I headed out into the cool morning down roads I have never traveled, towards a destination I had never seen, to gather with people I have never met to help make the earth a slightly better place.
I saw a sign a few weeks ago during a hike at San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park for a park clean-up event. Since I frequent the park quite often, hiking all of its trails off of Millhopper Road, it seemed like a great way to give back to the park that has offered me days and days of satisfaction and fulfillment.
The day of the event, I drove to a distant part of the park I had never seen before, down a back road that led to another back road that led to a dirt road that finally took me to a Quonset hut next to a small band of people. I got out and joined them — a few interested individuals and a group of students from UF’s outdoor recreation program.
Two young, bearded men who work for Americorps, Josh and Derek, greeted us, gloves, trash bags, granola bars and a water cooler stashed on the back of a golf cart. They informed us that we would be pulling up Tung oil trees, an exotic invasive that greedily carpeted the forest floor, shutting out ferns and other native plants. They held up a plant with a long, skinny trunk and broad distinctive leaves to show us what we were looking for.
I asked how the plants had become introduced, and one of the young men told me that there had been a Tung oil processing plant in the old town that rose and fell somewhere in the woods beyond us, and that the plants had been grown by some long-forgotten members of the community. The plant has faded in memory, but the invasive, destructive plants remain.
We walked away from the Quonset hut towards the woods and plunged down a wide trail into the forest. After five minutes of walking, we left the trail and plunged into the forest. Dead branches and thorny vines began to pull at my clothes. I looked at the forest floor, wondering how hard it would be to spot the Tung oil trees. Then I looked ahead, and I saw a sea of bright green where they had taken over.
Josh and Derek handed us all giant green garbage bags, and we got to work. Pretty soon there were few sounds beside hard breathing and the sound of shredded greenery as we pulled and tugged the Tung oil trees from the soil.
In some areas, the Tung oil trees were still small, and plucking them from the earth seemed to make very little difference. But in the areas where the trees had reached waist height and formed a small lake of green, pulling them out revealed the ferns and other natural foliage beneath.
We pulled and tugged and pulled and tugged, our breath growing more ragged, dirt covering our skin and sweat pouring off of our noses. We began to chat as we worked, learning something about one another. There were a few runners, a few people who grew up in Gainesville, a few from out of town. Some were hikers, some climbers. We all shared one thing in common — a love of the land and a desire to help make it a better place.
We saw a few green frogs, a wooly orange caterpillar and a prickly pear cactus in bloom. “There’s always something new to see out here,” Josh said.
After what seemed like only a few minutes but was actually two hours, Derek and Josh told us to pick up our bags and head back to the trail. Tired, dirty, sweaty but happy, we returned to the golf cart. We made a small dent in the huge lot of invasive plants that blanket the park, and even where we did so much good, it’s likely more plants will emerge. But we can only do the best we can, always, for we live on this earth every day, and we need to treat it as if our lives depend upon it.