- October 19, 2016
- Posted by Amanda Pfaff
I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t expect it, and I certainly wasn’t looking for it. Maybe that’s what makes it meaningful; the quiet revelations that sneak up on you when you are otherwise entangled. Like the sun peering through the clouds after days of overcast skies, like a breeze kissing your sweat-soaked skin on a summer day… unexpected and refreshing, a soothing surprise. Hello, welcome. I didn’t expect you, but I’m glad you’re here.
As a Program Manager for MCC the field is no longer my home. Much like the house that raised me in this world, I grew up, moved out and on, and found another place to hang my hats. I never forgot my roots, I tell the stories, I have pictures and fond memories, but it’s hard to remember the smell, it’s hard to feel what I felt there. I haven’t forgotten, but I don’t always remember.
My new “home” is in an office, behind a desk. Gone are the days when no matter what struggle I was facing, no matter how big the frustration, or how seemingly unsurmountable the challenge, I could always look up from the dirt, into the trees and mountains and sky, and say, well, at least this is my office.
My office is a real office now. Four walls covered with posters of beautiful places, quotes that reflect my attitude towards life, photos and maps, thank you letters and cards, and of course, a poster of Leslie Knope above my door. It’s cozy. There’s a couch. It is in this box where I spend most of my time, emailing, calling, spread-sheeting, listening, conversing, advising, documenting, recording, recruiting, etc… all important parts of the process, integral to the success of what we do here. I recognize and appreciate this; that without my cog, the clock wouldn’t work.
Recently I left my four walls and spent six days with a crew in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Idaho. I was only supposed be out for two nights, but things happen, and I welcomed the change with open arms. As far as consecutive days go, it’s the longest I’ve been in the field since I rejoined MCC prior to the start of the 2015 season, so it was a pretty big deal, but as they say, “that’ll happen on these big projects.”
Like a quick weekend trip home, many of my field visits are rushed and casual. Hello, how are you, ok, good: work, eat, sleep, wake up, eat, work, eat, work, goodbye, drive away. Rarely in a night or two do you truly have the opportunity to find connection; connection with the work, the landscape, the people, or yourself. Sure, it’s a wonderful experience; a chance to swing tools, fresh air to be grateful for, smiles to share. But you’re in, you’re out, and it’s over. There’s not much time to feel. At least that’s how it is for me.
These were the expectations I had as I began my five hour drive to Idaho, windows down, music up, just another field visit. Like that quick trip home, I’ll stop in and say hello, have a laugh or two, do some work, and be on my way. But sometimes you get away for more than a weekend. You get to stand still, to stay, to settle, to be present. You get to connect with the work, the landscape, the people and yourself. And you don’t always see it coming. When the sun peers through the clouds without warning, you just feel it, and it soaks into you before you even realize you’re soaking it in. Suddenly you’re there, you’re in it. And as you stare out into the trees, the mountains and the sky, you remember the smells, the sounds, and all of the moments that made you. Suddenly, you’re home, you can feel it.
The first morning I spent out with the crew I put on my chaps and flannel and happily carried the dolmar to the project site. The combination of these movements along with the smell of the gas, the chainsaw, the air, quickly sent me on a stroll down memory lane. I remembered the first tree I’d fell and all those that had followed. I remembered the fears I had and what it had been like to overcome them. I remembered how strong it made me feel and I also remembered how it had changed me.
As one of the leaders started up the saw I was jolted from my memories, but I couldn’t help but smile, at everything. I was excited for this day. Playing the role of swamper, I hauled limbs and logs, cleared the way for unobstructed cuts and safe footing, made piles and admittedly, tripped a lot. It was simple, but rewarding. However, the bigger reward that morning came in watching one of my field crew leaders wield the chainsaw, knowing that five months ago she’d never run a saw, but now there she was, calm and confident, skillfully and efficiently felling every tree in her path. I remember wondering if use of the saw had changed her too. If her life had somehow been positively impacted by pulling a cord, pressing a trigger, and cutting into a standing tree only to watch it fall exactly where she had intended. I thought about all the people who were with us and about all who had come before us. I thought about if and how it changed all of us… I thought about how lucky we were to know the joy and pain of chaps, the glory of yelling “tree falling,” and to have found this path… for some of us an escape route.
With each cut I watched her make, I was learning. What a powerful thing, to learn from those you teach. I remembered how to prevent binds, how to better buck and limb, how to size up a tree, how to line up the top and bottom of a face cut, just from watching. I’d been taught before and I’d done it a thousand times, but it’d been awhile. I thought about how much you can learn from observing, and from there my mind wandered to thoughts of how valuable it is to be aware, awake, watching; infinite wisdom that can be gained if we just open our eyes and pay attention. I wondered about all the things that I had missed along the way with my eyes focused elsewhere, but these thoughts faded quickly as I focused on where to put the next pile.
