I came to Mile High Youth Corps nineteen months ago as an AmeriCorps Leadership & Conservation Corpsmember. I am now halfway through serving another 10 month term – this time as the Alumni Mentor for Conservation. I rove with all five summer crews in the field, meaning I’m exposed to many interesting people and places.
Of those sites I’ve visited this summer, one stands out, in part because I was given a camera that day to document the site. It was a Russian Olive removal project in an Adams County swamp located near a saw mill. I worked with a crew member named Stephan. The stand of trees we tackled was deeply shaded and the ground matted with black mud. We had to throw down logs around our work site simply to avoid sinking into the earth.
Stephan cut in the morning while I dragged out slash, down a path I had trammeled through the reeds. With waders on, I would dip into a canal to bring the tangled debris across the water, where it would be dumped near a chipper – I suppose we were on an island. Slowly we worked deeper into the swamp, and the sunlight grew flush in the negative space we exposed by cutting down trees. Pulling slash creates micro-stress across your back and down the back of your legs, as branches, leaves and thorns catch on roots, rocks and other trees, tugging you in many small directions and many small ways. With the distance growing that I had to travel dragging wood, we contemplated stringing together a raft to send our refuse floating down the water – but it was nothing more than an idea.
Stephan and I certainly pushed each other. It was difficult for him to keep cutting if there was a lot of junk he cut in his way, so I was under pressure to make haste for his sake. I felt guilty when he “caught” me in the water taking a photo of some branches – a moment during production stolen for expression. But perhaps not stolen away from work, or, in opposition to working. Having the camera with me that day heightened my sense of the environment, and was a source of joy. It helped me come to terms with the density of green. In a way, ownership through photography anticipated, complemented and softened the task I had of conquering these trees in the physical realm. It helped me approach the day with more presence.
Many people see nature as an occasion for photography. Arguably, most experiences of nature are visual. Even when we go on hikes, for example, it is often with the aim to reach the top, to get the best “views” – the best views, of course, being void of human presence. Vistas that are befitting of postcards. Before working at Mile High Youth Corps, certainly my own experience of nature was visual. Now, it is more oriented towards the tactile. Whether cutting Russian Olives, digging trail, building rock structures, or even spraying pesticide, I’ve come to experience nature as something inextricably linked with human labor and society, not just something pretty to look at in the distance. But what made that day in the swamp so interesting was the combination of the tactile and the visual. With the camera, I could begin to express this new, more intimate, relationship with nature, expanding my sense of what is beautiful or worthy of attention. The unusual, watery, and quasi-industrial landscape; the hard work; the camaraderie – as well as my ability to capture my experience on film – all enriched my experience of that day. The feelings I fostered there I try to bring with me whenever I go into the field, and moving forward, into future labors and recreations.