Participating in a conservation corps program like the Maine Conservation Corps (MCC) would be an important, transformative experience for young people at any time in history, but it is particularly impactful right now, at this particular point in history for both the young people who participate and for our communities, because of the ways it demands coming to know the complexity, contradictions and beauty within people different from yourself.
In case you aren’t familiar with how the MCC works, teams of 6 or 7 people, ages 18 and up, from all over the United States are formed in late May, or in late August. They live and work together in the woods of Maine for five or nine days at a time for 3 months. This is an intense environment for sure! We are working from 7 am to 4:30 pm, with 15 minute breaks at 10 and 2 and 30 minutes for lunch. Then, depending on whether you are on a front country or back country hitch, there can be a long list of chores to do at camp, from cooking, sorting and storing food properly, setting up bear hangs, collecting firewood, building a fire, collecting, treating and carrying water, cleaning up, digging sump holes and latrines, and doing dishes. By the time all that is done, you and your team are free to swim, play cards, tell silly stories by the fire, read, explore the area around your camp, or just wind down in your tent and sleep, a lot. This set-up requires that everyone participate in getting all these things done. It means that people are often tired. In the beginning, depending upon everyone’s starting points with social settings, camping, manual work, work in general, and so on, people are in various stages of transition while they get used to life at MCC. And transitions are generally stressful. This creates an environment where people are being perhaps their truest, rawest selves. It’s hard to hide or put up a front when you’re stressed, tired or with the same people 24/7.
I was on a crew that focused on rock work. I think rock work in particular reveals a lot about who someone is and how they function. It can be slow, frustrating, difficult and creative work. It can also be really fun! But when you’re trying to set a rock into thick, wet muck, and you can’t see the bottom of your hole to know what’s in the way of the rock finally settling in properly, or when you discover there’s another giant rock in your way, and getting it out would require two more people, two more tools located a half a mile away, and ripping up the work you’ve already done, you learn about people. You get to know who’s calm and positive, who’s got wacky ideas, who’s edge of frustration is just below the surface, who’s a collaborator, who’s persistent and who’s willing to get really muddy. We might not even know these things about ourselves until we find ourselves navigating these tricky situations.
And it’s this environment where authenticity emerges which is so powerful and important, on both a personal level, and in our society. Everyone’s truest selves, their strengths, weaknesses, quirks and complexities are slowly revealed for all to see. It’s not often in our modern lives where we have a chance to glimpse a stranger so fully. So many situations give us just a slice of someone- in a classroom, in a board meeting, on the school bus, at a café, in the office, as a housemate, on a sports team, on the street. We might know our close friends, or partners intimately because they share their thoughts, hopes and secrets with us. But even then we might not know much about them in terms of how they function in such a demanding and people-neutral environment. MCC and other similar programs provide a way to come to know a complete stranger, one who might be quite different from you, on a fairly intimate level, even if you do not actually become close friends with that person. And then, you must take these strangers on board, and learn to live, work, accept and maybe even love them because there is no other option.
In contrast, in modern life, we have so many opportunities to do the exact opposite. We can and do sort through and discard people from our lives in favour of someone else who is funnier or less intense or who has more in common with ourselves. When we are meeting people and choosing who to become close to, who to follow up with, who to hang out with again, we are in a way sorting and discarding people. At the very least, we are judging them. To be fair to all of us, because we all do this, we must do this. There are simply so many people in the world, and most of us live in urban areas where there are many people flowing through our daily lives. In order to cope, we must sort people and judge people based on our visual knowledge or a few interactions.
But there are deep lessons to be learned and carried on from the intimate knowing and being known by strangers that MCC offers. We can learn to lean in and try new ways of interacting with someone we would have simply backed away from before, and thus discover new parts of ourselves. We have to. If we are working with that person all day, and we are arguing with them about how to do something and it’s only 9am, continuing to stay engaged and trying to figure it out is the only option available. Or we might be surprised to see a stereotype defied in a person on our team. The most cautious, careful and safety-aware person on my team was the 18 year old guy, for example. Or, the person with the most exuberant, child-like energy was also very thoughtful, self-sufficient and wise. We might see that the thing that we find most annoying about someone is the same trait which causes that person the most challenge and suffering, and so we can learn to have compassion for them instead of (or at least alongside of) feeling simple annoyance. We might get into an interesting debate with our team and learn that a person can have one trait, experience or opinion, and then out of nowhere bring up a completely contradictory opinion in the debate. And it forces us to just allow that to be true in them, and to confront the fact that human beings don’t make sense. We are all contradictory and complicated and surprising. And that’s also what makes each person beautiful. MCC gives us a lived experience in knowing that one thing about a person predicts very little else about that person. We simply have to sit and wait to see what they show us or tell us next to continue learning about them.
I think if each of us who has had this experience can carry it into the world beyond MCC where we can and do sort and judge people, perhaps we can do our sorting and judging more gently and openly. We can bring our knowledge that a person’s skin color, socio-economic class, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or clothing choices predict very little about whether we might find connection, fun, understanding or appreciation in that person. So we might stay open to them longer. Or it might be just a new way of appreciating a random stranger on the bus. We might think “well if each stranger I had the opportunity to get to know well turned out to be pretty complex with many wonderful qualities, I bet it’s probably true for this seemingly grumpy old man sitting next to me on this bus too.” This simple thought process of staying open to the possibilities and contradictions within each person is actually a very tough process, but I think is the key to confronting much of the social and political divisiveness in our country and the world.
To close, I’ll share one of these moments with my crew when true generosity and integrity was revealed. One night, our team leader was putting her backpack into the trailer before bed, and a baby red squirrel happened to jump onto her pack just as she was placing it into the trailer. When I came by to put my last things in the trailer, she’d been working on getting the baby squirrel out for at least a half an hour. Then it was the two of us, working on this conundrum for at least another half an hour. We were getting tired and frustrated. I was convinced we had traumatized the little squirrel, who was sitting with a creepy, frozen stare in the tiny space between the trailer wall and the wooden tool box and that his heart might even have stopped. I decided the only way we were going to know for sure that he was out of the trailer and that we really could go to bed without worrying about the squirrel dying in there or eating all our food was to completely empty the trailer and watch him leave. But since we had been at it for over an hour at that point and emptying the trailer is a lot of work, and it was the whole team’s trailer and food at risk, I suggested we go see who was awake and willing to help us. So we went down to the tent area and explained the situation and a usual suspect kindly came to help us. Yay! Thank you! And then a couple minutes later, we saw the two other guys trudging up the hill toward the trailer. They had both been literally half asleep and had somehow, with great willpower and integrity, finished waking up, decided they should really help out and got out of their cozy tents to offer their help or at least moral support. Wow! Amazing people. It would have been so easy to just stay asleep, and that would have been totally fine and acceptable. Turned out that it was really quick to empty the trailer with five people and our dear squirrel, which we named Left Turn Larry, left the trailer in a matter of minutes, and we all went to bed with peace of mind.
About Emily LeGrand
Emily is a mostly serious person who loves being pulled into silliness and joyful spontaneity. She also loves being outside, getting to know people well, and thinks an MCC-like experience should be available to any and all young people who want it.