I tried my best to keep pace, knowing that the quicker I moved the more trees that she would have the chance to fell. On a chainsaw crew, this is a known equation for happiness. When you go into to conservation work, you never think that cutting down a tree will bring you the joy and wonderment that it does, but the sawyer, the swamper and perhaps even the sage grouse understand. On most days, one of the kindest things you can do as a swamper is to let your sawyer keep the chainsaw. That being said, one of the kindest things you can do for yourself is to take the chainsaw.
It would have been regretful to deny myself this kindness, so I took my turn. I started up the chainsaw and allowed myself the chance to feel all the benefits of her use. I limbed, bucked, stumped, and fell a tree. Something that was once so intimidating and frightening now came so naturally. I felt exhilarated by each rev of the engine and empowered by every cut that I made. As I focused I didn’t think much of it, but I could feel it; it encircled me, it embraced me. Something was different. My eyes brightened, my hands steadied, my heart softened. Everything became lighter, somehow instantly better. I felt more alive. I felt stronger.
Upon later reflection I realized how few opportunities exist within an office to feel that sort of strength, to feel tough, to feel tall, to feel bold. I began to re-remember lessons that I’d already learned. Things that I thought I had lost slowly but surely revealed themselves. They were not gone, just dust covered and dormant. It was one of those slow, unexpected revelations, like the sun sneaking up on you, or a breeze out of nowhere. I hadn’t forgotten. I just forgot to remember: I am free, I am strong. There are no limits.
Granted, not every moment out there was as thought-provoking, not everything threw me into a soul-searching spiral. That’s one of the beauties of the field; she’s simple in all the right ways. You’re just out there working in the dirt, under the sun, washing dishes in bins, sleeping on a thin pad on the ground, and laughing at poop jokes. Your clothes are your pillows, your pants are your napkins, and rocks are your chairs. It’s the field’s simplicities that make her most distinct, most beautiful. Straightforward and honest, she is brilliantly uncomplicated.
The way she can turn a solo walk to find quiet and solitude into a dance party on a dirt road. The way she can turn a hilltop into the perfect opportunity to spin in circles with your arms out and sing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” over and over again. The way she can turn a day into an experience. In all the right ways, she allows you to exist within her beauty, she opens up to you and lets you in. When you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re hauling limbs, when you’re hiding in her shade at break, when you’re sitting around the fire… she lets you see her, she lets you connect.
She is also pretty good at making sure you stay humble. Even as staff who has been in the business for a while, the field has a way of reminding you that there is still much to be learned and that you still aren’t immune to mistakes and missteps. In fact, because you are staff you might be prone to them. Cue the time that I got a flat tire in the rig and didn’t know there was a hidden compartment in the back where the jack and spare tire lowering rod lived (apparently I should have sat in on the vehicle trouble-shooting lessons). Then cue the time when I had to ask two Forest Service Wildland Firefighters to drive me to the crew’s rig because I was convinced I didn’t have the necessary equipment to change the tire. Cue the time they insisted on changing the tire for me… Now cue my embarrassment. Oh, and also cue the time when I returned to the crew and one of the leaders had it all figured out, asking, so did your rig really not have what you needed, or did you just not know where it was? Yep, cue all of that and while we’re at it, cue the ego-check.
I managed to survive my embarrassment and by morning three was fully aware that this was not a typical field visit. Waking up inside my thin orange walls, greeted by the sounds of nature and a crowd of flies that had congregated between the mesh of my tent and my rainfly, knowing that there was no need to deflate my sleeping pad and fill my bag, that there was nowhere that I had to run off or back to. I was there and nowhere else. That’s the beauty of an extended stay, the agenda isn’t so full (if there is one at all) and there is no rush. It starts to feel and smell like home. You can let a simple game of Uno (the Disney Princess version) turn into roaring laughter. You can look up from your work and smile at the mountains. You can look up from your work and smile at the people. You can dance and sing and be silly. Above all, you can just enjoy it.
And enjoy it I did. One of my favorite and least favorite parts about the chainsaw are her mighty sounds, cause for ear-pro, and deterrent to any valuable or enjoyable human conversation. Facial expressions and body language (and, when necessary for safety, forceful yelling), become your only effective means of communicating. A head nod, a thumbs up or down, a shoulder shrug, a smile, a look of hesitancy… these are your options. The benefits of this being that you can sing any songs you want, as loudly as you want, as many times as you want, or you can have conversations with yourself. All of which I did. Another rare, yet unique bonus of the saw. Another strange source of joy.
