take place over winter, spring and summer breaks, completely dedicated to volunteer service. I spent a week of my winter break working in the Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont, Texas.

My trip was so amazing and enlightening, and fortunately I had the opportunity to prepare a scholarship project about it to present on a panel. It was called "How are you MOVED?" and each of the panelists spoke about what they took away from their trips. I was really nervous to do this, since the panel I was on was for faculty members and my voice gets all shaky when I have to speak in public. However, I really enjoyed presenting, because I realized I had so much to say about the experience.

I made a little scrapbook on to use as a guide for my speech. The following are a few of the ideas I addressed:

This was the cover of my scrapbook. I was so happy that I had such an awesome time on my first MOVE trip--it  definitely will not be my last!

I wanted to set my first page up like a little yearbook. There were 11 of us on this trip, and each person was such a key character with a different personality. Everyone added to the dynamic of the group, and we really hit it off. The center picture if the Field Research Station, where we had accommodations to stay for the week.

On our first day, we met a young ranger named Elliot. He spoke to us for a while about the Big Thicket, and how it's such a diverse ecosystem because so much was pushed south from the Ice Age. After thousands of years, these different ecosystems adapted and began to thrive together, which is why the Thicket is so diverse. During his talk, he was describing how dense the forest is, and how hot and humid it becomes in the summer. He told us, "When the wind blows in the Thicket, you can see it, and you can hear it, but you can't feel it." Then, later on, we were taking a hike through a really dense area of the woods. I heard this rustling noise and looked up to see the tops of the trees swaying and leaves falling down around me. But Elliot was right, because I couldn't feel the wind! It suddenly gave me this incredibly small feeling.

That's why my favorite picture from the trip is the one on the top left side, looking up at the tree. I think it's the only picture I took that captured that feeling. I told everyone at the panel that I also like the leaf in this picture, too, because in real life this leaf is tiny but looking at it from this angle makes it seem huge. I was thinking that a leaf is such a small detail in a whole forest. But without leaves, what would the forest be? So even though it's small, this leaf makes a huge impact. That's kind of how we felt too. Here was this group of college students, staying for only a week, being dwarfed by these massive trees and doing such a small amount of work in such a gigantic place. But the important thing is that we were there, and like those little leaves, we made an impact too.

All of these pictures were taken the day we went to the Sandylands to clear trails. The Sandylands are an interesting part of the Thicket. The soil is sandier, hence the name, and the trees are more sparse. However, the brush is grassy and dense, so cutting these trails was quite the challenge! That's me in the top right corner of the left page, wielding my machete. I never thought I'd ever use a machete in my life!

This was such a cool experience because we were all pushed to our limits. We accomplished so much that we had never even dreamed of...and by the end of that day, we had cleared about a mile of trails that would be opened up for public use!

I almost got a little choked up at this part of the presentation, because Maxine is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. She's an 83-year-old native Texan who is absolutely obsessed with the Big Thicket. She accompanied us one day in the middle of the week, and brought us to this tree on the left page. It was one of the biggest, most beautiful trees I have ever seen. Planted by Lance Rosier, "father of the Big Thicket," this elm was over 150 years old. Our task for the day was to clear the area around it--the saplings growing up near it were rubbing against its bark, which isn't good for such and old tree because it can open up "wounds" and become easily "infected."

After we completed this task, Maxine said she had to show us something. She took off through the Thicket, not even following a particular path, like a true trailblazer. She really knows her way around, because in a few minutes she stopped us in front of this old mulberry tree, which is in the first three pictures on the right page. Maxine had grown up with this tree, and unfortunately it was dying. Parts of it were rotten and scorched. She told us we were going to have a "tree funeral."

I love nature, but I had never thought of doing something like this before. As we were gathered around the tree and Maxine began to say a few words, I thought, why not have a tree funeral? Trees provide life, oxygen, and such an abundance of resources. Where would people be without trees? I will always remember this day because at that moment I learned something about respect--it's not something that only humans deserve.

As we were leaving the site of the tree, I thanked Maxine for bringing us to see it. She patted my shoulder and said, "I just wanted to share that with people who truly care." I realized then that our group really did care, and we really were making a difference. It was beautiful, and Maxine is someone I will remember for the rest of my life. 

On the last two days of our trip, we spent all of our time planting trees. Longleaf pines are essential to the Big Thicket's ecosystem. We had heard about them all week, and were so excited to plant them. The little seedlings looked like brown carrots with the soil packed around their roots, and that eventually became a joke with the whole group. We used dibble bars, which were these long poles with dull spikes on the end that could be driven straight into the ground. Then we'd take a seedling and place it into the small hole that the dibble made. This was an efficient process, and by the end of two days we had planted 10,000 trees. Isn't that crazy? Our little group, doing so much in so little time. It was amazing, and those trees will grow tall and strong as a reminder of the work we did there. Our impact will live on for hundreds of years.

Throughout the trip, we had reflections every night where we would just sit down together and explain our thoughts about the day's work. One thing that kept coming up was about how our trip is sort of different than the other MOVE trips, in that we're not working directly with people. The other trips often do work like serving the homeless or helping classes at underprivileged schools, while all of our work took place out in the wilderness with barely anyone around. The main question one night was, what are we doing to help people?

The answer came pretty quickly. We realized that serving the environment is serving people. Everyone in the world has one thing in common: we all share the Earth. That means we need to protect it, take care of it, and make sure that it stays in shape for future generations.  

Saint Mike's is a small campus, but I can guarantee that if I hadn't gone on this trip, I would have never met most of these people. I was terrified to embark on this journey across the country with a bunch of people I barely knew. But I reminded myself that I wanted to reconnect with nature and do more service as well as get out of my comfort zone, and this was an excellent way to do just that. I left Saint Mike's with a group of friendly strangers, and I returned with ten new friends who, each in their own way, had changed me for the better.

"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and place, because you'll never be this way ever again." This quote truly wrapped up everything I felt about my MOVE trip. The Big Thicket was a special place, and I was there at a really special time. I will never be the same because of it, and I couldn't be happier.

So, that was my experience! After I finished presenting, I found a few of my group members who had come to support me. They were almost in tears! We all talked about how much we missed Texas, and I realized that this is why I really love these people--we may not have seen each other in a while, as we're all extremely busy, but as soon as we get together again we're back in Texas and the conversation is as easy as ever.

Michael Samara, the Dean of Students, came up to me after my presentation to shake my hand. He thanked me for sharing my story, and Dave Kells from the Counseling Staff told me it was touching and something that "needs to be heard." As I walked outside, a woman approached me and told me how much she had enjoyed my presentation and ending quote. She said it was beautiful and inspiring. I was so happy to hear the positive feedback and know that simply telling my story sparked something within so many people. That's really what it's all about, and that's why I will continue to serve.


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