Steven Simpson’s Blog
Please check every Monday for my most recent blog posting. When I started this website, I thought all blog entries would be about nature and other environmental topics, but now they address writing, family, and travel as often as they do personal encounters with the natural world.
A few weeks back I read a New York Times op-ed piece titled “I Don’t Need to Be a ‘Good Person.’ Neither Do You.”* While I agreed with some of the content of the article (it was about not following all social norms), the title itself set me off. There was a time when I assumed people instinctively knew how to be good, leaned toward always trying to do the right thing, but now I am not so sure. We certainly don’t need newspaper columnists suggesting we be otherwise.
I read the bothersome editorial while at my local nature center. The center has a small lounge open to the public. Its staff keeps fresh coffee brewing, so I go there a couple mornings each week to write and read the news. If I go early enough, I usually have the place to myself, but on this particular morning there were four young adults already sitting at tables when I walked in. They all wore the same Wisconsin Conservation Corps t-shirts, so I asked them what they were doing. It turned out that they were Americorps volunteers who had just finished summer appointments and were filling out final evaluations.
They told me that each of them had been a leader of one of WisCorps’ local work crews. Local crews, unlike the organization’s roving crews, are not college-aged adults who travel the entire state putting in hiking trails and repairing damaged natural areas. Local crews never leave town, and all of the workers other than the leaders are high school students. The work is basically whatever needs to be done in the community. One day they might weed the food shelter’s vegetable garden, and the next they might clean rain gutters on the homes of some of the city’s elderly residents. The purpose of the work is as much to develop the character of the workers as it is to complete worthwhile projects. In short, the four young adults in the nature center lounge had just spent the summer serving as role models for teenagers and, in the process, earned about half of what they would have made working the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant. No one needed to tell them to be good people, and no one needed to tell them to do good work.
Are good acts of work related to age? Are they linked to the absence of the obligations we eventually put on ourselves? When I was the same age as the Americorps workers, I also did good work for less than minimum wage. Then over time, I acquired student loans, a mortgage, and a daughter who relied upon me. I don’t think I sold out by taking a job at a university, but my reasons for working definitely changed. There is a difference between refusing to sell out for a paycheck and intentionally seeking honorable work. It does seem that the some of the jobs I most admire come with little or no pay. My two favorite Berrys, Thomas and Wendell, both have something to say about that.**
My task that morning, however, was not to turn an encounter with Americorps workers into a referendum of my own life. It was to appreciate the wonderful things being done by many of the young people around me. They remind me that it isn’t that hard to be good.
* Found at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/25/opinion/desires-good-person.html
** Berry, T. 2000.The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York: Crown Publishing. Also Berry, W. 1986, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books
A basic tenet of outdoor leadership is to make sure novices have a positive experience when they encounter untrammeled nature for the first time. Their initial outing need not be grand, but it ought to be fun and non-threatening. Stark conditions and rugged terrain may appeal to seasoned outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen, but beginners need their introduction to the backwoods or backwaters to be less daunting. The key is to avoid any unpleasantness that might permanently close a door before it even has a chance to open. I wholeheartedly agree with this simple rule of thumb, but you’d never know it from the way I’ve been taking people out lately.
My most recent example of poor leadership, or at least poor judgment, happened this past weekend when Manyu and I took two Chinese friends paddling in the backwaters of the Mississippi River. One of them had been in a canoe one other time in his life, the other not even that. I picked the most paddler-friendly route I could think of, but still the trip presented a challenge beyond the skill level of my companions.
The two friends are Xiao Wu and Joy. Xiao Wu is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who recently returned to the United States for graduate school at UW-Madison. Joy is a middle school teacher from La Crosse’s sister city of Luoyang. She is here to take a semester of classes in Teaching English as a Second Language.
It was the weather that got us. The forecast was a 50% chance of precipitation, but since La Crosse has been in a partial drought for most of the summer, I almost welcomed a chance to get a little wet. Xiao Wu was in town only for the day, so it was either paddle in the rain or not paddle at all. I grabbed enough rain gear for everyone, and we headed out.
About thirty minutes into our short excursion, we heard distant thunder. As the storm approached, I realized we needed to get off the water, and I directed everyone to beach their boats on a narrow spit of sand. When I suggested we step into the woods, Manyu, Xiao Wu, and Joy all told me that they’d been taught not to sit under trees during a thunderstorm. I had to convince them that so long as we kept away from the roots of any of the tallest trees, it was better to go into the forest than to expose ourselves on a sandbar.
Xiao Wu and Joy helped me balance an overturned canoe across a pair of downed tree trunks. All four of us (five, if you include the dog we’d brought along) hunkered under the canoe until the worst of the storm passed. We received more rain in thirty minutes than La Crosse had seen in a month.
Joy checked a weather map on her cell phone and discovered a temporary break in the storm. We timed our escape and paddled back to the car with no lightning and only gentle rain. We quickly loaded up the boats and drove to my house. Everyone put on dry clothes, and we sat in the breakfast nook with hot tea and one of my better bottles of wine.
I thought the day was a failure, but Xiao Wu and Joy disagreed. They are young and daring, and both want to have unique experiences during their stay in the US. Once Manyu and I got them warm and dry with a glass of wine, their first thought was to send photos of their “American adventure” back to friends in China. Both claim to have had a great time, but I’ll wait to see if either asks me to take them out again.