Being able to experience days of hard work, from the sun, the sweat, and the bruises to the branches, the sawdust, and the stumps, I could feel my muscles starting to return. Tree after tree, pile after pile, I could see our progress, and as the shade grew sparse and the piles thicker, my motivation amplified. In my head I was strategizing, which tree next? Where to put this pile? What’s the most efficient? Could pairings better favor production? The project became a personal conquest. When you get to stay long enough, they often do. And when you see the crew giving it their all, when you see a sage grouse, when you see how much has been accomplished, when you put in the time, when you put in the effort, you can connect with the work in a pretty big way.
It should be said that becoming “office soft” is a real thing. Due to the scarcity of time I occupy the field, every visit I make is like going out for the first time, so by our last day of work I was spent. That morning I had counted 16 bruises spread across my legs and arms. That morning I was oh so slow to rise. But that morning I was still happy. I was excited to have to push through it, to feel what this crew felt every hitch. To feel exhausted, to feel accomplished, to feel like I’d earned something. Whether it be self-respect or pride, muscles or strength, or the personal pan pizza I would buy at the gas station on the drive back. It’s a feeling you don’t often get with office work. It’s different.
On our last night out (and another late one at that), on what the leaders and I referred to as “check-in road,” the three of us stood in a staggered line and stared at the huge, bright, almost full moon, conversing about the trials and tribulations of crew life, discussing the events of the day, the hitch, the season, and the plans moving forward. It was clear we were all exhausted, checked-out of checking-in. And after a bout of silence, they asked me how I felt, a common question for staff to ask, but not to be asked.
I’m not sure what answer they were looking for. More feedback and input on where they and their crew stood, and what should be done next, or if it was just a general question about how I truly felt in that moment or about the week. Either way, beneath that moonlight, in the absence of faces, expressions, with my only knowledge of their presence being the sound of their voices and movements, as we all looked forward together, illuminated by the night sky, without planning or thought, my mouth opened, and I answered.
I feel all of the feels.
Against my nature my words came falling out, my truths, so many things that I’d been thinking and feeling. Incomplete, jumbled, fragmented, lacking grace as my spoken words often do, but still honest, still genuine. Maybe it was the moon, the calm, the dark, the light, the exhaustion, or maybe it’s because in that moment, the field blessed me with one of her very finest of gifts; the ability to open up and be vulnerable.
I told them about the happiness I had felt over the course of the week. I told them about my appreciation for not caring what day it was, for not recognizing the difference between a Thursday and Sunday, for forgetting my reliance and dependence on the Monday-Friday schedule. I mentioned the peace that came from a lack of cellphone service, the weight that lifted from my shoulders due to the disconnection with the rest of the world.
I talked about how refreshing it was to be outside for so long, to wake up morning after morning in my tent. About how great it was to go to work and focus on nothing but cutting and piling. How great it was to use my body for physical work. How great it was to use the chainsaw again. How great it all felt, just to be out there, in the trees, under the sky, at the whim of nature. How fantastic it was to be covered in dirt, cherished proof of my week’s efforts. I felt so strong and so useful.
I talked about how connected I felt with the past, with the history I had there, not in this specific place, but in this setting. These truly were my roots. I’d spent almost five years living this life. I talked about how I missed it, how there’s nothing else like it. How great it was to smell it, to feel it, to remember. This is where I started. This is where I changed. This is where I truly started to learn to live. It meant so much to me to be able to feel purposeful, to connect to the heart of why I do this work, to remember what’s important.
I talked about the field’s unrelenting ability to allow me to feel present in life in a way that few other experiences can provide. I wasn’t worried about silly, trivial things; they hadn’t even crossed my mind. There were no deadlines or stresses. There was no rush for tomorrows because they would be just like today. This is probably one of the hardest gifts to describe, or even understand; you’re just there, you’re just in it. There’s not much else and it’s absolutely wonderful.
Staring at the moon, I admitted to them that the field affords me the opportunity to be myself in a way that few other places can. I didn’t speak of it, but I thought about how often I’d smiled in those six days, at times for seemingly no reason at all, almost as if it were involuntary. Something about being out there puts me at ease; it peels off my layers and opens me up. I am unencumbered by any obligation or expectation. I was there, effortlessly content, a version of myself I don’t often see inside four walls. I felt alive.
In just six short days I had gained so much and walking back to my tent, I knew it. I could feel the changes taking hold of me, all of those connections refreshing my soul and awakening my senses. I didn’t know it was coming, I didn’t expect, I wasn’t looking for it. But somehow the clouds passed, the wind spoke, and the moon brought clarity. Hello, welcome. I didn’t expect you, but I’m glad you’re here. This is life, and this is what it feels like to go home.
Now, as I sit inside my four walls, I am recharged, grounded, and grateful. Do it for the sage grouse, yes, but just as well, do it for the people. Give them these opportunities. Opportunities to be changed. Opportunities to find connection. Opportunities to find themselves. And if four walls can help to accomplish all of that, well then, at least I have these walls.
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