In the spring before graduation, my roommate Lucas and I had a combined total of over 250 job applications out. So far he was the only one who’d had an interview. I had promised myself I’d quit that shitty law clerk job as soon as I was out of school, but it was starting to look like it might not be that easy.
It was 2010 and still pretty much the heart of the recession. “The Economy” was an easy scapegoat for the trouble I’d had, but in reality I was just feeling a little lost. My anemic cover letters must have betrayed my lack of conviction.
Lucas came back to the apartment one night in late spring. “Well, I got a job. It’s just a manual labor thing, but I guess it’ll be cool to work outside this summer. Get tan, or whatever.” I tossed him a PBR. “Hell yeah, man! Plenty of time to land something else before the fall.” “Yeah, for sure. It’s just for the summer.”
A month or so later, I’d just been chewed out by my attorney again for misfiling some paperwork. I thought about Lucas out in the sunshine. I walked in my bosses office and basically told him to get fucked. By the end of the week I’d applied, interviewed, drug tested and taken the job. “It’s just for the summer, right?”
On my first day, a crew member accidentally decapitated a bunny with a brush cutter. I raked wet, heavy goldenrod stems into piles along a concrete path for 8 hours. It was 85 degrees. At the end of that week I was too tired to go party. It was the first time in recent memory that I wasn’t going out on a Friday night. I was certain I’d made a mistake, but came back in on Monday.
After a month I’d been sunburned enough times that I was actually wearing sunscreen now. I’d learned the great joy of removing muddy steeltoe boots and wet socks at the end of a long day. I was back to partying on Fridays, especially paydays.
More interesting things started happening too. The vague outlines of plants would play on my eyelids as I fell asleep at night. I’d developed legitimate feelings of hatred for invasives (Canada thistle is easy to hate), and I even began to feel a little protective of the few natives I now knew by name. I was moving beyond being sore and starting to feel strong. I was more aware of my breathing.
I started to understand ecosystems. Just a little bit.
I grew up near the edge of Old School Forest Preserve in Lake County. I was shy as a kid, so I spent much of my time wandering through the woods and prairies alone. For all of my adventures getting muddy along the Des Plaines, I couldn’t name a single species, not even the omnipresent oak. With my new “plant vision”, one day I returned there to see what there was to see. I discovered the forests were loaded with buckthorn. The prairies were infested with Solidago altissima. Old School used to loom large in memory as a magical, untouched place. Now I was worried about who was preserving what little was left.
I told my boss, Joe, about the experience at work on Monday. “Aldo Leopold has this quote,” he said. “It’s something like: ‘One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.’ I guess that’s kind of what you’re describing.”
“Who the fuck is Aldo Leopold?” I asked. He loaned me “A Sand County Almanac”. Then he loaned me “A Natural History of the Chicagoland Region”. I loaned him “Nature’s Metropolis.” Lucas bought a copy of Swink & Wilhelm for the truck.
I talked a lot to the Mexican guys about the plants we were blasting with glyophosate. They told me how they belong in food and in medicine. “Yo pongo diente de león en un té. Esta muy bueno por su hígado.” “¿Cuál es hígado?” I asked, and he pointed at my side. “Liver?” I ask. Mario conferred with Antonio in Spanish. Antonio explained, “Yeah guey, liver.” They both smiled.
Another coworker, a Liberian guy, remembered playing with berries from the African genus of Phytolacca americana as a boy. “During the war, my brother and I smeared the berries on our skin ‘cause it looked like blood. One time we tricked my mom to think we’d been shot.” He paused, “Kids are cruel, man.” I said nothing, but I’d played with them too. I was amazed by the mystery as this plant connected his childhood to mine across continents, through conflict and through time. It had never occurred to me that they looked like blood.
I started hearing stories that I wasn’t sure how to believe. About trees communicating through mycelial networks. About a sympathy chemical that plants release when a nearby plant is injured. About people who cured cancer with nothing but herbs, fresh air, and gratitude.
We passed the entire summer this way. Lucas and I rode our bikes to work every sunrise, and went to bed as soon as the sun set.
