Restoring Connections, Strengthening Communities

A group of students sit in a council ring for a discussion.

Students from a UW class on climate crisis literature take a break to learn and reflect during a work party. (Photo: Susan Day)

It’s been a busy autumn for volunteer engagement, with numerous organizations from campus and the broader community sending groups out to do service projects in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens and restoration sites across the Arboretum. If the weather cooperates and all projects proceed as scheduled, 11 groups will have contributed 415 hours of service in September and October. That’s the most hours contributed by groups in those two months since 2016!

Who are these groups, what are they doing, and why do they volunteer?

Volunteer groups are motivated for varied reasons. Many student organizations have a commitment to community service; others are focused on an interest like conservation or horticulture. Both student groups and community groups – such as companies, faith groups, or non-profits – are seeking ways to boost camaraderie and connect their members with the natural world. It’s rewarding to help foster camaraderie and community-mindedness while directly engaging people in land stewardship. Though the volunteers may not know it when they arrive for their projects, they are part of a much larger community of people tending the Earth.

Balin Magee talks to a work party group from Catholic Multicultural Center.
Balin Magee talks to a work party group from Catholic Multicultural Center. (Photo: Marian Farrior)

One recent service group that worked in the Wingra Oak Savanna came from the Catholic Multicultural Center; they worked with employees Marian Farrior (restoration work party manager) and Balin Magee (restoration technician) and volunteer team leader Diego Rojas.

Laura Green, grants and communications coordinator of the Catholic Multicultural Center, shared that “people of color, immigrants, and low-income people often experience societal barriers to accessing nature: lack of transportation, not knowing how to access and use the spaces, or simply not feeling comfortable because they do not see others that look like them. The Catholic Multicultural Center Community Environment Program teamed up with the UW–Madison Arboretum to help overcome some of these barriers and welcome a diverse group of people into land restoration work. CMC provided an invitation from a trusted community-based agency, language support in Spanish, and assistance for people to find and get to the Arboretum. The Arboretum provided additional language support and the knowledge to guide participants in land care work and guide us through a part of this beautiful natural gem right in Madison. Participants shared what caring for the land means to them and why the work of the day was valuable based on their own experiences and cultural backgrounds (which included Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, the United States, and Vietnam). We appreciate the Arboretum’s partnership in taking one small step to making access to nature more equitable and helping our participants deepen their commitment and knowledge of caring for the land.”

Two volunteers collect seed from prairie grasses.
Volunteer team leader Diego Rojas and a work party volunteer collect seed. (Photo: Marian Farrior)

Marian Farrior works with many service groups. Whether working with a UW class focused on climate crisis literature or folks involved with the Catholic Multicultural Center, she always incorporates time for teaching and reflection into the restoration projects she leads. Marian has also trained the volunteer restoration team leaders to do the same when they lead work parties. The primary focus for autumn restoration work is cutting honeysuckle, buckthorn, sumac, and other woody invasives. During work breaks, Marian, team leaders, and participants connect the simple task of cutting brush to larger goals of restoring Arboretum oak savannas, addressing species extinction, and recognizing cultural attitudes that may help or hinder ecological well-being.

The teaching and reflection facilitate deeper understanding of the work and connection between the volunteer and nature. This is crucial. The “Community organizing toolkit for UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration” states, “In order to move forward and overcome some of the biggest challenges our world is facing today, such as overexploitation, biodiversity loss, and climate change, it is important to rebuild the connections between people and ecosystems.” Fortunately, rebuilding that connection can start with weeding, collecting seeds, and spreading mulch.

A volunteer group from Clean Lakes Alliance pose with bags of weeds they pulled.
Volunteers from Clean Lakes Alliance at a work party at Spring Trail Pond. (Photo: Marian Farrior)

Longenecker Horticultural Gardens (LHG) is also a common site for service groups, who work with curator David Stevens and horticultural specialist Julia Czaplewski. Although it’s a quite different setting from the restoration sites, volunteer groups are often busy with a similar task – removing weeds. It’s not glamorous work but it is essential. LHG includes 35 acres and thousands of specimens to tend, so there is always need for weeding, mulch spreading, and deer fence installation (to keep hungry deer from devouring tasty trees). One group that has sent volunteers to both Longenecker and restoration sites for several years (including 2022) is the UW Business School. As part of the program Business Badgers Giving Back, new MBA students engage in service projects at several sites across Madison as part of their orientation. Many of these students are new to Madison, and through service projects here they learn about the Arboretum and the benefits of spending time here. They become members of the Arboretum community and start to see the Arboretum as a place to visit and care for in the years to come.

These types of volunteer projects are not unique to the Arboretum – they happen at green spaces across Dane County, North America, and the entire globe. People across the world are engaging in stewardship and restoration, acting to heal the places they love.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”

—Judy Kingsbury, volunteer program manager