Board Profile: Greg Williams

This Board member profile is one of a series that will roll out from now through the early fall.  Board members are active PA IPL volunteers who live and serve across Pennsylvania.  Greg Williams was elected to the Board for a 3-year term in October 2015Lula and Greg #1 7.27.

After being plunged into despair that my beloved natural world was changing rapidly, as cities flooded and thousands were rendered homeless, I have come to an awareness that I am called to work to reverse our planet’s precipitous path to climate disaster.  I have awakened to the horror that my granddaughter Talula and other three year olds will face a declining quality of life as they reach adulthood.  I have been pulled out of a kind of denial that had led me to believe I was powerless in the face of such a catastrophe.  I have been rescued from these depths by my faith that my God is powerful enough to somehow save the planet, again, but that I, and a boatload of other folks, need to find hope and get to work.

I found that boatload first in the Philadelphia cluster of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light a couple of years ago. I was emboldened to organize a Climate Action Team at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, and together we started the ongoing process of educating ourselves, changing, bit by bit, our bad environmental habits, and praying hard about ways we might respond together to this profound threat.  I’ve eased into the uncomfortable (for me) role of rebel and have gone to public hearings fighting against pipelines and new refineries along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.  I was humbled to be invited and delighted to join the Board 10 months ago, even though it meant more meetings—not my favorite activity.

In our Board Retreat at Pendle Hill a week ago, one reflection was that any movement, including our fight against climate change, requires at least four different types of folks (and groups) — organizers, rebels, advocates, and helpers.  It was clear to me that, though I had skills in all four areas, my deepest self is Helper.  I was a teacher for thirty years — primarily as an environmental educator — helping kids reconnect to the natural world.  Near the end of my career life, I also owned a used bookstore.  There it gave me great delight to help customers find the “perfect read”, a favorite book from their childhood, or a great present.

One of the most powerful activities I did with kids was to help them find a way to express their care for the natural world through habitat restoration.  In California, a fifth grade class built a loop trail in Pt. Reyes National Seashore in memory of a classmate who had tragically died.  In Ohio, each grade “managed” a different habitat.  They removed purple loosestrife (an invasive non-native) from the vernal pond near the school, and found illegal dumping (and reported it, with great righteousness to authorities).  In Philadelphia, first graders cut and pulled invasive oriental bittersweet from around the trunks of native saplings that were being choked.  They delighted as the tree was resurrected and sometimes sprang upright once released.  Fourth graders dug out privet that was choking a nearby marsh and were delighted to return to hear frogs, or see turtle tracks.

jk bagged in CW JK stand in CWSo, as I worked against climate change, I also returned to this restoration and began working in three different sections of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, under the direction of park employees, to remove the latest and perhaps most invasive species: Japanese knotweed.  This marvel of God’s creation seems able to grow an inch a day, quickly becoming over 8 feet tall.  Its rhizomes spread far and wide, quickly creating a jungle of stalks whose roots crowd out (and crowns shade out) other species.  The piéce de resistance are its ingenious three winged seeds which fly —by the thousands— in all directions, and which can float like a marauding boat in search of new conquests.  I persuaded other members of my church and the Philadelphia cluster of PA IPL to join me in the work.  We called ourselves the Jk (Japanese knotweed) brigade and worked a couple of times a week.

japanese knotweed overshadowing a personI must admit to some guilt about this work —I just find it too much fun; too satisfying—and you can see results immediately!  I’m sure that it is effective — I’ve seen forests restored to greater diversity, and my years of environmental education taught me that the more diverse a habitat is, the healthier it is.  In our present situation, that means, more able to  survive climate warming, and from a human perspective, more able to provide the services to us of erosion control, carbon fixing, oxygen production, ameliorating increasing heat, etc.  Just yesterday I revisited a site in Carpenter’s Woods in Philadelphia where three years ago there was an 8 foot high wall of Japanese knotweed.  Now, after three years of joyful work by the Jk brigade, curly dock, jewelweed, and willow oak coexist with (and even are starting to shade out!) the invasive Jk.  The persistence needed to keep urban habitats healthy is a good reminder of the long-term commitment needed to faithfully work against climate change is not lost. I know that this is just one small island of healthy biodiversity in a world littered with monocultures, but I see it as a grain of hope —a mustard seed nudging climate change in the opposite direction.

Of course, there is much more to do in the work to reverse climate change. I just recently moved from Philadelphia and my beloved St. Martins and know that while I’m looking for a new church.  I know that I should also be inviting and gathering new clusters of people of faith to the work of PA IPL.   I will be doing that in my new home in Williamsburg , PA and the surrounding cities of Huntingdon, Hollidaysburg, and Altoona.  I know that I should be joining Rachel Mark and the Harrisburg cluster of PA IPL in sharing our faith-rooted concerns about climate change with our lawmakers at the state capital as “advocates,” and I will do that.  I know that I should don my “rebel” hat and demonstrate against fracking in nearby counties and I will do that.  For me, doing habitat restoration is a restorative practice, a sacred practice, that allows me to keep using my other, less natural skills, in this work against climate change.  Being grounded by regular time in God’s natural world gives me perspective for the work that doesn’t come to me so easily.  Finding a place of joy, a place where we can see positive results in the midst of the temptation to despair is, I think, a good thing.  I think of this time as recharging both my soul and the natural world so we both can do our jobs.

Greg after Buttercup Nov 15If this resonates with you, I would be delighted to share my passion and skills in habitat restoration with you and/or your congregation, and I would be glad to travel (in my Prius packed with necessary tools) to help and guide work parties.  Give me a call—we could even and put a Dedication of the Work Gloves on your congregation’s calendar.  This work can be a  “gateway activity” to working on climate change and PA IPL has many follow-on activities.  I hope to soon have permission to start work myself along the Rails-to-Trails Lower Trail which runs by Williamsburg, and I would welcome “fellow travelers” who might want to join me once, or with regularity.  I also hope to offer a work party opportunity on Saturday, October 29, near the site of PA IPL’s 2016 Annual Conference (October 30) at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in State College. Stay tuned for more details. I also invite you to contact me by email or on my cell at 215-242-0854.

May God bless all of our work
Greg Williams