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Stories of the Land: Couple’s Actions Speak Volumes
This month I have had the great joy of honoring several people who unselfishly make our community a better place. These individuals have donated their time and passion to improving our region through donating their time and talents for the greater good.
Volunteers in our community have my utmost gratitude and respect, and I wish to extend my appreciation to each of them.
The commitment of two volunteers in particular has been especially impactful to me, and while you might not know it yet, to you, too.
Their selflessness and humility is endlessly inspiring. Their passion and work ethic is astonishing.
Through their dedicated volunteerism, they have become my close friends and colleagues. But most of all, they have become my role models.
I first met Al and Barb Pung in 2014. I must admit it was somewhat of an embarrassing first encounter, one that I remain grateful that they do not begrudge. They arrived at the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) office for an appointment to volunteer, and our staff had made a terrible mistake:
We forgot that they were coming.
An inquiry circulated throughout the office to determine what volunteer help was needed. On short notice, it wasn't immediately clear what might be best suited to both our needs and their interests.
The Pungs, retirees who had recently relocated from Michigan to the mountains of WNC, were open-minded. “We're here to help,” said Al with an infectious smile. Barb added with the utmost sincerity, “We'll do whatever you need.”
Having no shortage of projects in need of assistance, I was excited when word reached me that a kind-hearted couple had arrived to lend a hand. I presented them a project that had been on the docket for years.
The task at hand was to create a print and digital archive of CMLC's news and media documenting the past two decades of conserving land in our community. That may not sound like a critical task, but I assure you that it has long been one of our organization's most pressing needs.
Its benefits include the ability to efficiently research past conservation projects for our publications, outreach and, most notably, this newspaper column. It will also ultimately enable the showcasing of land protection accomplishments and the benefits of that work to the community — available to anyone who wishes to view it in person or online.
The project was tedious, to say the least. It is no wonder — nor is there any shame — that many in the past have been less than engaged with the task and it has long remained unaccomplished. Its scale was rather daunting. Conservation-minded folks typically like to get outside frequently to enjoy nature, and this undertaking required significant time spent at a computer and scanner.
It would be more than fair to call it a “rainy day” project. Except that it requires a whole lot of sunny days, too, and more total days that I dare speculate.
Nevertheless, the Pungs were undaunted. Over the next year, they clipped and cropped, scanned and cataloged, and organized and printed — creating stunningly beautiful scrapbooks for each calendar year — hundreds and hundreds of articles and stories.
All together, Al and Barb volunteered more than 700 hours to the project. And they are still going strong in pursuit of finishing it.
My graciousness to them for their help never went unexpressed, yet it was always met with humility.
“It's no problem,” both routinely exclaimed, constantly attempting to dismiss praise. Their selflessness was, and remains, truly extraordinary.
Not only was their work ethic and lasting commitment abundantly evident, their modesty was too.
Fulfilled solely by helping our organization and supporting its mission with their time and talents, Al and Barb truly sought nothing in return other than to keep up our work saving the places in our region that they love.
Through the process of tackling the archiving project, the Pungs became remarkably educated about land conservation in our region, reading each and every article along the way.
“I love to read. I find all of it fascinating,” Al explained. “I read for several hours a day.”
Few others now possess the breadth of knowledge about the recent history of natural resource protection in our surrounding counties as well as an understanding of the processes, partnerships and community collaboration involved in keeping our mountains untarnished.
The self-paced education on protecting our area's land and water resources served to deepen the Pungs yearning to help the organization through volunteerism.
The selfless pair have volunteered an additional 230 hours in support of the organization's Conservation Celebration, an annual event that raises awareness and funds for its natural resource, trails and stewardship work in the community. But the Pungs had even more passion and energy to give.
Last fall, a co-worker and I launched the “CMLC Trails Crew,” an initiative to more consistently and skillfully care for our budding public hiking trails in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge. Retention and availability of volunteers for trails is often problematic due to the highly technical level of the work and challenging conditions.
Stewarding trails involves carrying heavy loads, often up steep slopes. It requires the swinging of sharp tools for hours on end. Days at a time are spent making gravel — used to harden the trail surface of stairs or wet areas — by hand, crushing big rocks into little ones.
In many cases, a long difficult hike is required just to get to the work site. Volunteers often swear that these trips are uphill both ways — and sometimes they are.
And if the activity itself is not strenuous enough, hazards of working outside intensify the challenge.
Volunteers brave poison ivy, snakes and ticks. Humid air and hot temperatures in the spring and summer make the physical labor doubling taxing. Frozen earth in the winter is particularly demoralizing when a tool bounces back upon striking the ground, making nary a dent in the soil.
Simply put, working on trails is hard work. Perhaps especially for that reason, Al and Barb willingly offered their time, energy and passion to help out. And like their previous — and ongoing — volunteer contributions, they went “all in.”
In just six months, the Pungs volunteered an amazing — and seemingly back breaking — 240 hours toward improving CMLC's hiking trails for all to enjoy.
They will tell you that they're just getting started, too. This spring, they broke ground on their new home only a stone's throw away from CMLC-conserved Bearwallow Mountain.
“We'll live 885 feet from the trailhead,” said Al, his precision appropriately reflecting his high attention to detail. This proximity to CMLC's trails and conserved lands will even further inspire the couple to keep lending a hand.
“We will see Bearwallow every day from our house,” said Barb. “We love that mountain. It's one of our favorite places, and we're so glad it is protected.”
All told, the Pungs have volunteered more than 1,200 hours — and counting — helping conservation efforts in just the past 18 months. That averages out to about 15 hours a week during that span. Wow.
CMLC and our entire community owe great gratitude to Al and Barb for their unwavering passion and consistent generosity that makes this region a better place. If you see them around — whether it be with a newspaper or trail tool in hand — please tell them “thank you."
I guarantee it will make them blush, and they'll wish you hadn't. But do it anyway. They deserve it.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.