I am incredibly grateful to live in a state with such an abundance of adventures waiting to be had. Each season brings with it a new landscape to explore with different modes and clothing layers, from ocean to pasture to lake to mountain and back again. You won’t often find me in one place on the weekends, but my process is not entirely willy-nilly. I try to bring balance into life by distributing my time across several important and interconnected areas that together comprise my emotional and physical health. Namely, these areas are community engagement, my work at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, loved ones, health, and recreation. As with nearly all other facets of life, the pandemic has shifted the way that I approach these categories, but over the past couple of years I have managed to recalibrate and reprioritize. The outdoor recreation industry has seen a boom as folks seek enjoyment away from crowds, and I have certainly done my fair share of hiking, biking, skiing, swimming, camping and more as indoor fun has been limited.
At the same time, the pandemic has strained communities in countless ways, intensifying vulnerability and eroding support systems that, in many cases, were already overburdened to begin with. During this pandemic, Maine has seen record levels of homelessness, new unemployment highs, and the greatest racialized COVID disparity in the country. One in ten Mainers lives below the poverty line, with families of color more than twice as likely to be food-insecure as white families. We have also followed national trends in income disparity, with the wealthiest Mainers growing disproportionately richer relative to the rest of the population over the past several years. These circumstances make community engagement all the more important for those that have the time and resources to contribute.
As one of those people, I have had the opportunity to volunteer with some really phenomenal community organizations in the state.
Presenté Maine is one of these stellar organizations, and their work during the pandemic has directly assisted thousands of Mainers in need, through their Food Brigade mutual aid program. Initiated just a few days after the first COVID cases were reported in Maine, the Food Brigade delivers food and other essentials barrier-free to people in the Lewiston and Portland areas. The volunteer-powered team has expanded capacity from 50 deliveries a week in March of 2020 to more than 2,200 deliveries a week today, shipping out 15,000 pounds of food cost-free to people in need each and every week. They’ve partnered with the Wild Mountain Cooperative, a beautiful collectively run farm and preservation property in Greene, to produce fresh food for their mutual aid efforts.
So, rather than diving back into the woods a few weekends ago, I signed up with my partner Hannah and roommate Maddy for a volunteer work party at the Wild Mountain Cooperative farm. Slathered with sunscreen and wishing that our soft indoor pandemic hands were even remotely callused, we piled into Maddy’s cherry red Prius and set off for Greene.
Having grown up next door to an organic farm in West Gardiner, I felt that there must be some neglected farming knowledge knocking around in the recesses of my brain that could prove useful on a day like this. In summers past, the neighbor’s farm had served as a daycare/character-building grounds for me and my younger brother Charlie. The promise of a penny for every two potato bugs we successfully dislodged kept us glued to the plants and away from the busy road, and there was never a shortage of tasks to be done. As I drudged up these memories en route to the Wild Mountain Cooperative, I came away with the following themes: dirt, sweat, dirt, weeds, dirt, bugs, dirt, and sun. Relevant, yes; useful, no. I decided then that my approach would hinge less on my farm savvy and more on an open mind and a willingness to learn from people that actually know what they’re doing. Fortunately, there is no shortage of such people working with Presenté, and we were quickly and kindly brought up to speed upon our arrival.
After a scenic wooded drive up a classic Maine dirt road, 12 volunteers circled up on a grassy hillside overlooking a patchwork of field and forest. Our volunteer leader, Sarah, made it very clear that prior farming experience was not required to chip in, and patiently walked us though the process of breaking new ground and identifying harmful weeds. Hours of digging, hoeing, weeding, and “de-rocking” flew by as we got to know our fellow volunteers and came to appreciate the wholesome feel of soil in our fingers. Lunch gave us a chance to tour the homestead and property, meandering down through a portion of the 300 preserved acres to eat on the shores of Berry Pond, a gorgeous undeveloped body of water that served as a lovely panacea for dirt, blisters, and sore feet. Reinvigorated, we attacked our chores again, accompanied by several farmyard dogs and the occasional horse’s whinny from the nearby paddock.
It came as a surprise when 3:00 p.m. arrived and it was time to wrap up for the day. I left with a commitment to return again soon and an incredible amount of gratitude for having been able to participate in a farm-to-table mutual aid system. I have also found the time to make food deliveries with the Food Brigade on a couple of occasions, and engaging in the mutual aid process from start to finish during a time of great need is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had during pandemic times. For those that have the time and the ability, please consider helping out by signing up for a farming or delivery driving shift.
The pandemic has been difficult, scary, and deeply saddening for everyone. It has reshaped our reality and transformed the way we interact with each other and the world around us. And, as with every tragedy at a societal scale, it has exacerbated preexisting inequalities forged along the lines of race, gender, and class. As we move forward in a world that is increasingly defined by climate change and the various crises that accompany such change, it is important to situate ourselves and our privilege relative to the world around us. It is then equally important to act accordingly, investing the time and resources that come with privilege where they are most needed.
I am deeply grateful to the people and organizations such as Presenté Maine that prioritize combatting injustice and providing mutual aid through community work. Be sure to check out Presenté’s Facebook page to learn more about their mission and ongoing efforts and see how you can best contribute to their work.
During times like these, it is so important to take time for yourself, time for your community, time for your work, and time for your loved ones. I haven’t yet mastered this balance, and likely never will, but I am pleased to be connected to an organization and an effort that makes a meaningful difference in my community. I hope to see you on the same adventure the next time I head to the farm!
—Josh Caldwell, NRCM Climate & Clean Energy Outreach Coordinator