Young Minds

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
University students arrive to help out with a small environmental project.

Submitted: March 15, 2017

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Submitted: March 15, 2017



A river is essentially the southern boundary of our property, a river that is forever changing, sometimes manipulated by man’s not-so-handiwork and other times by natural forces. It is interesting that gravel had been taken from the riverbed since colonisation but recently after a big flood, the riverbed on our boundary has dropped by a meter and a half. I have climbed to the headwaters, and checked on Google Maps, simply there is no erosion up there, all the scarring of past eons has healed, so there is no more gravel to come down! For the health of the river, the taking of gravel should be stopped. But it won’t be.

A few years ago, a small local group of local women called a meeting of those in the district interested in revegetating the mouth of the river because it was overgrown with gorse, broom and other weed species. The idea was to improve habitat and perhaps even provide spawning areas for that seasonal delicacy of ours, whitebait. The first meeting attracted perhaps thirty people. I was among the speakers, to toss around ideas of what species would be suitable and methods of carrying out the work without the use of chemicals. I use chemicals to good advantage on my property and have used them through my forestry and nursery career, but this is not my project and the group have quite rightly set the parameters.

Progress is slow, but steady. The working bees attract not more than ten or a dozen people at a time and are held for planting and for clearing weeds (releasing) from around the trees. The women remain enthusiastic and they bake to provide lunches or teas for the workers. Personally, I would have hoped for more support from the community, some ownership, but that’s the way things often pan out when it comes to volunteering. The Department of Conservation and the forest owners who are major landowners adjacent to the headwaters are good corporate citizens and fund a good proportion of the plants.

One weekend recently, I was asked to help ‘supervise’ a group of university students co-opted as ‘willing hands’. There were to be twenty in total, and I was to look after a third of them for two hours. We were to release the trees by removing grass and other weeds that were choking the trees and robbing moisture. Of the twenty, there were but four males, which was a mild surprise especially when the organisers told me that the young people were budding environmental lawyers.

Over the years I have worked with primary and secondary schools, with church congregations, with random rural communities and with farmers in this very type of work. Even with a bunch of representative women’s hockey players who were raising funds for a trip! But I have never fronted to a bunch of university students and I have to say, I had the feeling that their reputation preceded them.

It was a damp drizzly day, the grass was sodden, nearly a metre high and as I watched them walk across the paddock towards us, it was plain our new recruits had no wet weather gear and a few wore sandals! Halleluiah! The organisers gave a little pep-talk and there was a lull, with nobody wanting to say, ‘C’mon, get stuck in!’ Well my usual approach is to explain the need for the work in hand, and I was tempted, because if these young folk were going to become environmental lawyers, I had a bit to say! To plant some seeds in those fertile young minds! But I held my tongue, except to discuss seed sourcing and the error of eco-sourcing seed from a narrow endemic population. In a production nursery situation it is almost impossible to do this economically, unless there are economies of scale, which there never are. The theory of eco-sourcing endemic seed-stock is in my opinion flawed in that it reduces genetic diversity and anyway, birds spread seed from miles away – introducing diversity which is a simple law of nature. I hoped the idea might sprout in those young minds.

Say what you like about young people, these were attentive and polite. They had paid good money for this trip from their own pockets! These were a part of the two hundred camped at a local facility for the weekend. Sure, I could hear their music from our house and as one of the girls said, ‘They were not short of beverages.’  However none showed any sign of a hangover and they were absolutely fine to work with. They weren’t particularly keen on the work, but they did what was required of them – the supervision wasn’t too serious, after all they were volunteers, and in the context of what we were doing, they completed the task well.

It was interesting to watch the dynamics. In my group there were two young men and five young women. One young fellow didn’t want to get his hands dirty and so asked lots of questions to divert my attention, an old trick I used to employ myself, and sure enough he was successful in his aim. One of the young women took on board what was required and just set to pulling weeds and cooch from around trees without chat or ceremony. I smiled watching the others, understanding that choosing an academic career likely signified a preference for an indoor vocation. And after all when they signed up for the weekend away, the probably didn’t expect to work, or to get wet.

The work was completed with half an hour to spare, so while waiting for transport most of the other twenty slowly gathered and a question and a answer session evolved led by two of the young women from my group. We had already been discussing environmental matters but they expanded the discussion wanting to know the history of what we were trying to achieve and I was able to offer tips on the enrichment our indigenous resource. The time well-spent and as always I encouraged them to take ownership of what they had been doing. This is important because they contributed to the project, so therefore they have the right to show this small, future forest to perhaps their own children giving them the opportunity to explain their part in its creation.

The two local women brought out homemade cakes and biscuits to show their appreciation, followed by an apple each – never forget how good apples are.  Out of the twenty, if one or two of them understand the difference between classroom-taught environmental law and the practical issues of the environment, then the time was well-spent. Certainly from what I saw, the future is in good hands.  

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