Speaking of volunteers, I’ve thought a lot, this summer, about Donna Williams.
In the early years of Touchstone’s program for 13 and 14 year olds, Donna helped us make several sections of a huge sprawling video about the Blackstone River Valley. (“Us” meant Katy Aborn and me, and a bunch of talented, energetic kids, and a smaller bunch of equally talented and energetic parent volunteers.)
There were both story parts and documentary parts of the video as a whole, which we called Voyage to the Sea. In the story sequence, several Touchstone teams took part in a fictional environmental education program called the Blackstone Watershed Relay. Donna agreed to play herself, water quality advocate for the Massachusetts Audubon sanctuary at Broad Meadow Brook, and she helped advise two of the investigating teams, both on camera and off.
Not in the comfort of the sanctuary headquarters, but standing next to streams and sitting in fields, in conditions always unpredictable and sometimes swelteringly hot, in scenes that were all inherently unpredictable conversations with kids, Donna repeated lines about toads or pesticides or dissolved oxygen, as many times as it took to get the scene straight.
At some point in our saga, Donna’s opportunity to send out her message via our video may have turned into something she experienced as an obligation, a burdensome but necessary faithfulness. If so, we never knew. Sure of her own purposes, delighted to support ours, she carried on with extraordinary patience and a wonderful laugh.
Here’s one of the morals of all these stories: If you jump in and do something real in your teaching and learning, the world will come to meet you. The state may give you a grant to hire someone like Veda Reilly, brilliant video producer with an astonishing knack for working with kids. Amazing parents like Mary Cornacchia and Ann Swinton may adopt your project as their own, and spend untold hours helping it come to completion. People unconnected to the school, from all over the valley and beyond–park rangers, business owners, historians, environmentalists–may give you both their time and their best wisdom.
One day we stood with Donna by a section of Miscoe Brook that had been flooded by beavers. One of the kids expressed sorrow about the dying trees. Well, yes, Donna said, the trees would die. But then those bare dead trees would make new homes for herons. She’d seen one, just that morning.
Natural environments change. (And, she implied, they exist primarily for themselves.) But you can look for what will give you joy in the changed place.
The kids who made that video learned so much, and only some of it was about how to set up a tripod.
We videotaped the beaver dam and the lodge at our site, and a stuffed beaver from the Massachusetts Audubon teaching collection. I saw some live beavers in zoos. After that, though, for years, I wanted to see beavers alive and free and at work.
And then, after 60 years of frogs and herons and muskrats, we developed a case of beavers in the pond at my family’s farm, the pond my grandmother built in memory of my grandfather.
Beavers alive and free and at work. The fascinating opportunity for which I had waited. Life rarely misses a chance for irony. Close up, in what is now my mother’s pond, life with beavers turned into a tortuously complicated competition between obligations.
We wanted to honor and cherish these wild mammals–and at the same time honor the trees my mother loves. We wanted to welcome a larger pond with more room for frogs, hooray, and herons, further hooray–but still keep the pond from flooding the road.
Struggling with all this, I made a video full of mixed feelings, slapping tails, and giant circles of ripple.
The beavers were definitely fun to watch, even from afar.
We admired their lodge, at the far end of the pond, viewed best from a canoe. In this photo you can see the first summer’s construction, now grassed over, and a front section the beavers added after we got the water level down a little. The white X must stand for something, but we don’t speak beaver.
In spite of our admiration, the changes the beavers brought did not feel like a good thing. Dammed, the stream backed up into the woods, and killed dozens of trees there. Other trees were felled by the beavers, who don’t always get it right.
In the three years we’ve tried and failed to say goodbye to the beavers, trees along the edge of the pond have died, choked by actually standing in water, or by having their roots in saturated soil. The large birch in this photo, gamely fighting a disease that strikes birch trees, gave up the struggle and stood bare all this summer, along with other smaller birches, and a special maple tree with an unusual branching pattern.
