At a glance, the numbers seem daunting. During a regular summer at MBGNA, 40 summer interns work 40 hours per week for 17 weeks in a learning-working internship to support our places and programs. Forty volunteers devote–at a minimum!–roughly 80 hours per week to the Arb and gardens. This summer, while the trajectory of the pandemic and work-from-home continues, the plants still need people. Weeds grow like crazy, trees do fall in the forest–and if no one hears them, surely someone has to attend to them. We checked in with some staff members to inquire how their work is different this summer.
“I’m keeping my head above water!” jokes Tom O’Dell, who manages the woody plants and trails, and has seen firsthand the increase in visitors at the Arb. Heavy spring rains early on led to significant erosion issues requiring immediate fixes for some areas, with temporary closure of other trail areas needing extensive work. Given that two staff and a small crew of student caretakers are managing over 120 acres, O’Dell observes, “you realize how well nature does without our input!” He shared that while “nature is beautiful, but messy,” he’s learned during this acute time that by concentrating energy in certain areas, “a little bit goes a long way–10 minutes with a hand pruner and 20 minutes with a shovel makes a difference throughout the landscape.”
Once the volunteer program was suspended indefinitely, volunteer coordinator Christine Chessler-Stull lent her experience in outreach and communications to the membership and development department. Among her tasks: create virtual, creative ways to engage members and the community in what’s normally the busiest time of the year. Chessler-Stull reflected on this time of year: “Usually I would be engaging with our visitors and volunteers on-site this summer, but instead we had to get creative with our online presence during our closure. It’s been great to see the unique ways our staff have come together to create virtual experiences.” She also has enjoyed the challenge of learning new skills, especially tech skills to produce zoom webinars.
Mike Palmer coordinates the activities of researchers at MBGNA, which resumed in June across UM units with strict safety guidelines. He organizes and schedules all the research projects, including those of the NOAA weather station at the gardens, communicating key details about new safety procedures. A recent project on RNA in seeds fortunately found footing here–otherwise those seeds from around the world would have been lost! Palmer reflects that he’s been thinking about the volunteers and student interns, both individually and as a group. “I remember when a certain volunteer was here and she worked on a special project in the conservatory, or when someone else was a work-study student and was so great at weeding…The amount of people it takes to make the place presentable–makes you value their work more.”
During a “normal” summer in the perennial garden, five volunteers would work an average of seven hours a week, with several summer interns and staff adding 10 hours a week each. A hop, skip, and a jump away from her usual role of managing the Gaffield Children’s Garden, Lee Smith Bravender took on the role of maintaining the perennial garden this season. Like other nature fans who’ve expanded their interests, Smith Bravender has been intrigued to learn about the birds singing in the nearby concolor firs (also commonly called white firs) who’ve kept her company while pruning, weeding, and watering. One minute in the garden and the result is obvious: as in other seasons, the garden is a beacon of color and beauty, standing as an inspiration not in ignorance of, but in accompaniment to, all the perils of the pandemic seemingly far away from its borders.
We salute our staff for the many ways in which everyone has gone above and beyond to stretch and accommodate their new and ongoing work, schedules, and work-from-home spaces during this unprecedented time. And to our summer interns and current volunteers–we miss you!
Watch for more behind the scenes stories next week.
We are currently making plans for a safe return of staff and reopening to visitors following public health and safety guidelines. We’re coordinating our efforts with the University of Michigan to ensure we’re ready for you to visit safely. We have not identified a reopening date at this time, but will update Matthaei-Nichols communications channels when information becomes available.