Beginning a new job during a pandemic is certainly an interesting experience. Upon starting, it took weeks before I met my co-workers in person, and when we did meet, the lower half of our faces were hidden. There are key individuals who I spoke with remotely for months before confirming that the face on the computer screen truly is attached to a functioning body. I have yet to meet several CHC board members, despite seeing them through my computer screen monthly since last September. The strangeness of my new role was escalated because my new job was explicitly to convene people around topics of forest stewardship. Yes; this was my new job, and it wasn’t particularly pandemic-friendly.
Over the winter, we had a few virtual gatherings. Over 30 people attended Fred Wiseman’s online presentation on Abenaki ecology. I “met” more people who attended a virtual workshop with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. But… it’s not the same.
This spring changed that, as all Woodlots groups went back into the woods. “You’re a lot taller than I thought you were,” was a comment I heard more than once. (Spoiler alert for those I have yet to meet in person: I’m 6 feet tall, though you wouldn’t know it from my Zoom image.) But for members, the Woodlots gatherings were reunions among friends. The Enosburgh group was full of tentative hugs among those newly vaccinated who were reuniting for the first time in many months. We met on the land of this group’s newest members, Sarah Downes and Steve Wadsworth, and I have to imagine that Sarah and Steve may have had a similar pandemic experience to mine with the Woodlots Program. They joined in the spring of 2020, and it was then nearly a year before they actually experienced the program they had just joined. The Montgomery group convened on the land of Tom and Karen Stanley. For this group, it was a return to the location of the first Woodlots program, and someone commented on how fitting this felt—like a new beginning after the pandemic gap. The Richford group undertook the long trek into the Town Forest despite the steady rain. I suspect that the relief everyone felt to be back together again may have played a role in their perseverance on the soggy day. I admit I wasn’t sure anyone would show up, but everyone who had RSVP-ed did indeed appear. Despite several comments of “I just came to say ‘hi,’ but I don’t really want to hike in the rain,” the entire group made it the full 1.3 miles into the Town Forest.
For the groups above, the spring presented an opportunity to return to the familiar. The groups were all smiles and hugs, neighbors seeing one another again after a long respite. In the midst of all this was also an in-person gathering of CHC’s newest Woodlots team: a group spanning the towns of Fletcher and Bakersfield. For this group, this spring was the first opportunity to understand what Woodlots was all about. If it felt odd to start a new job during a pandemic, I have a lot of respect for the brave souls who signed on to a new program even before June 19, when this group met for the first time. Some were neighbors who already knew one another, but others had never encountered each other before. Renee Reiner and Mike DeSanto hosted, taking us all to see the crown jewel of their land: a great blue heron rookery. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we watched nests full of chicks wait expectantly for the adults to return with food, and then we laughed at the cacophony that erupted as one did. We talked about the rather dramatic glacial history of the area, too, and shared stories of hiking in the woods with Audubon’s Tii McLane, who had recently visited many properties to conduct Songbird Habitat Assessments.
While those who attended spring programs expressed relief and excitement to be back in the woods, I couldn’t help but also notice the high attendance at CHC’s virtual programming over the past year. In 2020 and early 2021, attendance was high at Karl Honkonan’s Hydrology workshop, Fred Wiseman’s account of Abenaki ecology and spirituality, and an NRCS “Funding for Stewardship Practices” workshop. While these sessions were initially scheduled as substitutes for the in-person meetings that just weren’t possible, we’ve now realized that they reached those who would like to engage but live far away or have limitations on mobility. While I hope that Zoom presentations will never again need to replace in-person Woodlots gatherings, I’m already starting to think of ways we can pull an occasional virtual workshop into future Woodlots programming. In the meantime, fall Woodlots programs are on schedule for all groups—in the woods, of course!