The meaning of Volunteering
I cling to a chain-link fence, the strap of the radio receiver clenched between my teeth as I climb sideways over an open ditch. It is clear from the smell that the local neighborhood has not gotten on board with the whole septic system plan.
“After we get around the sewage pipe, make a jump for the mud bank. You have boots, right? I think it’s only about ankle-deep,” Sarah tells me as she maneuvers around the chest-height pipe. “But watch out for the live electrical wire. And the bees.”
I grunt acknowledgment, trying not to breathe through my nose, and failing. I am well aware that if I drop this radio reviver, I have to go into the ditch after it, and I am also well aware that it is more valuable than I am.
I am not getting paid enough for this.
This is an easy calculation to make, as I am not getting paid at all.
The word “volunteer” first enters the English language around the year 1330; at the time it translated more like “puppet” or “mind-slave”. I muse on the appropriateness of that—surely you have to be a bit funny in the head to do this job.
The job today is to find a sloth by the name of Baguette, who is neighbor to the elusive Croissant. She’s a big, beautiful three-fingered Bradypus variegatus with a preference for large trees and advanced stealth technology, vs. our knee-high rubber boots, two large radio receivers, and the most advanced prefrontal cortexes in the mammal kingdom.
So far Baguette is winning.
Winning what, though, is hard to say. She isn’t getting paid for this either. We use words for sloths like “economy of motion” or “energy budget” because we humans are obsessed with the cost of things. There is an unceasing cash register in the back of our heads, always running, always tallying up the bill: How much for this? How much for that? Will I make rent this month, can I afford cheese? Hurry, hurry, hurry, time is money!
There is something counter-intuitive about the serenity of sloths; the way they sail through the canopy as if they have all the time in the world as if the forest is full of abundance. As if these scurrying, stressing humans below them are really being very silly.
It’s a helpful perspective to contemplate as I lift my eyes from the mud underfoot and look up into the ancient behemoth that is Baguette’s current home: emerald leaves and little yellow flowers, jeweled hummingbirds, crimson and black tanagers, draping lianas and velvet mosses. There is a majesty to trees that connects the earth below to the heavens above. Baguette’s home is a view worth the hike, and a good reminder that the most valuable things in the world don’t come with a price tag.
“Volunteer” from the Latin “voluntas”, meaning will, desire, choice, or wish. It’s a very appropriate word after all because there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.