The Power of Mitzvah: from Thanksgiving to Hope


“A great flame follows from a little spark.”

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 1321 AD (Courtney Langdon translation)

Communities and futures are built upon lifetimes of small actions.

We gathered on an earthly knoll within the Crested Butte cemetery, in the embrace of the surrounding mountains. We gave thanks and celebrated the life of Steve Polan. A New Yorker, Steve and his wife, Betsy Roistacher, found their way to Crested Butte, where they fully immersed themselves. I came to know them as they became involved in, and supported, RMBL. In his role leading the Crested Butte Public Policy Forum, which promotes civic engagement by bringing distinguished speakers to Crested Butte, Steve actively looked for ways for RMBL and the Policy Forum to collaborate. A friendship built on small exchanges, I had the privilege of joining friends and family in placing dirt on his grave, interring him in his Garden of Eden.

With bluebird skies and time to connect with friends, I fell into conversation with another active community member of Crested Butte and supporter of RMBL who explained “mitzvah”. Within the Jewish religion, the primary meaning of mitzvah is “commandment”. But more commonly it is used to describe good deeds, especially those that emphasize kindness and empathy, and which build community. It was a fitting conversation.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I find much for which to be grateful, including time to enjoy family and friends as well as the joy I take in living in the West Elk Mountains. I give thanks to RMBL’s many supporters, from docents that invest their time volunteering to our donors that make great science and education possible. The kindness that leads people to support RMBL, or any nonprofit, is humbling and inspiring.

But beyond thanks, I find hope in these mitzvahs. Collectively donations to RMBL add up, making possible the services we provide scientists and ensuring students can afford to spend a summer in Gothic. But these small actions can also spark something greater. This week we profile two RMBL supporters, Pete and Char Carbone Rowland. If there is anybody that symbolizes the spark, it is Char! A talk by RMBL scientist, Dr. David Inouye, lit her up. Since then, she has made it her mission to spark others to join in RMBL’s community of supporters. You can find out more about Char and Pete, and their decision to support RMBL, in the adjoining article.

A future of environmental challenges, from climate change to biodiversity to human health, can be overwhelming. A sense of a future that is beyond our individual action. But collectively, through our small actions, and more importantly in how we spark others, we can build a community that has a power that is beyond any of us individually. This spark can be created in other unique and unexpected ways. One example is work not by scientists but by artists working at the conjunction of climate change and Dante’s Divine Comedy – From A Little Spark May Burst A Flame: Ackroyd & Harvey’s ‘Script’ (

Whether you participate in the RMBL community, or have another community that lights you up, I encourage you to give thanks and generate hope through mitzvah. You can make a year-end donation to RMBL at Donate to RMBL – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Collectively we can transform field science, sparking something much greater!