The same year that I published my first book of poetry, I learned to build trails. While building a bridge out of red maple and black ash, I thought about building a story. Moving stones to build a staircase, is not so different from moving words to construct an essay. The first time I sharpened my own ax I thought about sharpening pencils. At night, the lake where I was living looked like ink.
As I began my year of service with the Student Conservation Association, my goal was to strike a balance between my commitments to writing, community, and the environment. Sitting around the big table in our communal dining room the twenty people I would be spending the next year with introduced themselves.
Name. Hometown. Major. One other fact about yourself.
One after the other these recent college graduates described themselves in disciplines: Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, Geography, Geology, Natural Resource Management, Environmental Law, Landscape Architecture, Chemistry, Forestry… and then there was me.
Everyone was surprised to find an English major in their midst.
I entered college intending to study English and education and become a high school teacher. I had simple plans that reflected my simple view of the world around me. However, in college I began taking environmental studies courses that confronted me with the complexity of issues such as environmental racism, consumerism, globalization, and climate change.
As avid hikers and campers my family and I had long been advocates for environmental responsibility on an individual basis: turning off lights, recycling, conserving water. However, my college courses introduced me to systems of power, human and ecological, that would not be resolved by turning off the faucet while I brushed my teeth. I began to understand the dynamics of a world in which the health of our schools was related to the health of our communities and the health of our environment. Throughout college I began to see the world — and myself in it — in new ways.
Many of these realizations came as much from studying politics as from studying poetry. As a writing major I felt almost as though I was moonlighting across campus. Sneaking sustainability in between stanzas, studying landscapes when I should be studying literature. But living this double life convinced me that these two disciplines had something important to share with each other. Reading authors like Wendell Berry, Edward Abby, and Terry Tempest Williams helped me see that there was a critical dialogue about our land and our culture going on, and I though maybe I could contribute to that conversation. Increasingly, I began to believe that there was a way to protect land, not just through real estate transactions, but also through literary composition.
While my environmental ethic was sparked in the classroom, it was forged in the community and on the land through my work with SCA. With its complex mix of public and private lands, incredible wealth and desperate poverty, towering high peaks and deep glacial lakes, the Adirondack Park is a thrilling place to explore the social, political, and aesthetic connections between land, literature, and culture. My passion for these issues grew in no small part from the people and the places I encountered while living there.
My SCA program consisted of five months of work in local schools and five months of conservation service throughout the Park. For me and the twenty other corps members this experience served as a laboratory of sorts. I taught third graders environmental education through poetry and stories. I built trails all day and wrote long passages and poems in the night. I facilitated a community writing course on ecological imagination and sense of place. I listened to stone masons and carpenters talk about the trinity of work, land, and community. And when they talked, they did not give me facts, quote statistics, or even state their opinions… they told stories. Through my own work, side by side with these skilled crafts people, and through their stories, I developed a distinct interest in the power of hard work to bring people together and build unique affinities to place.
My homes have always been storied landscapes. The trails I hiked as a child traced ridgelines and storylines, intersecting in natural and narrative places. Now, in my fifth year on the national board of directors for the Student Conservation Association I have had the opportunity to travel the country and hear the stories of hundreds of SCA volunteers and alums. I often see myself in the stories they tell. So often they too came to SCA to make new connections between issues and people and place. I feel lucky to get the chance to talk to such passionate and inspiring young people. Their stories are the literature of our work on the land, the poetry of our commitment to each other, the narrative of our nation.
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