Two weeks ago, a group of UUCC volunteers and I spent our Saturday morning at Freetown Farm, home of the Community Ecology Institute. In the back of the farm is a two-acre woods filled with mature trees and a quiet stream.
Our group met up with Sophie, Freetown Farm’s volunteer coordinator, and she gave us our assignment: Pick up sticks, branches, and logs from the middle of the woods, and move them to the perimeter of the woods.
We were creating wildlife habitat piles — “critter condos” — on the outskirts of the woods. Habitat piles are deliberate, manmade formations of logs and limbs that serve as valuable sources of shelter and food for mice, squirrels, rodents, and other wildlife. Sophie explained the logic to us: by building critter condos along the perimeter of the woods, we would lure wildlife to the edge of the forest floor, so that native undergrowth could flourish in the center of the woods.
Ready, set, go.
We began piling logs and limbs along the perimeter of the forest, forming what looked like blockades of woody debris.
But wait. What constitutes a stick? Some items in the woods are more obviously stick-y than others, like a solid branch around the size of a baseball bat, or the trunk of a fallen tree. Do I need to pick up the 4-inch twig next to my boot? I didn’t get a clear answer. So I picked up the twig and walked it over to the habitat pile, just in case.
I giggled with bemusement at the absurdity of our task. How do you pick up all of the sticks in a forest?
This was as Sisyphean an undertaking as removing water from the ocean. The woods are woods because of… wood.
The story of Sisyphus is told as a warning, a cautionary tale. His never-ending trip up the hill is a cruel punishment, a physical and psychological torture assigned by Hades for Sisyphus’ trickery and deception. The activities we colloquially describe as “Sisyphean” are futile, pointless, interminable. An absurd use of our time and effort, we tell ourselves.
But during this particular task of searching for sticks in the woods, I felt like a child, running among the trees, charged with a burst of excitement every time I found a stick. When was the last time you were excited by a stick? I remember how it felt natural and ordinary to pick things up as a kid. Things being sticks, rocks, bugs, feathers, leaves — the limitless mundane ephemera under our feet. As adults, it seems that we only search for and collect things when we’re on the beach.
Usually when I’m in the woods, I’m hiking. I’m striding toward a destination. I’m gazing upwards to admire the trees, or I’m surveying the landscape from a lookout point. But in the woods at Freetown Farm, I carefully examined the ground near my feet, searching for brown sticks camouflaged against thick layers of brown leaves. It was a different experience than I have had in the woods. I found things I wouldn’t have seen had I been sauntering along on a trail:
Dried tulip poplar flowers, intact and hauntingly beautiful.
Hammers and other manmade tools left behind by other volunteers, oxidized by the elements.
Millipedes crawling through the rich nutrients of decomposing debris.
I moved slowly, deliberately, to avoid prickly thorns.
This particular task was not a punishment, but a revelation. It was an invitation to step out of my routine and to examine the world around me, one twig at a time.
I wonder: what Sisyphean tasks are you tackling in your life? Maybe it’s keeping the couch free of dog hair or replying to emails from that one client. Maybe it’s loving a certain family member. Maybe it’s building a future for UUCC that reflects our stated values, or ending injustice in the world.
As you shoulder the boulder of those endeavors, slow down. Look at the ground around you. Inspect it carefully.
Is there something beautiful under your feet that you’ve overlooked? (like a tulip poplar bud)
Are you holding onto something that has lost its function and is no longer useful to you? (like an oxidized hammer) Is it time to let go?
Even where it appears dead and fruitless, do you see [the possibility of] life persisting? (like millipedes thriving under the bark of a log)
A Sisyphean task isn’t meant to be easy. It’s filled with pesky annoyances (like thorns in the underbrush).
But despite the absurdity and through the struggle, maybe — just maybe — there’s something under the leaves that will keep you from despair.
You can visit the Community Ecology Institute at Freetown Farm with UUCC’s Climate Justice Team this Saturday, December 4 between 11AM-1PM. For more information, contact Chris Crandell at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 443-618-8555. Learn more