There I was out on the high prairie that angles up to the mountains of the Front Range of Colorado, digging out Mediterranean sage with a tool of torture called the pick-mattock. I couldn’t have been paid to do this. Not only was I there, but over 100 other people were there, too. The weather was cool and sunny, a wind blowing, and, all things considered, it was pleasant, if backbreaking, work.
Mediterranean sage is an invasive species with large, thick, fuzzy leaves. When I volunteered to remove it, I thought, hmmm, sage from the Mediterranean area would be good in spaghetti sauce and save me some money. Wrong; it’s not edible, it’s not really sage, and I am not going to get a free herb for my effort.
Americans volunteer more than the people of any other country in the world, and it might be said it is one of the things that define us as a nation. While I was whacking at the sage, I started thinking about why we as a nation do all this volunteering. I know that when people ask me, I reach up on the shelf and pull down a canned answer. Canned answers are good because they save a lot of explanation.
“It gets me out of the house,” is one of my favorites. Another is, “I sit around a lot at a drawing board and I need the exercise.” Finally, there’s: “I like to do stuff outside.” All these answers are true in a way but they are not the real reason. For example, I go to a sports-exercise center five times a week to do aerobics, lift weights and play racquetball. It could be said that all my exercising is so I can be in shape to do the volunteer work, not the other way around. The same can be said for my other canned explanations. I am volunteering for other reasons.
I am not very religious so I am not doing all these good works to get a seat at the heavenly reward banquet. I asked some of the others on Table Mountain why they were there, and I got one answer I hadn’t thought of: “I want to pay back the enjoyment and the fun I have had on public land.” But this does not explain the sage-extermination project because the land we are on, although public, is closed to the public.
My guts tell me volunteering is less idealism and more selfishness. I know someone who volunteered so she could pick up some skills, get experience and meet people who might hire her. It worked, by the way. One man volunteered so he could meet women. He did, and he’s dating one of them now.
Neither of those reasons apply to me, and in Europe, I suspect that if I spent a day removing sage, I would be treated like a crazy person. Removing weeds is what some bureaucrat does. Here, however, I get people saying nice things about me when they hear where I have been. It makes me feel good and quite sanctimonious, which must be one of my hidden reasons for doing it. There is something in the American psyche about our need to do things and our inflated opinion of ourselves. “While that stupid @$$#%) was sitting on his calloused buns, I got it done,” you triumphantly tell yourself and others. I think this is another of the real reasons for volunteering -- it’s good for the ego.
When you finish restoration work, you have a sense of possession of the land where you worked. You can drive by or hike through it and say, “I did that. Why, before I got here it was a lunar landscape.” That’s pride, one of the deadly sins, doing the talking.
There are a lot of base motives in this volunteering business. You can look at those people sweating in the sun and feel whatever you want about them, but remember that although faith, hope and charity exist in our world, what really makes society work are all those baser motives like pride, lust and selfishness.
It is such a relief to do something finally for all the bad reasons and get praise for it. Sinning can be a virtue; imagine that! All of you impatient, ambitious, lustful no-goods like me should volunteer to express your baser desires. On second thought, maybe we are all out there already, and that’s why there is so much volunteerism in the United States.
Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and illustrator in Boulder, Colorado.