By: Darren Lu
At the start of a new service term, 10 months seems like an eternity. Huddled next to the wood stove as the harsh New England winter rages outside, spring feels like a dream; summer looms so far over the horizon that its mere existence seems almost fantastical to contemplate. The ebb and flow of life in Hawley holds a similar cyclical pattern to the familiar changing of seasons. During education training, our thoughts wander ahead to the beginning of Education Season. As the weeks pass by during our school service, we imagine Conservation Season and the adventures that await. Winter turns to spring and the Corps transitions from environmental education to conservation crew duties. Still, our minds race ahead of us, from training to Spring Hitch, from Hitch 1 to Hitch 2, and onwards from there, always looking to the future. As the end-of-term approaches and the inevitability of the future is thrust inexorably upon us, we find ourselves presented with perhaps the most intractable challenge of all—to look back. As expectations turn to reality, then to memory, what have we gained? What have we given?
28 months ago, I joined the SCA New Hampshire Corps and my life changed in ways I could never have imagined. In January of 2016, I stepped off the plane in Manchester, NH, having never experienced snow or real seasons, never camped recreationally, and never belonged to a community dedicated to bettering the communities around it. In November of that same year, I drove from Los Angeles to Arizona’s Chiricahua National Monument, ready to engage my newfound conservation skills with the National Park Service. A year later, I returned to New England, this time as a member of the SCA Massachusetts AmeriCorps. I had weathered one New England winter and grown from hapless city-dweller to seasoned SCA member. What new challenges could the Mass Corps possibly pose?
Of course, the only real certainty of any SCA position is that it will diverge wildly from any situation one has faced in the past. Over the course of ten months, I found myself roaming the great commonwealth of Massachusetts at will, each day bringing forth a slew of novel predicaments. During the seemingly eternal winter, the main concern was merely to temporarily avert death via freezing, while simultaneously striving to connect with youth at the local elementary school. While the melting of the snows alleviated these concerns, like the proverbial six-headed hydra, new challenges arose in their place. Conservation season began with wilderness medicine in the snow, proceeded to chainsaw training in the snow, and finally culminated in the first hitch, during which we were blessed to build a bridge under the actual warming gaze of the benevolent sun. In that moment, consumed as we were by our youthful exuberance and naivete, we thought that the worst of times had passed us by at last. Alas, the New England deities responsible for meteorological variation proved to be cruel beings. The warmth of summer could turn to a vengeful tempest in a moment. Huddling beneath the trees during yet another thunderstorm that simply refused to leave us in peace, the future seemed distant at best, nonexistent at worst. Beyond the mere fluctuations of local weather phenomena, poison ivy, ticks, errant boulders, and widowmakers loomed at every turn. Trusting only in each other and in the SCA safety standards that guided our every decision, we faced these instruments of providence and defeated each in turn.
At the end of it all we find ourselves standing athwart the culmination of our accomplishments, our collective tasks completed at last. We look to the future with anticipation, but also with trepidation. We plan, act, plan again, act again. In the midst of it all, we improbably find time to ponder our legacy and the lasting impact of the service we’ve performed. Elementary school students grow up and forget; bridges rot and decay; trails erode back to the landscape. One need only survey Massachusetts’ distinct mixture of century-old stone walls and modern-era new-growth forests to understand that, in New England, it is the landscape, rather than the people, who persist. Within the span of our own lifetimes, the corpsmembers here will be able to witness the natural and possibly unnatural destruction of our labor. Yet, it is in the face of this ostensible futility that the true meaning of our service to the commonwealth of Massachusetts becomes clear. Through each new trail and bog bridge, out of each rock staircase and timber turnpike, we forge the purpose of our labor within ourselves and each other. We have used our hands and tools to construct physical things; through the construction of the physical, we have built in each and every one of us the next generation of conservation leaders. Through ten months of hands-on service to the land, we have inspired in this corps lifelong stewardship of the environment and communities. The fruits of our labor will inevitably and inexorably rot away. The seeds of our service will live on and flower, one generation to the next. This, more than anything, is reflected in those of us who must now leave this place we’ve come to call our home.