Saturday, September 8, 2012

Clearing Brush at Camp Lake Stephens

"Editor's" Note: This was written a couple days ago, so excuse the present tense. Also, I'm mostly healed now and thanking my platelets profusely for it.

I have not counted the scratches, pinpricks and bug bites covering my arms, legs, neck, knees, wrists and hands, but if I did it would probably be well over a hundred. Some of them are straight, including a six-inch doozy on my right arm; many, however, are curved. One scratch on my left knee resembles a stratovolcano in shape. Another pair on my left bicep combine to form a perfect T. According to my friend Rii, the back of my right calf is sporting bloody Japanese characters. My limbs look basically like I tried to shave my entire body and it went catastrophically wrong. I’m covered in a fine layer of grime, bark, twigs and sweat; my wrists ache, my back hurts and my right heel is throbbing like crazy. And even considering all that discomfort, I haven’t felt this incredibly contented since I don’t remember when.

Such is the fruit of the Camp Lake Stephens service project, upon which Americorps NCCC is currently engaged. We are spending three days in the general area of Ole Miss, doing team-building exercises and performing mitzvot. The three units—Summit (we wear hats!), Ocean and Bayou—are rotating through three different activities: completing a ropes course, competing in what’s been dubbed the “Amerilympics”, and doing some sort of service project in or around the aforementioned Camp Lake. My unit, Summit, did our service project this afternoon; tomorrow is the ropes course, and we finish up with the Amerilympics on Friday before hopping in the vans and driving the four-ish hours back to Vicksburg.

My task, which I volunteered for, was clearing twelve to fifteen feet of underbrush away from the edges of the athletic field. To do this, we were given loppers (that clip off small-to-medium branches), fire rakes (massive beefed-up rakes that are designed for clearing away debris), hacksaws and welcome but imperfect gloves. We also had J-blades, essentially small J-shaped machetes on sticks, which looked fearsome but were basically useless. Our enemies—I mentioned in a previous post how the South just goes nuts with climbing vines—our enemies were mostly these gigantic vines that went as far as fifty feet up the trees. There were these green thorny bastards that went up for miles, great brown vines an inch in diameter that often required several people to pull down from the tops of trees, and for some reason, rusty barbed wire that had probably been there for over a century. Once, I saw a foot-thick tree that had apparently grown up around the wire and absorbed it into itself.

The green thorny vines were the source of most of my scratches and pinpricks; the gloves stopped them most of the time, but if you weren’t careful or grabbed them in the wrong place, they went through the gloves like nothing was there. It was fairly common for people to get just enmeshed in the vines while attempting to carry them out of the forest to be burned. The bastards even untied our shoes by sticking to the knots! They also tended to grow horizontally when not next to a tree, meaning that you could be thrashing your way through a thicket of them and have no way to get to the point where they come out of the ground, which is where we were supposed to cut them.

It was good, hard work, though. Over time, a natural kind of teamwork developed. I lopped vines off at the source and Jim, a teammate with a fire rake, dragged them away with loose branches that had accumulated on the ground. Teammates with J-blades and hacksaws took care of the branches that the lopper couldn’t cut, and the fire rakes—which I kept calling fire axes because that’s what I think—dragged everything away. I can’t count the number of times that I was dragging vines out and one troublesome vine was still attached to the ground, and a teammate snipped the offending vine for me (or the reverse, with me doing the snipping). We had an enormous bonfire going with all this wood, and as time went on, the front line of where we were cutting got farther and farther from the fire. So I would, or the fire axes would, drag the vines and branches to the edge of the tree line and then other CMs would drag them to the fire. We had multiple people dragging vines down from trees, carrying whole logs out of the forest and breaking them down. It was great.

And we were productive, too. I’m not sure exactly how far it was, but we cleared better than one-third of the tree line along the edges of the field. I would estimate at least fifty to sixty yards were cleared by the time we were done. I got my nicks and cuts while fighting through that line of forest. There’s something immensely satisfying about being able to see the results of your work, though. And it’s even more satisfying to do physical labor all day and then see the results of your work. I’m a little sorry we won’t be doing more of this—clearing brush and things like that are more traditional NCCC projects then they are FEMA Corps duty—but it was nice to have that experience today. I certainly have no regrets over volunteering for underbrush duty; I’d take it over painting or something any day, scratches and all, for the sense of contentment at the end.

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