Where do we go from here?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Place That Saved My Life

Well, maybe that's a little dramatic, but it's really how I feel about this place.  The place is the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, on  the banks of the Rio Grande river, on the western edge of the city of Albuquerque. It's a small park, no camping or boating, the main purpose of which is education.  School groups, senior citizen groups, scout troops and others, all visit the park and are taken on guided educational tours of the facility, learning about the river, the woods and ponds, the birds and creatures that  live there.  Educational volunteers also go to the schools and give classroom programs with hands-on materials, (Pond by Visitor Center)

There's an architect-designed Visitor Center, native plant gardens, cottonwood trees full of birds year round.There are beavers and porcupines in the woods, coyotes from time to time.  Sandhill cranes winter in the fields and on the wetlands,  wood ducks and Canada geese build nests along the edges of the pond pictured above, and red-eared slider turtles bask on logs in the sun. It's a place close enough to the city to be an urban getaway, yet with a feel of  being far away from the freeways and shopping malls.

Two months after my partner and I moved out here to New Mexico in early summer 2006, there was a tragic death in my family back east, and I spent that fall and winter immersed in grief, the inability to function in any normal way.  During that time Gail and I would go out to the Nature Center as often as we could, for long quiet walks and birding.  It came to feel like a haven to us us both, a place of peace and healing.  I hadn't found a job yet, and felt incapable of looking for one. When I discovered that volunteer training was about to be offered at the RGNCSP, I signed up immediately and spent six weeks of early spring attending classes every Saturday.  The group (Old cottonwoods self-pruning) of  volunteer trainees was friendly but low-key, mostly about my age, many of them retired teachers, not overly interested in the sort of personal questions and chat that I could absolutely not handle; and the educational rangers just interested in how much we could learn.  I looked forward to the classes as an occasion to get out of my own pool of mourning briefly once a week, learn the native plants and animals in a uniquely stressfree fashion, connect with the natural world and even endure some human companionship that didn't ask anything of me I couldn't give.
 We walked the trails, discovered where beavers had gnawed down trees, found their burrows in the river bank, found gopher and rabbit holes, hawks' nests high in the trees, tried to identify forbs and shrubs that were barely leafing out. We concentrated on what we were learning, and at the end of the six weeks had a potluck, met many of the old volunteers, and signed up for the work committees of our choice. (Opuntia in native plant gardens.)
I signed up as a front desk greeter in the Visitor Center and a gardener in the native plant gardens, and began working at these tasks pretty much immediately. In the gardens it was hard hot work that kept panic attacks and bouts of sobbing in abeyance; at the front desk it was harder, because I had to manage a semblance of normalcy: welcome people to the park, answer questions, convey information.  And I got better at it every time I put on my volunteer vest and nametag and took up my post.  it was impersonal, yet it felt very good to share a place I loved so much with visitors from all over the country, all over the world in fact.(Outdoor classroom in the cottonwoods.)

Once I was able to face looking for a job, then finding and holding the one I found, I had less time to spend at the Nature Center, so have temporarily dropped work in the gardens, as my own gardens now take up a great deal of my spring and summer available time.  I have been at the front desk for the past three years though, usually for an afternoon a week. I've welcomed hundreds of visitors, showed children the exhibits in the Center, had a chance to use my foreign languages often, directed people to the trails, birding sites, and gardens; in general felt like the Ambassador for the Center on my afternoons at the desk.  I take a short walk somewhere on the grounds whenever I am there; and Gail and I go for longer hikes by the river on the weekends.  Some of the rangers and other volunteers have become friends, and it feels to me now like not only a personal haven, but a community, a sort of home. A sanctuary. A place that saved my life when I really didn't know if I would be able to keep going on my own.(Snowy Sandias, Candelaria wetlands in foreground.)

There is a new class of volunteers in training currently, and the Volunteer Co-Ordinator asked me if  I would be interested in giving a "testimonial" at this coming Saturday's class.  A short talk on my own experience as a volunteer at the Center, why I started, why I continue, what they can expect if they complete the training and actually put on a khaki vest and a Volunteer nametag. This post is a sort of preparation meditation on what I might say Saturday morning.  I'm not sure if I'll tell them that this experience saved my life. It might be Too Much Information for most people.  But, then again, perhaps I might. We never know, do we, when we are in the presence of someone whose life might be in tatters, might need to know there can be, sometimes, salvation. In so many unexpected ways. In explaining to children about nurselogs or hummingbirds, telling people where to find a hawk's nest high in the cottonwood canopy.  In weeding and sweating in companionable silence in the bird garden on a summer morning; in walking a trail to check for fallen branches or trash.  In being a part of a place that is sanctuary for so many species of creatures and plants.(Panoramic view of Rio Grande and RGNCSP)


Cynthia said...

I think you should share it. You're right. You never know who could need to hear that. There's always a risk with real honesty, but I know that I've received wonderful graces from entirely unexpected places where people shared what they feared might have been too much.

sunflowerkat321 said...

I think you should try and convey the significance of this experience. I think we all know all too well how easy it is to convince ourselves that our situation is "hopeless". I personally can't come volunteer there but reading this entry leaves me thinking that somewhere on this island, there has to be something that would give me the same boost that that place has given you. Everyone needs to be encouraged to not give up on find "that place" for themselves.

marigolds2 said...

I have to thank you both for encouraging me to share honestly with the new volunteers' class. My "testimony" yesterday was very well received, I managed to keep from bursting into tears (not easy for a person who is a pathological cryer) and even managed a few humorous moments that had them laughing. I stayed for the rest of the morning's class (and glad I had, as it was the lecture on arthropods, which I had missed during my own training)and at the lunch break many people thanked me and said my words had meant a lot to them.