A Summer with Conservation Corps

Well, it has been a while since I have posted on this blog. Since the last time I wrote, I finished my final semester of school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication and a minor in Integrated Liberal Studies. Around 8,000 graduates shivered in the outdoor stadium for 90 minutes as snow ripped through the rows of seats. The School of Journalism was called, 200 of us stood up, were briefly congratulated, and then we sat back down. It was all very quick and oddly anticlimactic. But I am officially a college graduate!

I moved back to Minnesota the day after my graduation ceremony to start a summer job with Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa. Conservation Corps is a branch of Americorps and a descendent of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Minnesota has a long history of environmental volunteerism — my state was recently listed as Number Two for involvement with Americorps, after Washington D.C., which, of course, isn’t a state, and means we should technically be Number One, if you ask me.

IMG_1757I was hired with the program called Youth Outdoors and was on Crew One — YO One, for short. The mission of Youth Outdoors is to expose high school students from the cities to environmental conservation and the value of wild spaces. The very first day of training, after filling out the necessary paperwork, we immediately began learning how to safely take apart and clean chainsaws. I am not a machinery person (I find changing a tire intimidating and I avoid taking apart gadgets at all costs) so learning all the cogs and parts of a chainsaw was slightly overwhelming. We watched movies of chainsaws ripping through animal flesh and saw photos of knees that had been severed by incorrect usage. By Day Three we were out in the field, fueling up chainsaws and felling trees. We donned kevlar chaps, leather gloves, steel-toed boots and hard hats with face masks and ear muffs. I immediately fell in love with all of it. There is a ton of technique that comes with cutting down a tree, and I don’t think I will ever consider myself an expert, but by the next week I was competent enough to be felling trees on my own. We shouted out ‘timber’ or ‘falling’ as if we were in a B-rated movie about lumberjacks.

Crews are typically four-person strong. My crew leader had been working since January, but the other three, including me, were all hired together in May. We make up an eclectic group with different interests, but 10-hour days together have a way of creating common ground. Heather quickly became the social one, filling silences with stories of her volunteer work at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center or her cat’s most recent escape into the neighborhood. Liam’s dark sense of humor fully emerged a couple weeks in, but in the mean time his relentless work ethic made him an effective crew leader. Anne became the designated biology expert and silent worker. Getting Anne to laugh is the most gratifying thing ever.

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YO One in a field of Milkweed.

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The Compost Fiasco of 2016.

I’m not sure what my role was, but I did have a tendency to get into strange situations. It started early in the summer, but my fate was sealed during a compost fiasco in early June. We had recently cleared a huge amount of invasive species from Hidden Falls Park and instead of taking two trips to the community compost dump, Liam insisted we could fit all of it into the truck bed. We did succeed, but when it came time to pull it out into the huge pile of communal yard waste, our pile did not budge. It took all four of us tugging and shoving to make the huge mass inch out. I happened to be at the back of the truck bed, backing into the other compost as I attempted to pull the tarp underneath our pile. The pile hit a tipping point and, no longer sliding horizontal to the ground, started to rotate into the air. When it was clear the pile was dislodged from the truck bed, I tried to escape out of the way, but my foot got stuck in the compost beneath me. I watched in horror as our enormous pile of compost tilted into the air above me and slowly descended, trapping me from the chest down. My fellow crew members just laughed as I struggled to free myself. They eventually helped me out, but not before they took photo evidence of my plight. I certainly felt like I had become one with nature.

All in all, Conservation Corps was a great summer job! I learned how to use power tools, how to drive an enormous pick-up truck and how to safely apply the smallest amount of herbicide to eradicate invasive species. Perhaps these aren’t skills that will come in handy in the world of journalism, but I gained a lot of confidence in my own abilities.

It was hard to say goodbye to my fellow crew members, especially because they are all staying on until December, but I enjoyed the time we had together. I signed on for a shorter term because in mid-September I embark on a trip to New Zealand with my college friend, Caitlin. As of right now, we have a one-way ticket, a work/travel visa and a building sense of adventure.

I will be blogging every week or two right here, so stay tuned if you’re curious to see how this spontaneous post-college plan pans out!

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Fighting invasive species.

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