A bead of sweat runs down my face. I wipe it away with thick gardening gloves, leaving a smear of soil across my cheek. As the morning rolls on, I am slowly morphing into a chimney sweep.
It’s warm and sunny here, in a green corner of Yorkshire. Happily, it’s also the weekend. In my head somewhere, the heavy manual of work has been clamped shut and set aside in favour of a colourful storybook.
So here I am, carefree and cut-off from the outside world. With my hands, I violently remove Himalayan Balsam from a riverbank. Balsam is a tall and sturdy, yet shallow-rooted plant. It takes little effort to yoink the unwelcome stalks out of the ground with a swift, rewarding motion.
There’s a method behind my destructive behaviour; Balsam is a very successful plant. Too successful in fact. It grows so rapidly in our climate that it crowds out other native species. With its pathetic roots, it leaves riverbanks bare and unsupported when it dies back in the winter months. If this battle isn’t fought, erosion will make light work of the soil.
From beyond the wall of foliage around me, muted sounds of ripping and thrashing remind me that I’m not alone in my quest. One morning each month, friends gather in this place. Specifically, a community group called the ‘Friends of Rothwell Country Park’. The group members place themselves at the disposal of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust rangers.
The idea is simple and effective. Community groups like the Rothwell Friends invest some of their time and extend the reach and ability of an individual park ranger. In this case, Emma. Emma is tasked with managing three sizeable parks on her own. Even a single set of enthusiastic (if unskilled) hands would halve her workload today.
If you reflect upon the hundreds of hours that can be soaked up by a single suburban garden, you will appreciate the magnitude of the burden carried by Emma and other local rangers as they work to maintain and improve the land placed in their charge. As government finances tighten, and money becomes harder to come by, the voluntary sector is a useful resource that the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust gladly taps into.
A small group of volunteers can never fully satisfy the wishlist of an ambitious ranger, but with more hands brought to bear, the closer we can get. Every man-hour translates to better protection of local species and cleaner places for our children to play. Every park provides a haven where the local inhabitants can unwind. They also support a kaleidoscopic range of butterflies, birds and small mammals in an increasingly urbanised country. This is clearly worthwhile work.
Back with the Balsam, my skin is stoically weathering stinging grazes from the nettles I am trying to protect. ‘Am I killing the right plant?’, I ponder as the limp Balsam stalks rest benignly in my arms.
The better question I could be asking is – where are the rest of us? Much to the disappointment of our ranger, my girlfriend and I had been the only people to turn up and help today. A few years ago, as many as ten people would come on the first Saturday of each month.
A volunteer workforce might be free, but it can also evaporate. It pulls at my heartstrings to imagine a future Saturday morning where Emma concludes that not a single soul has chosen to come and help.
I never expected community volunteer work to feel lonely – but as we slowly uprooted the shallow hillside, I couldn’t help but wish that more ‘friends’ were here.
I would encourage each of you to seek out your own local park groups and offer yourself up to nature. I believe that you’ll find it rewarding to protect a wilderness near you.
About the Author:
When not getting his hands dirty, Simon Oates is the editor at Financial Expert, a free educational resource dedicating to sharing basic investing principles such as how to buy shares and how to invest in property.