RIDGEFIELD — It’s a little hard to say exactly how much time volunteer Virginia Scott puts in at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Seven to eight hours each Monday is the short answer.
But then in the summer she works at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse sometimes on weekends. And she gave a presentation at the Cascade Park Library a couple of weeks ago. And she’ll be speaking at the Battle Ground Library this week.
“I started coming up here six or seven years ago,” Scott said. “I thought of it as my own refuge. I started coming for utterly selfish reasons. My father was a naturalist, and he taught me the land. Wherever he was, he could see something beautiful. I grew up in suburban Los Angeles, and it was unfathomable to me that he believed that. But it stuck. And I felt a kinship here. It’s a place of great peace.”
Scott became a birder and a bit of a photographer as well. Then one day at the refuge she ran into friends who volunteered there.
“And they said, ‘You would love it here.’ And I said, ‘I know I would love it here.’”
She began volunteering at the River “S” Unit — one of two units of the five-unit refuge open to the public, and a prime spot for birders. Then, Scott said, she found out about the plankhouse, located in the Carty Unit, the other public unit of the refuge.
Built by more than 100 volunteers in 2004-2005, the plankhouse, named for the ancient Chinookan village of Cathlapotle, was constructed based on information from the archaeological site of the village, which is within the refuge.
“And my undergraduate degree was in anthropology,” Scott said. “So, I became a plankhouse docent. And then I took the training and became a certified interpretive guide.”
Scott’s work at the refuge is quite a bit different from her other work. A social worker, she has worked in health care, with HIV and AIDS-positive patients, since the mid-90s.
“I retired in 2009,” she said. “And I went to Kenya, with a nonprofit, and did AIDS work there. But then, in January (2010), I woke up and said, ‘What am I going to do? I can’t (live abroad) forever.’ So, I came back here. And I ran into the director of Our House of Portland.”
Our House is a residential care facility for low-income people living with HIV, but too ill to live on their own. “And I said, ‘Do you have any volunteer work for a washed-up social worker?’ And I got a call at 8:50 the next morning. ‘Can you work Thursdays? And I’m going to have to pay you, you know.’ And that was seven years ago.”
Scott works one to two days a week now as a consultant at Our House.
“People come to us,” she said. “They’re quite ill. And they’ve lost a lot in their lives. But they’ve had large, long, productive lives.”
Scott assembles and reads all the documentation that arrives with a new resident, then writes a document designed to give staff members a sense of the new resident as a person, not just a patient.
“I give people a chance to see them more three-dimensionally. I know it sounds cornball, but it’s just such an honor to do the work I do.”
Scott said the same is true of her volunteer work at the refuge.
“I love this land,” she said. “I think about the people who lived here for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. Who lived in concert and peace with the land. They said you think ahead seven generations about the choices you make. They were good stewards of this land.”
In her free time Scott said she hikes, gardens, travels and, of course, goes birding. And she likes to read — she’s currently reading Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.”
“And in the winter, I hole up,” she said.
But she always comes back to the refuge.
“Are you familiar with John O’Donohue? He was a Catholic priest who left the priesthood. He wrote ‘Anam Cara,’ about soul friends. My favorite thing that he said was, ‘In the end everything’s going to be all right. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.’ That comes to me on my walks. We’ve done so much to not be good stewards of our land. Yet every fall the geese fly, every winter the swans arrive, every spring the ducks go crazy finding mates, laying eggs. No matter how bad things are, no matter how awful the news, you come out here and walk around a while, and you know you’re going to be okay.”
For more information on visiting or volunteering at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, go to https://www.fws.gov/refuge/ridgefield/.