Other trees, a little back from the water’s edge, have been girdled and are dying slowly.
By the end of the second summer, beavers had filled the original pond drainage system with mud and sticks, silting in the outflow end of the pond. This summer, our third beaver summer, a new young furry engineer built small dams across a spillway designed to drain the pond only in case of extraordinary circumstances. These were.
In the state of Maine, dismantling a beaver lodge is illegal. Dismantling a dam is not. Every morning, all this summer, I marched out with my clam rake and tore the new dam apart, revising that little piece of landscape back to what I thought it should look like in the new normal:
And every night the beaver built the dam back. One late afternoon I watched the beaver (this summer we had only one) gathering up mud in the shallows, and then swimming with the mud in its forepaws, over to the dam site, to plaster onto saplings and water plants piled there.
Every morning I had a new opportunity to examine beaver paw prints.
I told my old friend and teaching colleague Kate Keller, “I feel like I’m teaching the beaver how to build, by making it revise its building plan again and again.” It felt like projects time at school. Gradually the beaver showed evidence of better and better dam-building skills. That had not been my goal.
On the other hand, I did come to enjoy my part of this odd conversation. As the piles of hauled-out mud and sticks mounded higher and higher, I became aware of growing arm strength (along with sore shoulders.) I felt proud of my dam-destroying prowess. I liked listening to the birds, watching the bugs, and cheering the water as it rushed downhill, once I liberated it again.
Like walking a dog, the obligation could be an opportunity, at least sometimes.
Finally, for the second summer in a row–and as a step toward the solution I’ll explain below–we called Rich Burton, at Maine Animal Damage Control, who is licensed to trap beavers live and relocate them. A week ago, his snare caught the current beaver.
I stood vigil while I waited for Rich to arrive, watching as the beaver rested in the water and then struggled again to escape.
Then, from a safe distance, I watched as Rich transferred the beaver from the pond snare to a pole snare, then to a cage for transport. Although this was only a young beaver, maybe in its second summer, it could have taken a chunk out of its human trapper at any moment. But he said, “I love doing this. I like seeing them up close, and giving them another chance.” He also likes the excitement. But he’s been offered his own reality show, and turned it down. “This is an honest way to make a living,” he says. “That’s not.”
The kids who took part in the making of Voyage to the Sea, our Blackstone Valley video, got a true picture of the work video requires (honest or not.) Through rain and fog and hot sun, through hours and hours of editing, they sometimes experienced that work as an obligation, a thing done without much joy, out of faithfulness to a promise. Much more of the time, though, they knew and felt that they were in the middle of an amazing opportunity.
They were spending a lot of time outdoors. Even when they were indoors, they were working to improve public understanding of environmental issues that really mattered to them. All of us, young and older, were living fully in our purposes.
On camera one day, Alex Cornacchia used a drawing to explain the working of a beaver deceiver. (Donna had told us about this, of course, and given us a booklet to read, which got digested into the script.) Beavers have a strong instinct to squelch any sound of running water. The beaver deceiver, often just a flexible pipe threaded through the beaver dam, thwarts that instinct–but it also says, “Sure, stick around, we like watching you. We just don’t want you to flood our land.”
At my mother’s farm, we are hoping, with all our fingers crossed, that any week now we will become the proud owners of a new beaver deceiver, and that it will let us enjoy the guest engineers who seem bound to show up next summer–and also keep the road from flooding, all at once.
Meanwhile, I find myself thinking again and again about the ways experience shifts from opportunity to obligation and back again, and the times–not always, but sometimes–when we can choose our point of view one way or the other.
Given respect and some control of our learning voyages, we can be students who do more than we have to, owning our learning opportunities with joy. Given respect and some control of our teaching environments, and remembering to take care of ourselves, we can keep the rare privilege of the work alive in our hearts.
Whatever we do in life, we can be purposeful people who let strange accidents and natural changes happen to us–and keep receiving whatever they have to give. Beavers and all.