Volunteering is easier than I thought

Jayne Ramage —  25/11/2022

(Mis)adventures from a day in nature. A first-person account of a day spent volunteering.

By Anonymous DOC Blogger

Two figures in a reserve, crouched over putting plants in the earth. Two figures in the background carry a large plant
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

You know the marshmallow experiment? In the 1970s, folks at Stanford University offered a bunch of kids the choice between eating a marshmallow immediately or waiting and getting more marshmallows.

Researchers found that the kids who could prioritise long term outcomes over short term gain did better in life.

I hate this because I know I’d be a scoff the marshmallow kid. The Stanford Docs would have barely finished saying hello, and five-year-old-me would have had marshmallow in my belly and powdered sugar on my face.

A venn diagram of savers and scoffers which is just two circles
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

Volunteering for conservation is similar to the marshmallow thing.

—Hear me out.

According to our Volunteering Team, lots of people know that volunteering has long-term benefits to themselves, the community, and the environment, but the immediate barriers overshadow all of that. So basically, short-term thinking triumphs over long-term gain.

Common barriers to volunteering include not having time, not knowing where to start, not being able to get to a location, or not being sure if you have the fitness or skills.

That’s all perfectly understandable, and the point of this blog isn’t to recriminate anyone for being overwhelmed or deterred by these barriers. It’s to unpick some of them.

If one of your barriers for volunteering is fear—same. I went through this a few weeks ago when my colleague announced we would be doing some team building outdoors, and we were going to get out into nature and do some volunteering to benefit conservation.

My colleagues were stoked about this.

Have you even witnessed joy unless you’ve seen a bunch of office-bound nature nerds get told they can have outside time? No. My deskmate cheered and punched the air. For half a second, I thought she’d been possessed—turns out she had, but by the thought of climbing hills, not malevolent spirits.

I was also excited (less so than deskmate), but unprepared and nervous too.

I wasn’t familiar with the area or terrain, I didn’t have the right gear (all of my colleagues have hiking boots or gumboots, I was the only one with neither), and I just generally have less outdoor competency than my fellow nature nerds. As I’ve said before, I love nature, but I’m more of an engage-with-my-mind than an engage-with-my-fingers-and-toes type.

Newly purchased gumboots sitting on the concrete in sun
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

The outing was to help Friends of Tawa Bush Reserves with some tree planting.

We were told the planting day wouldn’t have a bathroom and we should wear gumboots or boots, and bring a spade and gloves if we had them. (I didn’t have them). Our plans actually got rained off a few times, which was fortunate for me, as it gave me time to get some gumboots and borrow a spade from my neighbours.

Lesson: a spade is the kind of thing that people who have them are happy to loan out. It makes them feel productive by proxy, I think.

The borrowed spade lying in the grass next to a potted plant
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

Spades and shovels aren’t the same thing, I repeat, AREN’T THE SAME THING, so check which is required if you’re unsure.

Here’s how things went down:

8.00pm the night before: shoes were not my biggest problem

A few years ago, I wrote an article for DOC about my period. People liked it, which was great, but more importantly, said it helped them know what to do with a menstruation situation while in nature.

It’s just not a story that I thought would have a sequel—becoming known as the period writer was not on my vision board.

Yet the night before we were due to go planting for 5 hours without a nearby bathroom, I got my period.

It was time to take my own advice. And make a period pack.

Artistic re-enactment of my period pack from the Tampons and Tramping Blog
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

I got a small zip-close bag and put a few eco-friendly compostable bags in there. (Usually I wouldn’t go for biodegradable, but I knew this would only be a few hours). Then I put that inside another bag for privacy—this is the unicorn one I mentioned in the first period blog.

I had my drink bottle already packed, but I added spare supplies, tiny soap and a little bottle of handsan.

I stored this away from my food.

My open backpack sitting in the grass with my gear in it. Out of sight and away from my food is my period pack.
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

I was slightly concerned about the actual moment where I might have to use this little period pack, but there was nothing for it, I would just have to hide in the trees and do my best.

Human Resources has never covered anything like this in their induction pack.

I get why. But still.

9.30am: One size fits all is a lie

My hastily purchased gumboots have created blister-city. Turns out there is a difference between L and XL, and having one size to rule them all is a scam. Luckily, because I am aware of the need to thoroughly prepare for any outdoor adventures, I’d packed larger socks in my bag in case this happened.

