by Richard T. Richards, ’08
Rick Richards spoke eloquently at SCA’s Conservation Commencement about what his SCA service has meant to him and how he has “become a person who lives in service to the land.” You can watch the video of Rick's speech or read the transcript here. – Deb Keller, Editor
My name is Rick Richards. My family is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I spent the first half of my life there. My parents eventually decided to relocate to North Carolina, so I finished my schooling there.
Neither of my parents was really into the outdoors, nor has either of them been to college, so these past few years I have pretty much been walking my own path. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in English Literature, I have studied in Germany, and I spent last year teaching in Austria. But through all this, I never felt like I was doing enough, like I’d found the place I was meant to be. I didn’t feel like I was having any lasting impact on the people I knew or the places I lived. Perhaps, I thought, I simply needed to find the right location or the right job.
I came to the SCA for that, trying to understand where I would best fit, and where I would do the most good. But I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’m not the person I was the first day I set foot in Hawley, MA. Now, I no longer worry that I’m not doing enough. I’ve learned that one person can never do enough on his own.
Instead, as a member of the Mass Parks community, I do far more than I could ever do with just these two hands, I affect the land and its people far longer than I am present to witness, and I am responsible for so much more work than any one person could ever do. Yes, it’s true that I’ve learned to do things this year that I never thought I could, but more importantly, who I am has changed. I have become a person who lives in service to the land.
I met a number of people this year who brought about this change in understanding in me, who taught me the difference between work and service. For instance, I had the extreme good fortune to meet Liz Putnam, SCA’s founder, while I was working on a documentary of the Civilian Conservation Corps for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. She has an incredible ability -- the ability to speak of things you’ve thought of a hundred times before, in such a way that you suddenly realize the consequence and urgency of their presence in your life. My internship partner and I spoke with her for nearly two hours, and as you can imagine, we walked away with an intense excitement about the work we were doing and the organization we were doing it with.
She told us about the Great Depression, the desolate economic landscape that spawned the CCC -- her inspiration for our modern-day conservation crews -- and how the youth of America had given up hope of changing any of the terrible conditions they saw around them. But these days are far from over, and an organization devoted to conservation and community is still necessary.
“Just look at what’s happening today,” she implored us, “our own youth suffering from depression.” I asked myself then: how is it that the very people we depend on for creativity, adventurous imagination, and pure joy can be emotionally overwrought? And how can it be happening at such an early age, when the whole of life is ahead of them?
After my year in the SCA, looking back on my experiences here, I believe it is because we’ve taken away so many of our young people’s chances to serve. We’ve made it so that the certainty of having more than enough for yourself is far more important than making sure that your community is healthy, strong, and adequately provided for. Service is no longer a word explaining how we interact within our communities. Instead, service is now a utility or commodity, something provided for the individual.
I had many other experiences this year that helped to solidify my understanding of service. During the Environmental Education component of the Mass Parks program, each of our teaching pairs were required to create and facilitate a Service Learning Project, through which we engaged our students in learning by providing service to their community. Now, I haven’t seen any official facts or figures to back up this claim, but I feel that demonstrators and fiery orators will never do as much for the environmental movement as will small children in cute costumes. It is for this reason that my teaching partner and I decided to put on a school play. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss.
Any elementary school theatrical production is chaotic to say the least, but in the spirit of service learning, we asked the students, aged 5 through 10, to design and construct the stage and costumes; we put them in charge of stage directions; and we entrusted the older students with keeping the younger students on task. This roughly doubled or tripled the amount of chaos in a normal school production. Add to this about half as many snow days as we had afternoons to rehearse, and what do you get? Two dozen kids in adorable costumes. It’s foolproof.
One of our teachers pulled me aside after the show and said, “If you can pull this off in Savoy, you can do it anywhere.” We had filled the town firehouse with over 100 spectators, for a school with just over 40 students, half of whom were in the play. The volunteer fire fighters waited outside in the cold February night to bring the trucks back in. This was the only place in Savoy able to fit this many people.
“I want you to understand what the two of you have done,” she continued. “These kids are so excited because they know they’re really a part of something.”
I guess that in some ways, I, and the people I’ve worked with this year, want the same thing as our elementary-age students. We long to feel a part of something larger than ourselves. Together, we’ve built bog bridges standing in two feet of mud; we’ve gotten down on our hands and knees and looked for invasive plants until our eyes crossed; we’ve spent an entire week digging a 5-foot x5-foot hole in the ground to find the floor of an old CCC dynamite bunker. All of these are worthwhile tasks on their own, and together we have had an obvious impact on our land. But it is the spirit of service that makes this work the solution to the disconnect I and so many others my age feel from the world around us.
Service makes us a part of whatever or whomever it is that we serve. Therefore, we, as conservationists, acknowledge that whatever is done to the land, good or bad, changes our lives.
In fact, we acknowledge even more than this. Anyone can look out their window and, if they pay attention long enough, will have to admit that they have an indelible connection with the land. It is more to the point, then, to say that as members of the SCA, we willingly place ourselves in the way of nature – so that we cannot forget, as we so often forget, our connection to the land and to one another.
The lesson I’ve learned, to borrow from Aldo Leopold, is that our service is not simply to live on the land, but to live by the land. If we are going to save this world, we will do so by serving communally, in accordance with our lands – not simply because we depend physically on the land, but because the service we do there fulfills us, sustains us, and unites us as a people. My name is Rick Richards, I am a member of the SCA Mass Parks AmeriCorps, and I have seen lives changed by our service to nature, and I am most grateful for the change in my own.
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