I remember the day when a cool wind finally forced me to throw on my long-sleeved shirt as I relaxed in the grass after lunch. I remembered all of the jobs I was going to apply for that summer, but never did.
Another day, just before the frost, a cold, hard rain was blasted down on my back as I crawled on hands and knees through the mud. We were racing to get the last plugs of the season into the ground. A coworker motioned up to a yellow, glowing high-rise in the distance and sarcastically asked me, “Wouldn’t you love to be nice and warm in one of those offices right now?” I thought about the law office and all of the mundanity and bullshit and business casual. “Not even now,” I responded. “Oh yeah, you a yard dog now?” We laughed. “Guess so.”
I learned to burn. I learned to use a chainsaw. They sent us to the Ozarks, Michigan, tons of magical places in Chicagoland. I loved it almost all of the time.
My girlfriend and I broke up. We’d dated all through college, but she said she felt like we were going different directions. I knew what she really meant by that.
In the spring, Joe asked Lucas and I to help lead crews as the summer workers returned. I urged kids fresh out of college to wear more sunscreen. I felt smug when they got burned. My spanish improved.
“Tú ves la differencia de ellos? No esta la misma. Este se llama “cat tails”, como el gato. Este se llama “Iris”, como el nombre ‘Íris.’ ¿Claro?”
Lucas and I would stay late to clean trucks and organize the shop. I hated doing it, but would agree as long as we had beer to pass the time. It was a good compromise.
The problem with having more responsibility is that you have more reason to worry. You learn things like how to split up a crew carefully among tasks depending on the relative speed of the worker and the relative complexity of the assignment. If everybody finishes around the same time, and there are no wasted man-hours, you’ve done your job well. If not, you feel guilty.
You learn to work ahead of a crew if you want them to speed up. You work behind if you’re afraid they’re being careless. When morale is low, you work right alongside and make fun of yourself.
You touch the soil less.
You call Joe at noon to explain that it’s slow going out there and he reminds you that you have two more sites to get to today. Guys with degrees in ecology challenge your flimsy authority, and you know it’s a fraud. You think things like “I need a raise for this shit”. You’re “over it” about the beauty of Liatris, and you don’t think it’s funny anymore to imagine gnomes living under the leaves of a mayapple. You don’t flinch when a bunny gets whacked with a brush cutter, because shit happens and you’re on a tight schedule.
Meanwhile your car needs to get into the shop, but you’ve been dumb with what little money you have. Your mom is trying to get you to do freelance work for her company on the weekends. And your new girlfriend, who started off thinking your outdoor job is cool, has started asking you what your long-term plans are for yourself. You realize you have no long-term plans for yourself.
Then all of a sudden it’s fall again and you’re excited to burn, and for chainsaws, and coveralls. The size of the crew gets cut down to a third of it’s summer size and you’re falling asleep at 7pm sore and exhausted and happy.
But one beautiful, sunny winter day, with freshly fallen snow still clinging to the branches, Sienko says something about how he wishes he could appreciate nature on his own terms like he used to. For some reason this sticks with you more than anything a mom or a girlfriend ever could have said, because, yeah, it’s a fucking tragedy that you’re out here on a beautiful winter day, surrounded by all this wonder, mentally calculating man-hours again.
Lucas joined the Peace Corps that spring. Under different conditions, it wouldn’t have bothered me that he was moving out and moving on, but with everything else, I had to admit defeat. I toughed it out for another few months, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I’d gotten lazy and sloppy and I didn’t even think Joe would be sad to see me go. After two years, I put in my two weeks.
I hustled to string together five different jobs that summer, and barely thought about missing nature. I went close to three months without a day off before eventually getting the kind of job my mom always thought I should have. I decided on some level that maybe she had been right all along.
By fall I was exhausted. A few friends invited me to the Sleeping Bear Dunes for a camping trip, and I was grateful to accept.
It was October and the leaves had begun to turn. The marram grass shushed in the breeze, mingling with the sound of waves coming off the lake. The stars blazed fearlessly overhead. I explained the cool intricacies of dunal succession to my friends by flashlight, pointing out wild blueberries, beach wormwood, sassafras, Cirsium pitcherii.
At some point it started to snow. It looked like I was meeting nature on my own terms again.
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