Last Saturday morning I dragged my butt out of bed bright and early (okay, it was 8 o’clock) and drove to a local forest preserve for the benefit of a strange looking stalk of a plant with green flowers. It’s the American Columbo plant–a native to the Oak Savannah and my neck of the woods apparently. Actually, upon heading out that morning, I hadn’t even heard of such a plant. I simply was meeting up with a three of my students (roped into my service-learning composition course) and about 15 folks from the Forest Preserve Volunteers of Cook County to spend the morning engaged in “Ecological Restoration.” American Columbo The rare, beautiful, and native American Columbo. The American Columbo I didn’t quite know what that meant, but I was eager to find out.

To Pioneer Woods I went. Drive to the tail end of the parking lot, I was told. As I pulled up I noticed a group of men and women standing about chatting near the open trunk of one of the cars. I jumped out of the truck and walked tentatively over to the group. So, are one you Joe, I asked? “Nope, he’s not here yet,” said a younger man in a Boonie hat with a gold hoop earring, “but I’m Dan.” I gathered I was in the right place based on the number of “I’m-a-Forest-Preserve-Volunteer-and-I-make-a-Difference” T-shirts in the group and the open trunk full of loppers and orange bow saws. “Hey get a load of this,” said an older gentleman with gray beard and sagging jeans. “I asked the guys for a brush cutter and look what they gave me–a damn weed whacker. What are we supposed to do with that.” The conversation went on like this for a while. As more folks began to arrive–I realized I was among good people–a friendly bunch who welcome newcomers as well as seasoned volunteers to come out and make a difference in the woods.

“Hey,” she said, “you want to know why we’re really here?” I was intrigued…

After a bit, an aging Ford Taurus lumbered into the lot and out stepped another white bearded man–but this one younger and petite–baseball cap yanked down tight over his head with tufts of long white hair flaring at the sides. This was Joe. The lilt of his voice matched his physical stature, but he was clearly the man in charge. Joe is the steward of this preserve and the man we were all waiting for.

I’d done a bit of research on Joe prior to coming that morning, and learned that he is rather accomplished in the area of habitat restoration–having written and published several articles on the subject and being charged with the stewardship of several preserves throughout the region. This experience, I thought, would be sure to be one of learning as much as one of service.

The plants, the insects, the animals, and a group of sweaty forest preserve volunteers–we were all connected that morning whether I knew it or not.

So, after some introductions and a little orientation from Joe as to why we were all gathered in the woods this fine morning to cut, saw, herbicide, and burn invasive vegetation so that the natives could thrive, we traipsed into the woods. Quickly Joe set my students and I–along with a handful of others–to work on removing a large patch of honeysuckle and an invasive European rose that is spreading throughout the woodlands and crowding out the natives. The rest of the crew headed farther in with brush cutters and chainsaws.

The work was hard. Temps were pushing the mid 90s, and I was sweating bad enough already when Joe lit the burn pile. Yes, that’s right, we were burning the cut debris in a bonfire size heap on this already sweltering day. We continued to work hard–side-by-side–making a bit of small talk here and there while we cut and chopped.

After about two hours, Joe called us around for a break. He offered us Gatorade and Oreos. While cooling off and sipping my Gatorade, I got to talking to a more experienced volunteer. She was very friendly (as was everyone). “Hey,” she said, “you want to know why we’re really here?” Okay, I was intrigued. “Follow, me,” she said. I walked with her through the tall grasses and deeper into the woods until we stood surrounded by a small patch of thick-stalked plants, standing about five or six feet tall. “It’s the American Columbo,” she said. She told me how very rare this strangely beautiful native plant was to our area–due to non-native invasives crowding it out. “We’re here for this plant,” she said. To put things back into balance. And now it all made sense.

The plants, the insects, the animals, and a group of sweaty forest preserve volunteers–we were all connected that morning whether I knew it or not.