The Tree Detour (5)
This blog post was originally written and published on September 26, 2019. It details my experiences as a community tree planter with the Student Conservation Association in 2018.
My next job was going to be as a tree planter.
The guy who went on and on about artificial intelligence this and cognitive science that?
A perpetually scrawny skeleton who has never performed any kind of manual labor in his entire life?
Despite finally obtaining a job after 8 grueling months of unemployment, the ungrateful part of me still felt like I was taking on a job that was both a step down and a step away from my ideal work in research and academia. I didn’t know it yet, but this seemingly dirty and menial job intended for recent high school and college graduates was going to be one of the defining experiences of my 20’s.
The non-profit that employed me, the Student Conservation Association, had teamed up with local city officials, the Department of Lands and Resources, and a local arborist named Andrew Hart to start a program called CommuniTree. My crew, the Calumet Tree Corps, was a part of the urban revitalization program and our job was to travel throughout Northwest Indiana planting trees in a variety of areas such as: on the shores of the Indiana Dunes, in dilapidated parks of cities, on the front lawns, and on elementary school campuses.
Being a tree planter was quite different from my previous jobs because of how much it tested me physically. My crew and I were outside all the time shoveling, lifting, planting, and watering trees in all kinds of weather. Every Saturday, my crew would lead volunteer planting events where we would teach between 5 to 50 volunteers of all ages the appropriate methods for planting and maintaining a tree. While at first, managing all of these volunteers felt daunting for only a crew of 4 people, over time our experiences helped transform us into excellent instructors and event organizers.
When we weren’t planting trees or educating the community, my crew was given numerous opportunities to explore the surprisingly rich number of natural spaces in the area. During these ‘environmental education’ days, we would explore the Indiana Dunes, our nation’s newest National Park, alongside other local natural spaces. We learned how glaciers helped form the unique structure of the Indiana Dunes and why it’s important to maintain the integrity of the Dune’s biome. I canoed for the first time in my life and learned how birds relied on our pond system for hunting and raising young. These experiences in forest, bogs, and sand dunes marked the second paradigm shift in my understanding of my hometown of Hammond and Northwest Indiana. My home wasn’t the concrete jungle I believed it was. It was a nuanced mixture of both nature and industry.
While my crew and I learned about nature and the benefits of trees, we also learned about other things, like how to care for a city. Communicating with Hammond’s Director of Parks and Recreation, we learned how local departments coordinate activities like street renovations, trash removals, and park revitalization. We sat in on meetings with our local Department of Natural Resources to learn how they maintained protected spaces and appealed for grant money from the state capital. By asking our SCA supervisors important questions, we learned what role environmental non-profits play in introducing conservation projects to cities and in promoting eco-friendly legislative policies. Ultimately, all of these interactions helped paint a picture for me about how the whole public service system worked. I got to see firsthand how much time, effort, resources, and coordination it takes to get these seemingly mundane activities off the ground. Most importantly, I understood how committed my city administrators were in regards to promoting a healthy and beautiful city.
My time as a tree planter showed me how anyone can make a difference right now. During our time as crew members, my crew leader, BreShaun Spikes, started a service day project where he makes meals for homeless people and passes them out in downtown Chicago. His willingness to take action helped give him the confidence to follow his scriptwriting dreams to direct his first short film. Another crew member, Leopold, has since gone on to work as an adviser for a financial firm whose aims are to promote financial literacy to the public.
As for me, working with the SCA enabled me to gain wonderful mentors. For example, people like Andrew Hart, the one who started the CommuniTree program, and our amazing regional managers Daiva and Chris-Micheal. Very often, these three would come down from Chicago to help us plant trees, manage volunteer events, and expose us to all the different facets of environmental management. With their help (and letters of recommendation), I have finally been able to achieve my goal of continuing my education by applying to graduate school, of which, I have thus far received two acceptance letters from Indiana University Bloomington and DePaul University.
In summary, this job that I initially believed to be dirty, menial, and somewhat beneath me turned out to be one of the most meaningful experiences of my entire life. It helped me learn how to look beyond myself and into the wider system of my community, my local organizations, and the beauty of the natural environment. Between community service and my volunteer days with the Field Museum, these combined experiences helped me realize how much I enjoy teaching others and promoting spaces that allow people of all ages to engage in their own intellectual pursuit.
Even though this job didn’t directly help me learn about AI algorithms or let me rub elbows with world class professors of cognitive science, this experience helped me achieve something even better: It helped make me more human.