A volunteering story by: Chris Clason

When Matt chose to work for the forest service to complete his community service hours, he inwardly congratulated himself for selecting such a cushy job. The other kids would all be toiling away in hot warehouses sorting donations, he thought, while he would be leisurely hiking along alone in nature, only occasionally interrupting his reverie to stoop and pick up a piece of litter here and there. Perhaps he’d even get away with sitting down to smoke and read a book for a while, as long as he returned with a full bag of trash at the end of the day. How wrong he was! His dreams of idly whiling away the day were dashed from the very first hour, as the Forest Ranger gathered the troops and detailed the work for the day. Matt was soon disabused of the idea that forest walking trails develop organically and are only disturbed by human visitors. It seems nature itself conspires against them, with rocks, trees, leaves, and animals creating a constant barrage against an orderly path. Far from conducting idyllic strolls through pristine pathways, Matt’s service consisted mainly of backbreaking manual labor, digging out and moving boulders that had rolled onto trails, chopping up fallen logs blocking paths, building steps and even bridges in more difficult terrain. At one point, they discovered someone had illegally built a hut in the forest, either for squatting or hunting. This had to be dismantled, as neither purpose was allowed. There was even an overnight experience where the ranger took the kids out for a night of ‘roughing it,’ where they had to find shelter, make a fire, and scrounge for food.

The Inspiration

Matt lived an interesting teenagehood that did not always fit within the confines of the law. For fairly typical types of young male delinquency, he found himself faced with 80 hours of court ordered community service. Although he was grateful that such was the turn of events, as it could have been so much worse, he mused, he was not terribly looking forward to actually completing the hours. He was given a certain time period to complete them, and admittedly he procrastinated for a bit too long before beginning. When the pressure really started to come on strong, he finally got his butt in gear, but he had only 20 days left to complete them. Thankfully it was summer, without school to complicate the timing, so he selected the San Juan National Forest Service and set up to work 8 hours a day every other day for 10 days. The Forest Service appealed him not only because he thought it would be the easiest job, but because being outside in a beautiful national park seemed a much better setting to complete court ordered community service hours than a hot and humid warehouse or bland office building. His mother and father, by now quite resentfully accustomed to Matt’s vacillating relationship with the law, also played a factor in this selection. Other, previous community service experiences had not seemed to impart many transformative qualities to their errant son, so they thought perhaps a bit of outdoor manual labor might do some good. Matt suspects that they were quite aware of the nature of the work ahead, but that they played along with his sly expectation of easy employment anyway.

The Aha! moment…

Matt’s parents were not totally inaccurate in their hopeful assessment of the impact of the experience on their wayward son. Even though he was well taken aback by his gross misinterpretation of the activity expected from him, he found himself enjoying the endeavor more than he had expected, especially when he compared it to the dirty gruel of sorting donations. Not to say that forest service work is not dirty, in fact quite the opposite. However, getting caked with substrate produced from the forest in the undertaking of improving the park seemed incalculably more pure, more wholesome than accidentally coming into contact with human biowaste from discarded/donated pants. In the process, Matt also noticed that the labor was having a desirable effect on his physique and endurance, which he also fancied might in turn have a desirable effect on his success with the ladies. Although rebellious teenage boys have a way of obstinately insulating themselves from the recognition of incipient personal growth, Matt recalls feeling pleasantly surprised at the level of dopamine reward response from the payoff of hard work. More concretely, he also wondered at how quickly and easily nature seems to be able to undo all the toils of humans upon its grounds, reclaiming its uncultivated essence with frightening speed. In later moments of dubious mental clarity, this observation gave him vaguely unsettling feelings of the juxtaposition of the preciousness of our time on Earth and the futility of human industry.

To summarize it in three words…

  • Wholesome, Backbreaking, Agrarian

Why should you do this

Now that Matt is a successful and productive member of society with a family of his own, he does look back rather more endearingly at his community service experiences than he did at the time. Although he dearly hopes that his son will not turn out to be such a hellion as he was, he would not hesitate to suggest Forest Service as a manner of reform if need be, or to any others in search of an enriching volunteer experience, court ordered, parent mandated, or otherwise.

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