- October 02, 2014
- Posted by James J. Crumpler, III
Weed spraying is not the most glamorous work in the Montana Conservation Corps. It requires little muscle, good eyes, and the ability to walk in a roughly straight line. It is mind-numbing work, but needs to be done. Over the years, various exotic/invasive species of plants have changed the flora of the Northern Great Plains region, including Fort Union National Historic Site and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We were doing spot control for Leafy Spurge, Canada Thistle, and Burdock. This meant sprayers filled with Milestone, Riverdale Razor, and Plateau herbicides, plenty of music, and the legs to get you from one field to the next. It was boring, mind-numbing work.
We worked primarily in the Cottonwood Campground of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There are two loops in the camp, one is open year round and the other is closed during the winter. The Little Missouri River cuts its way slowly through the North Dakota badlands a scant two hundred meters away from the camp, changing the landscape in its slow meandering way. The cottonwood trees, presumably the trees after which the campground derives its name, were starting to change color from a light green of the summer to the various hues of gold and silver for fall. The temperature radically changed from ninety-one degrees on September 26 to the forties on September 29. The crewmembers of five months ago had become, in all but pay, equal to their crew leaders in responsibility and expertise. After arriving in May, we have done that thing nature forces us to do in that we have changed.
Crewmembers, on my crew, are from eastern states where the deciduous trees make for a vibrantly colored fall. Here, Montana/North Dakota, the trees are mostly conifers, that do not change as visibly as back in Ohio, or wherever you are from east of the Mississippi River. The wind has picked up as well, mostly from the north, cooling temperatures further making us almost grateful for the full body Tyvek suites we wore.
We spread out in a line, about two to threes yards apart, with sprayers strapped to our backs and a hose running from the pack to a wand that dispensed the herbicide in a spray immediately in front of us. This meant we were constantly walking through herbicide. The Tyvek suites kept the bulk of the herbicide off our pants and shirts. Unfortunately, our boots were not protected. The boots will probably remain a dull blue-green for the rest of their existence. We walked in line, as much a line as possible, dodging trees, bushes, and sometimes each other, spraying invasive species of plants with the same vigor one might experience if you were assigned the assassination of one hundred thousand plants within a single city block. The first few would be exciting, but soon you get tired and stop caring and just want to finish. It makes for a good reflection period, if you do not have a good audio-book/music to make the time pass more easily.
Five months ago, May, we arrived in Montana. Many of the guys were clean-shaven, but we quickly agreed to hold off shaving till the end of our term of service. Six months of facial hair growth will create some interesting results. We are all from different places and backgrounds, some with college and others without, but we do share a common interest in working in the outdoors and conservation as a field of work. Regardless of reason, we found ourselves here.
I cannot speak for how anyone changed, other than myself. First are the physical changes. My shoulders are broader, mostly from time spent in Shoshone National Forest. We did two extended hitches in the Shoshone, and the packs we carried were not exactly light. It was with some trepidation that I arrived because of lack of muscle. Running cross country and track throughout college makes for a great cardiovascular system, but the strength to walk and the strength to run are two different things. In addition, you must be able to walk a long ways and have the ability to work upon arrival with whatever tool you may be carrying. A Pulaski was a personal favorite, but picks, shovels, rhinos (a variation of a hoe), and a pole-saw were commonly used as well. Muscles ached and strained, and over time healed and grew stronger. Still lean, but now I have the shoulders and arms that can swing a pick for most of the day without wavering. My hair has gotten longer creating a new problem of sweat heavy hair languorously hanging in front of my eyes. Push it to one side, and it might stay there for all of thirty seconds before is mindlessly moves back to the eyes. A scraggly beard and mustache now cover a previously clean-shaven face. With it, I look my age, and without it I look maybe 2-3 years younger. If a beautiful girl should ask me to shave, I will, but that is for a different day.
Mental changes are a little harder to note. With all the journal entries, blogs, letters, and conversations it feels like thoughts and ideas remain the same. This is a lie of course. The environment changes and this creates new thoughts, new ideas, and new ways of interacting with the world. Maybe evolution of thoughts and ideas would be a better term. For instance, at the beginning of my term of service we were all issued a booklet of PLACE lessons. These are a set of curriculum to promote leadership and citizenship among crewmembers. A recent lesson had us break into groups to present on a topic, and Courtney and I did a lesson on the Bakken Region of Montana and North Dakota. Namely, should we allow the growth of oil and natural gas production in these states? We established a town hall styled debate, with people taking on the point of view of the oil companies and citizens of a small town. Courtney and I presided as the city council. We heard the arguments and declined to issue a permit. It is an issue where I am on the fence. Billings has grown as a result of oil/gas production. Money has come into the state allowing investment in local businesses, growth in government spending, and a surplus in the budget. These are good things. I would not have been on the fence six months ago, and would have ‘voted’ firmly against issuing a permit. Now, the perspective has changed, where once the risks to the environment outweighed all other considerations, living in Billings has changed the way I think. It is a more moderate position, multi-faceted, and more mature.
The seasons change, and in the long months of summer, it is hard to think of a time when it will be cold. Likewise, in the long months of winter, it is hard to think of a time when it will be warm. We are about to work exclusively on weatherization of homes, which is the Montana Conservation Corps way of saying we are almost done with our work. People I have worked with for the past several months are now looking for other jobs. Some are looking for whatever work may be found with the government, others are looking at private industry, and others are looking at other conservation corps units in the country. Mostly, it is a haphazard process. I am looking at trying to make my way in the world, and I cannot do that working at the minimum wage level. Private industry pays more, but public service is more rewarding even if no one cares about the work that is done for the public interest and the common good. Change is in the air, it is fall, and the season is changing.
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