Not sewing swimsuits by Fisher Ream

November 12, 2021

My first full week of VISTA service began with the State of Montana Arboretum (SMA) Committee Retreat in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, roughly forty minutes from the University campus. The Committee of a dozen members spent the day working on a three year vision for the State of Montana Arboretum.

The facilitator, unfamiliar with the work of the Arboretum Committee, asked us first to describe the operating environment for the SMA. She said that this narrative summary would ensure that we, as a committee, were not “inside sewing swimsuits while there’s a snowstorm outside”. That is, I suppose, that the committee was not working to provide services or programs in which no one was interested.

How do you determine any need is significant enough for action? How can a person decide and deliberately allocate their time and efforts to a specific cause? How could I know I had made the right choice in my service commitment?

Pertinent factors in the current conditions of the Arboretum listed by members at the retreat included the enrollment numbers at the University of Montana, which have declined significantly in recent years; the lack of consistent minute taking, due to the committee’s informal nature; and global warming changing the climate, which many Arboretum species cannot withstand.

The committee went on, listing what sounded to me like insurmountable obstacles. The high turnover of facilities and groundskeeping staff meant there was not continuous care for many young trees or an institutional memory for certain protection procedures. The divestment of several key members. The lack of a running yearly budget.

I suddenly felt a bit chilly. I was wearing tights and there was a bit of a nip in the air. Perhaps it was only a draft from the open window, beyond which was a deep and thick evergreen forest.

Being the first VISTA member for the Arboretum, my core objective is to assemble and prepare a strategic plan for the SMA, while hopefully integrating the VISTA values which drew me to the program. These past two months, I have spent, in a desk chair, wearing multiple sweaters, researching how such a foundational document might come together. Is this what we need?  What Missoula needs? What does the world need right now?

It occurred to me recently that all non-profits are operating in the face of near absolute and overwhelming ambivalence. Coronavirus is an avalanche of cascading priorities.

It’s October now and as I walked to work today there were a few flakes lazily drifting to meet the sidewalk. The air is thin and the atmosphere is heavy and wet. In the summer it will be filled with the smoke of burning forests.

Gymnosperm, or Acrogymnospermae, are a group of seed producing plants which includes conifers, cycads and Ginkgo.  Gymnos, in Greek, meaning ‘naked’ and sperm meaning ‘seed’.  Their seeds are unenclosed, unlike those of angiosperms, which have fruit.  They are some of the first seed plants to have evolved over three hundred and ninety million years ago. Gymnosperms evolved to endure the cold and dry conditions of the Permian period and since then, have continued to endure in the taiga and other alpine elevations.

And every day I walk to work, through the State of Montana Arboretum, sidewalk weaving around underneath firs and spruces planted a hundred years before I was born. I make my way to my cubicle, I sit down and try to breathe a little warmth into the world.

I might feel naked, but maybe I’m just evolving.