How much difference can one spring break really make?

A week of 'voluntourism' amidst the giant sequoias

trees-benjamin hitchcock

I spent last week in the shadows of Sequoia trees.

Ben Hitchcock | Cavalier Daily

The oldest living giant sequoia tree is an estimated 3,266 years old. It predates the Roman Empire by more than a thousand years. It’s roughly 13 times older than the United States. It’s 41 times older than the average human lifespan. It has weathered storms and fires and earthquakes, icy winters and blistering summers, lightning strikes and howling winds. Its bark is soft and furry to the touch. 

The largest living giant sequoia tree is 275 feet tall — a few inches taller than 40 Jack Salts stacked on top of each other. It’s wide enough to block three lanes of highway. It has branches more than six feet in diameter. Measuring by volume, it is the largest tree on earth. The best way to understand its size is to walk a circle around it — it unfolds endlessly, sturdy and implacable all the way around.

I spent last week in the shadows of these behemoths on an Alternative Spring Break trip. I and a handful of like-minded students flew across the country to California’s Sequoia National Park with the purported goal of serving these trees and their environment. 

I’ll be the first to admit that the set-up smacks of “voluntourism.” It’s become increasingly popular for upstanding citizens to spend their time traveling to struggling areas in the hopes of turning things around. Though the concept seems wholesome, criticisms of this type of service are myriad and well-founded. 

Volunteers rarely stay long, and the inexpert service they provide is rarely efficient. They then return home feeling righteous and kind when in fact they’ve made little lasting impact. They neglect helping their own communities in favor of stumbling around in exotic locations where they aren’t needed.

In some cases, ham-fisted attempts at helping can actually cause damage. In South Africa, research suggests that Westerners arriving to help care for orphans can cause attachment disorders in children when the volunteers inevitably leave. Some orphanages have sought to elicit more donations by purposefully subjecting children to poor conditions, unbeknownst to the seemingly virtuous volunteers. 

This story is echoed in the history of Sequoia National Park — for much of the 20th century, park conservationists attempted to extinguish the wildfires that commonly burn in the sequoia forests, and the result was that the sequoia population suffered. Only later did the park’s scientists realize that sequoia trees depend on fires to survive. Sequoias aren’t happy if their roots are suffocated by a thick carpet of natural debris, and fires remove that carpet while leaving the thick-skinned trees largely intact. Service must be backed by knowledge — otherwise it often does more harm than good. Well-meaning but inexperienced volunteers do not have a good track record.

Alternative Spring Break, an organization in which students apply to pay their way to travel for volunteering, seems like the poster child for self-serving, misguided voluntourism. However, having participated in two ASB trips over the last two spring breaks, I believe the issue isn’t so cut-and-dry. Trips like this can be valuable if the participants are honest with themselves about their motives and understand the limitations of the service they provide. 

I signed up for ASB this year because I wanted to see some big trees, not because I wanted to save the world. The volunteering was an auxiliary motive at best. But that’s all right because there is value in travel. Staring up at the distant branches of these awe-inspiring trees made me a more contemplative person. 

Tramping through the park’s rolling foothills reminded me that our planet is simultaneously vast and precious. As the week progressed I learned a little about science and a little about environmental policy and a lot about how to make friends with strangers. I grew as a person and that in and of itself makes the trip worthwhile. 

To its credit, the University’s Alternative Spring Break organization acknowledges this reality. ASB’s tagline is “Change Your Perspective,” not “Change The World.” The motto concedes the selfishness of this kind of service — these trips are meaningful more for the value imparted on the participants than for the change the participants exact on the sites they visit. This honesty, coupled with awareness enough to do no harm, is a critical component of responsible voluntourism. 

At the same time, our group did conduct meaningful service, albeit not on the macro scale that many voluntourists crave or brag about. We worked on a number of different projects during our time in the park. We spent Monday in the park’s nursery, replanting young native plants so they could be used to revegetate certain areas afflicted by non-native invasive species. 

Presiding over the project was Melanie, a cheerful veteran gardener who roamed the nursery trailed by her dog Blue. The next day we shoveled gravel to create a new flower bed for Brian, a soft-spoken botanist who had lived in the park since he was a kid. Wednesday we fanned out across a grassy hillside to measure and record the characteristics of a swathe of storm-threatened blue oak trees. We were guided by Marisa, an education ranger who regaled us with stories about traveling through Asia in the years before she started working at the park. 

It’s crucial to be candid about the extent of the services rendered. Our work did not save the world. It probably didn’t even save any sequoias. But we did three weeks worth of replanting in one afternoon with Melanie. We saved Brian hours of shoveling gravel. We measured hundreds of trees with Marisa. We made a few peoples’ lives just a little bit easier — it’s disingenuous to pretend we did any more than that. But it’s also selling us short to put us in the same box as the rest of the feckless voluntourists, fanning the globe and claiming they ended world hunger. 

The giant sequoias stick out from the rest of the trees in the forest not just for their size but also for the color of their bark — a glowing, red wine-soaked light brown that catches the eye amidst the thinner gray trunks of the surrounding pines. At dusk the underside of the high sequoia canopy is bathed in orange light. The leaves hold on to the sun, turning the roof of the forest into a rich and radiant panoply of gold, red, orange and green. 

The trees stand stoic on the mountaintop, older, wiser and stronger than anyone who will ever walk below them. Their destinies will never be affected by a handful of hapless college students. But there is virtue in standing under the sequoias, gazing up, breathing deeply and trying to make a difference for the people standing nearby. 

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