A surprising number of families have been out to the Sanctuary in the last month. On cold and blustery days, guests bring their relatives who are in town for the holiday or vacation. While many of them have certainly been uncomfortable riding around in the golf cart with a blanket around them, sub-freezing winds whipping at their faces, I have nonetheless witnessed their own warmth lighting up as they learn about our little green cemetery in Mills River.
Last winter, for the most part, was considerably warmer than this winter has been so far. We actually did our first mid-winter burial recently, and I was grateful for two rainy but warm days during which to dig, and a sunny afternoon in our wind-sheltered woods for the service. We have had snow, wind, rain, temperatures down in the teens with wind chills in the single digits, and yet, life goes on at the Sanctuary.
In preparation for an upcoming burn, in December, our generous volunteers raked fire barriers around trees, and we uncovered a large club moss commonly named “creeping cedar.” It is quite prevalent in the woods and keeps the ground green even in the bitter cold of winter! Looking around all over the property, there are several plants that are still green and even most of the “dead” perennials are simply dormant, storing energy for the spring. There are pines, hollies, cedars, and hemlocks as well, and it still surprises me how many people say that they can’t wait to see the Sanctuary when the weather gets better; I usually remark about its ever changing beauty year round, which has been one of my favorite things about working at the Sanctuary for the past two years.
My work isn’t just about a picturesque landscape. With significantly colder temperatures persisting for longer periods than last year, the golf cart batteries are requiring more frequent maintenance and anything soaked by the rain needs at least a full day exposed to sun in order to dry out completely and rust can wreak havoc on my tools and equipment. Colder temperatures also mean that the Steward’s body wears out more quickly. I have to be very careful about staying hydrated and warm. All of us on staff are looking forward to this hopefully being the last year at the Sanctuary without any significant shelter in which to work.
Some things are actually better when working in the cold. Since I am usually heavily bundled, I can move through and work around brambles without being snagged. It is actually harder to break a sweat with some physical labor, so moving piles of mulch, rocks, and heavy tools can be a more pleasant task in winter. Though necessary as part of our integrated management system, I don’t particularly like working with herbicides and they are rendered essentially ineffective at temperatures that stay below forty degrees fahrenheit; this makes for a welcome break from that task, though there is still plenty to be done about unwanted exotic and invasive species.
And there is waiting, observing, and preparing. These don’t exactly seem like activities in a fast-paced, hard work environment but as I move heavy objects, take people on tours, dig graves, and maintain the tools and equipment – I have my awareness constantly pointed at the work and the timing of what comes next. Planning and focus can be useful tools and because of the nature of how things can change – even daily – I also have to be prepared for whatever arises that might take precedent. This might be a little different from the way other types of jobs approach the work that needs to be done, in that schedules are needed and at the same time, flexibility is a regular part of the schedule. In fact, when I compare and contrast my work as Sanctuary Steward with previous modes of employment, it almost seems paradoxical that I should be doing both planning and adapting simultaneously. But this is not so different from what the dormant plants are doing in the winter as well. Certainly their plans and adaptations might look a little different than ours, but they are storing and calculating resources, building energy, budding, and all sorts of other things that on the surface don’t look like activity, yet amount to amazing growth and change from season to season.
It hasn’t exactly been an easy task trying to figure out how to balance and manage all the variables, but looking ahead to the rest of 2018, it is an interesting exercise to consider how I might be able to do my part, adding a few brush strokes here and there, to continually create a welcome and beautiful natural environment for plants, animals, and humans. There is mulch to be spread, new memorial plants to be placed, stone retaining walls to be built, and invasive plants to be removed. The big picture focus is also the guiding principle for each little detail, and I won’t really know what it will look like until I’m there, in it. It is exciting to be part of such interesting living work, and that has been a helpful change for me, moving forward into the new year.