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Once a Treehugger Always a Treehugger
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by Janis Oppelt | 2011

When I was 10, I became good friends with a large tree in our backyard. I no longer recall what kind of tree. I only knew that it was bigger than me, and I felt protected when I sat underneath it to think 10-year-old thoughts and simply enjoy the outside world. And, yes, here it comes: I did give the tree a hug when I needed one.

Once a Treehugger, Always a Treehugger

 

By Janis OppeltWhen I was 10, I became good friends with a large tree in our backyard. I no longer recall what kind of tree. I only knew that it was bigger than me, and I felt protected when I sat underneath it to think 10-year-old thoughts and simply enjoy the outside world. And, yes, here it comes:  I did give the tree a hug when I needed one.

 

Most trees are still bigger than me, and I still feel protected when I am around them. The big difference now—50 years later—is that I feel a need to protect them, and the rest of the natural environment, from us. (Exceptions to this feeling are cockroaches, stink bugs, and mosquitoes. My husband Russ would add squirrels to this list.)

 

Like others who live in urban areas, I hear and see assaults on the natural environment I love every day: fire and police sirens that disturb bird song; bulldozers that destroy trees and land so that we can have more roads and buildings; and, of course, the untrustworthy who say more development will not cause more traffic—and, they say, they have the statistics to prove it!

 

Do I feel that I alone can do anything to stop these rackets? No, I do not. But, as we all have seen, many like-minded people working together for positive change can, indeed, “fight City Hall” (or some semblance of this cliché). Sometimes these fighters even win or at least change the odds of losing everything we, as lovers of the environment, hold near and dear.

 

Take, for example, the recent decision by the Maryland Department of the Environment to deny key wetland permits for the proposed Cross County Connector in Charles County. Members of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, which includes many Maryland Chapter volunteers, have been fighting against this highway for many years and received good news in early November, 2011, when MDE denied the highway permit because the application failed “to properly account for or address the [highway’s] environmental impacts.” As the article about the highway on page 19 of this issue states, the fight may not be over yet.

 

Many Options

 

In truth, I’m not much of a fighter (the lightest of lightweights at the moment, although I suspect this is changing). My guess is that there are many Maryland Chapter members who are like me but who would like to contribute in some way. Luckily, the environmental movement needs all kinds of people, which is how I came to be involved with the Maryland Chapter about 10 years ago.

 

At the time, I wanted to volunteer but wasn’t sure whether I had anything to offer since I equated Sierra Club with political action. I didn’t know whether my interests and skills would fit into that picture. Then I just happened to see a Chesapeake ad calling for volunteers to help with an environmental radio program to be produced by the chapter. It took just one phone call and one meeting at the Santa Fe Café in College Park to know that this was something I could do and wanted to do.


For several years after, I was one of a team of several creative, totally wonderful volunteers who created the Watershed Radio show, an environmental education project exploring the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Through one-minute daily spots, we tried to show the connection between human activities and natural processes. Topics included natural events, scientific research findings, the personality traits of a specific species, or an environmental memory.

 

If I had not made a decision to volunteer, I never would have met “the ducks,” as we came to call ourselves. Not only would I have missed a valuable learning opportunity, I also would have missed a lot of laughs and being part of a smart, spirited team who produced (all humility aside now) a great end-product. And it’s even possible that, when our spots aired on a few local radio programs, some people actually learned something about the Maryland environment and the issues that challenge its existence, which was, of course, our goal. (You can  listen to some of our spots on the web; go to (www.watershedradio.org/about.htm)

Sharing this memory makes me think more about what it means to be a Sierra Club volunteer. Although it is certainly about trying to win the battles that protect our environment, it’s also about being part of a community of like-minded people, working together to bring about results, and learning from each other—especially when you don’t agree on how to get things done.

 

A friend of mine believes that many people volunteer because they want “to serve,” a phrase full of meanings, the simplest is “being of service.” Although I’m not so sure I like the idea of being a servant, I do know that I don’t want to sit idly by while more and more of the natural environment disappears and faces challenges that threaten its survival. What’s a tree-hugger to do?

 

One Step at a Time

 

Although I’d like to end this little article by begging anyone—whoops, maybe urging is a better word—who’s thinking about volunteering with the chapter, but hasn’t yet, to make that first call or send that first email. If you’re still wondering “why” you would want to do more than just sit around and worry about what’s happening to our environment, here are a few words of wisdom from author Clarissa Pinkola Estes that emphasize that even doing a little is better than doing nothing:

 

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” 

 

Janis Oppelt is a member of the executive committee of the Prince George’s County Group and the Chesapeake editorial team.

 

 

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