Volunteers Choose to Make a Difference

A work party of Badger Volunteers in Curtis Prairie

Badger Volunteers in Curtis Prairie (Photo: Stephanie Petersen)

Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “The Summer Day” some of her most quoted lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your wild and precious life?”

Restore a prairie? Photograph bumblebees? Stroll the trails and help visitors? Pull weeds in Longenecker Gardens or Curtis Prairie? Answer the telephone and greet visitors at the reception desk? Catalogue archival materials? Maintain trails in Greene Prairie? Volunteers chose to do all of these things and more with their precious time, preserving a bit of wild for themselves and so many others. In many ways, volunteers make the Arboretum what it is. Here is a snapshot of contributions in 2018.

Nine hundred and twenty-eight people dedicated a portion of their lives to the Arboretum as volunteers. Collectively, they contributed 8,800 hours, working collaboratively with employees in land care, education, research, visitor services, and administration.

Restoration work engages the most volunteers, year after year, and 2018 was no exception. Forty-five percent of volunteers got involved with restoring prairies, oak savannas, and wetlands. Volunteers from 28 different campus and community organizations removed 106 large garbage bags of herbaceous invasive plants from seven different sites, completed brush removal at one of two kettle holes in the Northwest Grady Tract, and accomplished so much more.

At the visitor center, receptionists and bookstore clerks welcomed and educated visitors of all ages. Together they contributed 2,134 hours, greeted more than 33,000 people, and handled queries from routine to extraordinary. Receptionists fielded calls from area residents letting us know that “our” turkeys had escaped, asking us to retrieve them from the caller’s backyard. They handled reports of “drunk” coyotes in the prairie, which offered opportunities to explain the Urban Canid Project that uses the Arboretum as a research site. And they talked out-of-town visitors through the steps of getting here from all directions. Visitor Service Coordinator Katie Pfankuch expressed her admiration: “I have been impressed with how willing and eager all of our receptionists and bookstore clerks have been. They really like being involved and provide an excellent experience for guests.”

The chart below shows the number of hours volunteers spent in different activities, though the categories don’t fully capture the range of endeavors.

Chart of 2018 volunteer hours by task

Some volunteers in the “other” category tended the bluebird trail, established in 1988 by Sylvia Marek, who has also been its primary caretaker. Nearly 700 bluebirds have fledged from the boxes on this trail since its inception. Volunteers in “research assistance” monitored populations of dragonflies, bumblebees, birds, orchids, and jumping worms. And in “education” five young African leaders who visited Madison as Mandela-Washington Fellows, spent a morning working with children at Earth Focus Day Camp.

Volunteers even improve the ground beneath visitors’ feet. Ranger Stephanie Petersen, assistant rangers, and six volunteer groups upgraded many trail segments, including a popular footpath through Curtis Prairie, which was washed out by the epic August rainfall, and the highly eroded route from Arboretum Drive to Skunk Cabbage Bridge.

Longenecker Gardens volunteers – Friday regulars as well as one-time service groups and independent volunteers – were so effective weeding and mulching in the main horticultural collection that they extended their work to areas around the Duck Pond and along Manitou Way, clearing weeds away from the long-hidden stonework.

The volunteers and employees who worked outdoors accomplished so much despite record rainfall, flooding, and mosquitoes. Special kudos to those hearty volunteers.

All who gave part of themselves, a bit of their precious lives, to the Arboretum and its mission deserve appreciation and recognition. Thank you, one and all.

If you did not volunteer but wish to, Mary Oliver again has words of wisdom:

Well, there is time left –
fields everywhere invite you into them.

Openings abound to engage and deepen your connection. 2019 is full of promise, as old and new volunteer opportunities await.

—Judy Kingsbury, volunteer program coordinator