10:00am: I am having a blast

Our host, Andrew from Friends of Tawa Bush Reserves showed us the plants we would be putting into the earth, and where to put them. I don’t think that Andrew was expecting for someone to beat him to the punch every time he went to tell us what a plant was, but some of my colleagues have plant-brains.

Soon, they and Andrew were swapping plant stories.

Portrait image of Friends of Tawa stalwart Andrew
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

I had a spade, shoes, and no need of the emergency menstruation bag yet.

Best of all, I soon got the hang of spade stuff.

No one made fun of me, no one sent me off by myself, everyone was very caring and helpful. So a tip from me if you’re nervous is to just say that. Most conservation volunteers like Andrew do what they do because they love it, and they want you to as well. They’re going to be pretty welcoming, as long as they have notice you’re coming and can prepare. For that reason, it’s good to go through the proper channels to reach groups (if you’re unsure where to start, our website has you covered).

I listened carefully and tried my best.

Diagram of the premise of planting.
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

10.30am: Don’t dig the holes too deep to prove yourself

It’s unnecessary. Just dig what the plant needs.

10.45am: Dale dug a hole, dad

If New Zealanders are digging, they’ll quote The Castle.

Tell ‘em, Dale.

11.30am: I’ve had an epiphany

There were hundreds of plants to do. I thought we were never going to get through them all, and to be honest, I don’t think Andrew thought we would either. He had realistic expectations.

But once we got the hang of it, we powered through.

It made me realise that as wonderful as being in nature is—like going for a hike or a swim—it’s quite special to do something for nature. It makes you think about the power of small actions, and how quickly they add up into something great. Conservation is an all-in kind of job.

Even if you buy one-size-fits-all gumboots and borrow your neighbour’s spade.

12pm: Lunch time

Pro tip: if someone offers you something to sit on instead of the wet grass, don’t decline to try and be polite. You’ll get a wet butt.

2pm: Looking back at our progress is really satisfying

We’ve put so many plants in the ground!

Enjoying outside time
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

I’m really going to hurt tomorrow, but I know I’ll be proud.

3pm: Job done!

We did it! Including me, I also helped do it!

A crate of empty planting pots
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

All the things I was worried about turned out to be surmountable—I didn’t even have to use my emergency period bag. That’s not to say every barrier will be that way, but it has encouraged me to think a more laterally about volunteering.

I thought I’d have to hike in remote areas and pull dead things out of traps. Which, honestly, I just did not want to do. That’s great, but it’s not my thing. And that’s okay! I can still take action for conservation! On the drive home, I made a list of ways to volunteer. My colleagues helped.

  • Help a planting group (like today)
  • Record citizen science data from home, like iNaturalist of Spyfish
  • Pick up rubbish literally anywhere
  • Join a beach clean-up (this is elite level rubbish collection)
  • Create a lizard, wētā or native bees habitat (great for kids!)
  • Do a bird count

I enjoyed the day heaps.

I hope Andrew knows we’re best friends now.

Final thoughts, in real time as I write this blog:

There are far more diverse range of volunteering opportunities available than I realised, including things that are easy, convenient, and nearby with low investment needed. There are also things that are family friendly, with options for those living with disabilities. You can volunteer on your terms—independently or with a formal organisation, or with a rag tag bunch of pals.

If you do reach out to a volunteer group, be honest about your skill level, interests and nerves, and don’t be put off if you’re not the right person for that particular job. There are plenty of different ways to contribute, and many different groups to do it with—from digging holes like me, to taking photos, to spreading the word about volunteer groups on social media, conservation needs it all.

There will be something out there for you.

Bottom line, with conservation, we can’t do nothing and wait for more marshmallows. Inaction won’t pan out. There are too many native species and ecosystems that are in dire shape. No one person can fix it all, and sometimes contemplating it gets a bit overwhelming, but honestly it was wonderful for my mental health and sense of achievement to just get out into nature and do one little thing.

Or 200 little things.

Eat the marshmallow, give volunteering a go.

Returning at the end of the day
📸 + ✏️ Author’s own

Jayne Ramage


Nature nerd and Department of Conservation employee. Big fan of the birds.